The link between mass-murdering dictators and the gentle occupation of reading and writing books is a curious one, but it definitely exists. Mao was a much- praised practitioner of traditional Chinese poetry; Hitler was widely if haphazardly read, dictated Mein Kampf and was a fan of Karl May’s Wild West stories; and Stalin, as Geoffrey Roberts shows, took books at least as seriously as the purging of foes, real and imagined.
Though we may wonder whether Enver Hoxha and Kim Il-sung really wrote the dense works of Marxist-Leninist theory with which they’re credited, there is no doubt that Stalin found the time while running the Soviet Union and fighting World War Two to knock off such snappy titles as Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Marxism and the National and Colonial Question and Foundations of Leninism.
Towards the end of his life he took a close interest in the publication of his collected works, which included speeches, essays and journalism. They amounted to a projected sixteen volumes, in massive print runs of half a million copies. Thirteen appeared before his death, after which the project was abandoned.
He was also an avid reader. Roberts’s book begin as an analysis of the personal library Stalin left behind, scattered around his various dachas and offices. It comprised some 25,000 volumes, covering a wide range of subjects including Marxism, political and military history, economics, biographies and classic works of Russian literature. Some surviving books have found their way into the archives, to be studied by scholars for insights into the dictator’s mind.
But this is no dry examination of dusty texts. Roberts takes us through Stalin’s life and shows how his reading molded his actions. Books transformed the bright seminary student into a ferocious revolutionary, prepared to sacrifice family, friends and a vast array of enemies — capitalists, kulaks, fellow Bolsheviks, imperialists, Trotskyist deviationists and millions of ordinary Soviet citizens — on the altar of his rigid dogmas.
He was no respectful bibliophile. He scrawled critical comments and abuse across pages with the same blue crayons he used to sign death warrants and initial treaties. The greasy finger marks he left in books borrowed from Maxim Gorky inspired Osip Mandelstam’s poem about the “fat fingers” of the “Kremlin mountaineer” with “cockroach mustaches” — insults that would ensure his death in the Gulag.
In his youth, Stalin was himself a published poet, writing patriotic and tender romantic lyrics in his native Georgian before politics began absorbing his energies. As an all-powerful ruler, he was terrifyingly arbitrary in his treatment of writers, presiding over the deaths of loyal but critical Bolsheviks such as Mayakovsky, and possibly Gorky too, yet defending anti-communists like Bulgakov (whose pro-Whites play The Day of the Turbins he saw fifteen times) and Pasternak, whom he protected from persecution with the words: “Leave this cloud-dweller alone.”
Roberts emphasizes throughout that Stalin was an intellectual, whose firm belief in Marxism was grounded in a deep study of the subject; that his actions, however cruel, cynical and misguided, stemmed from the conviction that he was building the world’s first socialist state, which would be a model for the rest of humanity. By insisting on Stalin’s seriousness, and his profound faith in Marxism as modified by Lenin and the experience of revolution in Russia, Roberts perhaps downplays the fearful cost in human suffering involved. As a result, the book can seem to gloss over the gruesome awfulness of Soviet society — not to mention the serious mistakes for which Stalin was personally responsible, including his refusal to believe that his ally Hitler would attack him until he actually did.
Stalin’s Library tilts our image of a paranoid killer interested only in power towards a more nuanced — but even scarier — one: of a deep thinker prepared to turn his ideas into bullets to mow down those who thought differently.
As the world anxiously waits to see whether another ruthless Russian ruler with a similar fixity of purpose will go to war in his effort to reconstruct Stalin’s state, this brief but penetrating book offers an object lesson: a little learning may be a dangerous thing, but so is a lot of it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.