Bolton’s Book Review: Browsing the tyrant’s library


There is an old story repeated in diplomatic circles that Vladimir Putin, when bored between political assassinations, pulls down certain volumes from the bookshelf in his Kremlin office to show visitors. His favorite choice is a tattered, thumbprint-stained 1937 edition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. What makes this particular volume an interesting choice is its prior owner: Joseph Stalin. While Washington’s cognoscenti might observe parallels between the two leaders since the invasion of Ukraine in February, there is no comparison. Joseph Stalin was by far the more potent figure in both brutality and intellect. This view is justified in Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books by Geoffrey Roberts, a recent publication from Yale University Press that scrutinizes the remnants of the Soviet tyrant’s library for a hint of what made him tick.

Stalin once said, “If you want to understand a man, look at what books he reads.” As Roberts repeatedly notes throughout this slim volume, Stalin was a methodical and disciplined reader who regularly annotated his books. Did these pometki – the Russian term for marginalia - reveal any hidden relish for the trappings of power or doubts about the Marxist cause? No. Some leftist historians try to offer an apologia for Vladimir Lenin and the brutality of the U.S.S.R. by arguing Stalin perverted the October Revolution’s ideals after Lenin’s death in 1924. Roberts concludes, however, that Stalin considered himself a true believer in Lenin who faithfully followed his lodestar’s teachings. Certainly, Lenin was among Stalin’s favorite authors. It is estimated Stalin’s personal library contained over twenty thousand volumes at its peak spread across two dachas, one Moscow apartment, and numerous warehouses. Among the volumes whose contents are known, the single largest category is political theory and most common author Lenin. Stalin would regularly annotate and underline Lenin’s essays, particularly those that called for violence against any opposition to the Bolshevik cause. Stalin was also, however, willing to read the works of his intraparty rivals, most notably Leon Trotsky, searching for any slip of the pen that might be later used against them.

This is not to say that Stalin’s reading was all related to work. In his early life, Stalin was a seminary student in Tiflis. This potential Orthodox priest initially excelled in all his classes, including ancient Greek and Church Slavonic, despite the instruction being in Russian when his native language was Georgian. He also began to make a name for himself as a poet, publishing pseudonymously in local feuilletons several well-received pieces that would be included in a compendium of Georgian literature two decades later. As with many teenagers, though, Stalin began to rebel against a constrictive environment and organized reading clubs for subversive literature. His grades slipped, and he eventually withdrew from the seminary, opting instead for the hellish existence of a revolutionary.

Stalin had little opportunity – between hiding, incarceration, and exile – to develop a collection until the Bolsheviks overcame the White forces in the 1920s. Having replaced the tsar, Stalin used it to his advantage. For two decades, a copy of almost every important non-fiction volume was sent to Stalin, along with many pieces of fiction and poetry. Most of these tributary offerings he never read, but Roberts notes there are hundreds of preserved volumes with dogears or bits of scrap paper jutting out from the pages.

So, what were Stalin’s preferences? Given the manner in which his library was dispersed after his death, the evidence is strongest when studying Stalin’s taste in nonfiction. He personally ordered the translation of Otto von Bismarck’s memoirs, and Machiavelli’s The Prince possibly passed under his eyes during his final Siberian exile. Rome was a historical subject that never ceased to fascinate him, especially its lessons on the decline of empires. He started reviewing screenplays in the 1930s, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s aborted trilogy on Ivan the Terrible. There is even a secondhand source (few primary sources lived long enough to write their memoirs) who claimed he was tutored in Hegelian dialectics.

As for Stalin’s fiction habits, the record is sparser. He consumed classic Russian authors, such as Pushkin and Gogol, even when their politics gave him indigestion. He also begrudgingly respected Dostoevsky as a “great psychologist,” which we know only because of an offhand comment in his daughter’s memoirs. One of his earliest revolutionary nicknames, Koba, was plucked from a boyhood novel about a Georgian outlaw. Stalin would sometimes protect artists whose works were not kosher by Soviet standards if they suited his taste. Mikhail Bulgakov – who authored one of my favorite novels, The Master and Margarita – was spared a bullet in the back of the head only because Stalin admired his play Days of the Turbins. Stalin took a similar interest in Osip Maldestam, a poet audacious enough to compare him to a cockroach, to the extent of phoning Boris Pasternak to inquire about Mandelstam’s merits. It was only when Mandelstam groveled for mercy that Stalin lost interest and let him die in the gulag.

Despite intermittent acts of clemency, being a writer in Stalin’s Russia tended to shorten your lifespan. Émigrés lured to return with promises of absolution and reward, such as D.S. Mirsky and Maxim Gorky, died under unpleasant or mysterious circumstances. The 1930s are replete with artists who simply disappeared. One story which Roberts omits but merits mention concerns Mikhail Lozinsky. Lozinsky translated Dante’s La Divina Commedia. Upon publication of the first volume, Inferno, Lozinsky was thrown in prison and endured horrible abuse. When Purgatorio came out shortly thereafter, he was moved into slightly better quarters. Only with the publication of Paradiso, however, did Stalin grant Lozinsky his freedom. When I read that anecdote, the first image that came to mind was of a cat slowly torturing a mouse to death. The feline’s claws may be retracted, but whenever the mouse attempts to flee, a paw smothers it.

Some of the stories in this volume are amusing (Stalin being a notorious library-book thief, for example), but they do not reveal any deeper understanding of the man. Perhaps this is because Stalin confided in no one and used his books as tools. As Roberts acknowledges, “complexity, depth, and subtlety were not strengths of Stalin’s, nor was he an original thinker. His lifelong practice was to utilise other people’s ideas, formulations and information – that was why he read such a lot.” The early sections discussing Stalin’s life are the weakest and described in better detail elsewhere, such as Simon Sebag Montefiore or Stephen Kotkin’s biographies. Roberts at times itches to excuse Stalin’s flaws. The most glaring example is his claim Stalin disliked his own cult of personality; something clearly refuted by Stalin’s editorial comments adding praise into propaganda sheets. Derision and contempt for the bootlickers who bolstered the cult’s apparatus doesn’t mean Stalin wanted it to go away; he just knew the actual score. Despite these discomforting moments, Roberts has taken a subject that, at first glance, would appeal only to Eurasian specialists and made it interesting for a broader audience. I came away from Roberts’ book strengthened in my belief Stalin was a monster; he was simply a monster with good taste.

Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at