Joseph Stalin: bloody tyrant and bookworm

The Soviet dictator was a brute but an intellectual. His library was a working one, not for show, and included books that had been banned and by rivals whom he had purged


In the pantheon of dictators Joseph Stalin’s reputation for brutality is rivalled only by that of Hitler. The conventional image portrays Stalin as nothing more than a bloody tyrant, a machine politician, a heartless bureaucrat and an ideological fanatic. Yet Stalin was also an intellectual who believed in the transformative power of ideas and a bookworm who amassed a significant personal library.

Stalin was a voracious reader from an early age, devouring the classics of European literature alongside the canonical texts of the socialist movement. He was educated in a seminary but found his true metier in the radical bookshops of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Stalin believed in the power of words for the simple reason that reading books changed his life and guided him to the revolutionary underground in Tsarist Russia.

Belief in the importance of revolutionary theory was the hallmark of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and, as a keen activist, Stalin devoted himself to endless reading. “Send me some books” was Stalin’s most frequent request to his comrades while he was imprisoned or exiled to Siberia.

For the Bolsheviks words were the expressions of ideas that when allied to radical action could become a material force capable of transforming not just societies but human nature itself.

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Nationalisation of the publishing industry was one of the first acts of the Bolsheviks after they seized power in Russia in 1917. Aware that words could be used to subvert the Soviet system, they created an elaborate censorship regime to control the output of newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and printers. Stalin, however, was exempt from this censorship and his private library contained many otherwise banned volumes.

Unlike Hitler, Stalin was not a demagogue who used words to heighten emotion and induce mass hysteria. For Stalin words were not a cudgel but rather a scalpel, a sharp instrument of rationality and reason, albeit underpinned by a dogmatic insistence on the truth of Marxism.

Although his peripatetic lifestyle meant Stalin did not begin to collect books and build a personal library until after the Russian Revolution, by the time of his death in 1953 he had amassed a collection of some 25,000 volumes. In 1925 Stalin drew up a grandiose plan for the classification of his books. He envisioned a library that would contain a diverse store of human knowledge, not just the humanities and social sciences but aesthetics, fiction and natural sciences.

Acquisitions to his library were stamped “Biblioteka I.V. Stalina” – the Library of JV Stalin. Some books he bought, while others were gifts. At the height of his personality cult in the 1930s and 1940s he was deluged with presents, including many books. Stalin also had a habit of borrowing books from libraries and not returning them.

Stalin was not a bibliophile. He did not collect books for profit or aesthetics or as a monument to his cult image as a latter-day Renaissance Man. His library was a working library and the collection was spread across his various work and living spaces – his Kremlin office and apartment, his country mansions and his holiday homes on the Black Sea.

Even as the Soviet system’s centralised bureaucracy revolved around Stalin with hundreds of documents crossing his desk every day, he still found time for his books, claiming to confidants that he read 500 pages a day.

While Stalin’s native language was Georgian his preferred medium of communication was Russian. Almost all the books in his library were in Russian, the great majority written by Bolsheviks or other varieties of socialists. In the 1920s much of Stalin’s reading concentrated on the writings of his erstwhile rivals to succeed to Lenin as leader of the party, notably, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Nikolai Bukharin. All three perished in the purges, while Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940. But their books remained on Stalin’s library shelves.

History was an enduring interest of Stalin’s, especially Russian history, and he was fascinated by comparisons between his rule and that of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Stalin did not judge his achievements against the Tsars’ but compared them to himself and found them wanting. The most heavily marked book in Stalin’s collection is a history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, written by his favourite historian, Robert Vipper, an ancient history specialist who also penned a biography of Ivan the Terrible.

Stalin became interested in military affairs during the Russian civil war and he read the works of the foremost German, French, Russian and Soviet strategic theorists. During the second World War Stalin studied the tactics of his Tsarist predecessors as Supreme Commander, especially Alexander Suvorov, the 18th century strategist who never lost a battle, and Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812. Portraits of both generals were hung in Stalin’s office alongside the likeness of Lenin.

Stalin devoted considerable time to reading about science, linguistics, philosophy and political economy. After the war he intervened in Soviet debates about genetics, socialist economics and linguistic theory. The most notorious of these interventions was his support for Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet botanist who argued that genetic inheritance could be influenced by environmental controls. In private, however, Stalin ridiculed Lysenko’s view that every science had a “class character”, writing on a report by Lysenko: “Ha-ha-ha…And Mathematics? And Darwinism?”

Stalin read in diverse ways – sometimes selectively, sometimes comprehensively, cursorily or with avid attention. Some books he read cover to cover, others he merely skimmed. Sometimes he began reading a book but lost interest after a few pages or jumped from the introduction to the conclusion. Typically, he used brightly coloured crayons – blue, green and red – to annotate his books but also made fainter markings with light pencils and fine-nibbed pens. While Stalin’s cursive script was a scrawl, he reserved his neatest longhand for his books.

Stalin valued books and respected their authors, even those with whom he vehemently disagreed. His habit was to mark texts that interested him and his annotations are riddled with expletives: “waffle”, “gibberish”, “nonsense”, “rubbish”, “fool”, “scumbag” and “ha ha”. But mostly Stalin read to learn and the notes he wrote were aides-memoir rather than epithets. Indeed, Stalin found much that he agreed with in the books of Trotsky and other arch enemies.

Stalin’s annotations also reveal his schematic mode of thinking. He marked the text of the pages, paragraphs and phrases that interested him by underlining or by vertical side-lines in the margin. To add structure he would number points 1, 2, 3 etc. To add emphasis he would double the lines or insert an NB in the margin. His phenomenal memory was aided by the structured character of his reading.

After Stalin’s death the majority of his books were dispersed to other libraries but the few thousand volumes that survived in the official Russian archives provide an intriguing lens with which to view Stalin’s private thinking. Above all, Stalin’s annotations of his library books show he was indeed a true believer in his own ideology. “The most important thing is Marxism”, Stalin scribbled in the margin of an obscure Soviet military journal. And he meant it. In the thousands upon thousands of annotated pages in Stalin’s library books there is not a hint he harboured any doubts whatsoever about the communist cause.

“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”, Stalin is supposed to have said. The attribution is apocryphal but it does capture an essential trait of Stalin. Stalin as intellectual lived in a world of words, ideas and texts. In this world there was an abundance of emotion, sentimentality and abstraction but little by way of human empathy and conscience. Harsh decisions affecting the fate of millions were easy to take and to rationalise. Books helped insulate him from the inhumane realities accompanying his violent pursuit of utopia. Alone among his books, Stalin found solace as well as intellectual nourishment.