When the novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, who later won the Nobel Prize for literature, had trouble getting the third part of The Quiet Don approved for publication, he appealed to Maxim Gorky, then the supreme authority in Soviet literary affairs. Gorky invited him to his mansion, which had been a gift from Stalin to lure Gorky home from self-imposed exile. When Sholokhov arrived, he discovered that Gorky had company: Stalin himself.

Stalin interrogated Sholokhov about ideologically problematic passages but agreed to the book’s publication on condition that Sholokhov also write a novel glorifying the Soviet collectivization of agriculture. Still more important, he gave Sholokhov a piece of paper explaining how to contact Stalin’s personal secretary, Aleksandr Poskrebyshev, and providing the number of his direct phone line.

Sholokhov’s collectivization novel also ran into trouble with officials too scared of its descriptions of Soviet ruthlessness. Dialing the sacred phone number, the novelist reached Poskrebyshev, who summoned him to a meeting with the vozhd’ (meaning “leader,” a term reserved for Stalin alone). Stalin spent three nights reading the manuscript. When Sholokhov arrived, he found, in addition to Stalin, Lev Mekhilis, the editor of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda; Sergo Ordzhonokidze, who was in charge of the economy; and Kliment Voroshilov, People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs. Stalin approved the novel’s publication but “suggested” a new title.

Sholokhov’s collectivization novel also ran into trouble with officials too scared of its descriptions of Soviet ruthlessness.

Could one imagine a president of the United States deeming a novel so important that he would spend three days reading it and give his verdict in the presence of officials in charge of the economy and the army? But in Russia literature is more important than anywhere else. The poet Osip Mandelstam famously remarked that only in Russia are poems important enough for people to be shot for them.

Even if an American president should deem a novel to be that significant, would he trust his own unaided literary judgment, as Stalin evidently trusted his? Americans usually presume that Stalin, as a mass murderer, must have been a semi-literate thug, as if intellectuals are somehow less capable of brutality. At best, they figure that Stalin, as his enemy Trotsky asserted, was a consummate intellectual mediocrity. In fact, Stalin was not only highly intelligent but also supremely well-read. When the Soviet archives were opened after the fall of the ussr, it turned out that Stalin had accumulated a personal library of twenty-five thousand volumes. He had selected the books himself and even devised his own classification system for his personal librarian to follow. In over four hundred volumes he left extensive pometki, marginal notes. What was in that library? What did those notes say?

After the Party leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his 1956 “Secret Speech,” most of Stalin’s books were dispersed to various libraries—over the strenuous objections, it should be added, of his daughter, Svetlana, who claimed her father’s collection as her own. But the four hundred annotated books found their way into the Stalin lichnyi fond, or personal archive.

At the end of his riveting book Inside the Stalin Archives (2008), Jonathan Brent describes the thrill of discovering these volumes. As the editorial director of Yale University Press, Brent was editing sixteen volumes of important documents from the (briefly open) Soviet archives. Having inquired about Stalin’s library on an earlier visit, he had no idea what he would find in Fond (“file”) 588, Opus 3, the designation for books and manuscripts discovered in Stalin’s personal library after his death. “I had not realized what an avid and comprehensive reader Stalin was,” Brent recalled, but the archive soon revealed to him something even more interesting: Stalin “saw the nation as a set of ideas as much as a set of economic or material facts. As I looked at page after page of Stalin’s corrections, annotations, and commentary,” Brent explained,

I realized that while he professed a worldview set radically against metaphysics and Kantian idealism, Stalin was an idealist in the sense that he believed completely in the primacy of ideas. This represents a radical . . . reorientation and revision of Marx’s philosophy and is the key to understanding Stalin’s threat to “mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, by his thoughts—threatens the unity of the socialist state.”

Brent was right: Stalin was a man of ideas, to the point where he thought that by changing the ideas to which people are exposed he could redesign human nature itself. The Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, his onetime ally and later victim, put the point memorably:

If we examine each individual in his development, we shall find that at bottom he is filled with [nothing but] the influences of his environment, as the skin of a sausage is filled with sausage-meat. . . . The individual himself is a collection of concentrated social influences, united in a small unit,

and, for unwavering Bolsheviks, nothing more.

At a famous meeting with writers held in Gorky’s apartment in 1932, Stalin explained how they should view their efforts:

There are different products: artillery, automobiles, machines. You also produce “commodities,” “works,” ”products.” Very important things. Interesting things. . . . You [writers] are engineers of human souls. . . . Production of souls is more important than the production of tanks. . . . That is why I propose a toast to writers, to the engineers of human souls.

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.

I expected 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.

Some historians have referred to one note as a “smoking gun.” In a volume of Lenin, we find a marginal comment:

1) Weakness, 2) Idleness, 3) Stupidity. These are the only things that can be called vices. Everything else . . . is undoubtedly virtue. NB! If a man is 1) strong (spiritually), 2) active, 3) clever (or capable), then he is good, regardless of any other “vices”!

This comment has seemed like a key to Stalin’s fundamental values. “All very interesting, except that the handwriting is not Stalin’s,” Roberts notes. This negative discovery is the most interesting one he offers.

This comment has seemed like a key to Stalin’s fundamental values.

