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On Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books

From The New Criterion

Photo by Marjan Blan | @marjanblan / Unsplash

No wonder that Stalin took such a keen interest in literature and ideas. Svetlana pointed out that in her father’s Kremlin apartment “there was no room for pictures on the walls—they were lined with books.” Stalin’s adopted son Artem Sergeev recalled that at every encounter his father asked him what he had been reading and what he thought about it. The son of the secret police chief Lavrenty Beria claimed that when Stalin visited someone from his inner circle, “he went to the man’s library and even opened the books to check whether they had been read.” Although he was always ordering books, Stalin borrowed from others as well. The poet Demyan Bedny was foolish enough to complain that he hated to lend his books to Stalin because they were returned covered with greasy fingermarks. That was the last Bedny saw of his luxurious apartment.

It is hardly surprising that Stalin read and reread Machiavelli’s The Prince. Neither is it strange that he knew well the works of his Bolshevik rivals Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, or that he underlined key passages in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. But he also read a lot of Russian and world literature, apparently cherishing Pushkin as well as satirists and social critics including Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Zola.

Iexpected to learn a great deal from the first comprehensive account of Stalin’s annotations, Stalin’s Library, by Geoffrey Roberts.1 A professor emeritus at University College Cork, Roberts is the author of a biography of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who commanded Soviet armies during World War II, and of Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War. He promises significant revelations:

“It is impossible to know somebody ‘inside out,’ ” wrote Stalin to the poet Demyan Bedny in 1924, but through his library we can get to know him from the outside in. In viewing the world through Stalin’s eyes we can picture his personality as well as his most intimate thoughts.

Alas, this book offers no significant discoveries, intimate or otherwise. It meanders pointlessly from topic to topic unrelated to the annotations—Did Stalin’s father beat him? Is the charge that he worked for the tsarist secret police correct? How did he justify to the world his treaty with Hitler?—but says nothing new about any of them. Frequently, Roberts seems to forget that this is a study of Stalin’s pometki.

Read the rest at The New Criterion