Time and again, we wonder at Roberts’s judgment. Although Khrushchev and countless others have claimed that Stalin wanted the Soviet people to worship him as superhuman, in fact, according to Roberts, the vozhd’ “toned down the adulation.” “In general,” writes Roberts, “Stalin remained resistant to biographies and hagiographies of himself, because he didn’t want to give too much encouragement to his personality cult”—as if that cult arose spontaneously and not because of fear that any less extravagant praise would land one in the Gulag. Countless cities were named for this modest man who had the power to do or stop anything, including Staliniri and Stalinisi in Georgia; Stalino in Ukraine; Stalinabad in Tajikistan; and Stalinsk, Stalinogorsk, and of course Stalingrad in Russia. Leaders of the East European satellite countries also deemed it prudent to name cities and other locales after the person hailed as the world’s greatest general, politician, philosopher, and scientist (among other accomplishments). When Stalin wrote his essay “Marxism and Questions of Linguistics,” not just journals about language but also those published in every other academic field (including the hard sciences) devoted issues and sponsored symposia to discuss the essay’s profound implications for all future research.

To be sure, Roberts is right that Stalin rejected some rhetorically hackneyed praises—as Brent points out, he had a sense of effective style—but he also contributed his own words of self-mythification. Amazingly enough, Roberts cites Stalin’s insertion in an edition of his Short Biography (1948) as proof of the leader’s modesty:

Although he performed the task of leader of the party and people with consummate skill and enjoyed the unreserved support of the entire Soviet people, Stalin never allowed his work to be marred by the slightest hint of vanity, conceit, or self-adulation.

When it comes to modesty, I’m the greatest. If the infallible leader affirmed that he had not the slightest hint of vanity, who was to say otherwise?

Stalin fostered the legend that the Soviet Union won World War II because of his own genius as the “sublime strategist of all times and nations,” in the words of the Short Biography. Of course, as Khrushchev pointed out, Stalin’s foolish interventions actually cost whole armies and hundreds of thousands of lives. But Roberts naively accepts the myth as, at best, an understandable exaggeration. After all, “Stalin’s generals marveled at his strategic acumen and his deep understanding of modern warfare.” I would have marveled, too. “In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War,” Roberts explains, “extravagant claims about Stalin’s military genius had more than a modicum of credibility.”

The event that led to the Great Purges of 1936–38, which took at least a million lives, was the assassination, in highly suspicious circumstances, of the (dangerously) popular Leningrad Party chief Sergei Kirov in 1934. Although definitive proof is lacking, evidence has convinced most historians that Stalin first arranged the murder and then used this “terrorist” act as pretext to eliminate remaining legal barriers protecting his political rivals or anyone he wished to liquidate. But Roberts seems not to have heard of this possibility: “Stalin was shaken from his complacency by the shooting dead in December 1934 of Leningrad party secretary Sergei M. Kirov.”

Roberts writes of Stalin’s “short-lived pact with Hitler,” which, in fact, lasted twenty-two months, or about 30 percent of the war. Does Roberts really believe that, in dictating literary policy in the especially repressive post-war years, Stalin “preferred writing that captured complexity, conflict, and contradictions and was reluctant to impose a party line on literature”?

Like other liberal and radical leaders of tsarist Russia, Stalin grew up in an ideologically charged milieu.

Remarkably, Roberts praises Stalin for “presiding over a massive communist-led peace movement . . . whose raison d’être was that in the nuclear age, war was not and could not be allowed to become inevitable.” “Professed raison d’être” is more like it. Roberts could not but know that for the leader of an expansionist power whose ideology demanded Communist world rule, it would be helpful indeed if his adversaries disarmed. Here as elsewhere, a reader of this book who is not already familiar with the basic facts of Soviet history will come away with false impressions. One cannot help agreeing with the reviewer for The Guardian, Amelia Gentleman, that “Roberts is startlingly forgiving towards Stalin.”

Like other liberal and radical leaders of tsarist Russia, Stalin grew up in an ideologically charged milieu. Ideas mattered, and one’s attitude to literature and “science” defined one. According to Lenin and Bolshevik theory, Marxist scientific socialism had proven that maximum violence against one’s enemies was not a regrettable necessity but a moral imperative. To spare a class enemy was to commit treason to the workers. Any tendency to compassion or pity (vices in Soviet thinking) indicated that one still clung to outmoded religious ideas about the sacredness of human life, which explains why, when Stalin ordered the arrest of thousands by quota, local party bosses demanded to arrest even more. The term “merciless” was one of the supreme words of praise in the Soviet lexicon. What Stalin added to Leninist theory and practice was not violence but the cult of his own personality, which seemed to run counter to the Marxist tenet that history is made not by individuals but by impersonal social forces.

A story, perhaps true, relates how Stalin rebuked his son Vasily for giving his understandably fearful teachers a hard time. “You’re not Stalin,” he began, and then added surprisingly, “and I’m not Stalin.” And that was true: “Stalin” was not just a particular person but the embodiment of all virtue, glory, and power. He was his own avatar. This literate, intellectually acute, and bloody thinker created the Soviet Union’s most widely disseminated fictions. Shaped by countless artists, journalists, and writers, they coalesced into a heroic myth that, until his admirer Mao Zedong copied him, had no rival.


  1.   Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, by Geoffrey Roberts; Yale University Press, 272 pages, $30.

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