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Geoffrey ROBERTS, Stalin’s Library. A Dictator and His Books

David Shearer
p. 843-845
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Geoffrey ROBERTS, Stalin’s Library. A Dictator and His Books, New Haven : Yale University Press, 2022, 272 p.

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1In Stalin’s Library, author Geoffrey Roberts portrays the dictator Joseph Stalin as an intellectual revolutionary. Roberts does not deny or soften Stalin’s brutality or his ruthlessness. Rather he argues that Stalin’s voracious appetite for self-improvement through self-education and reading shaped and only reinforced his self-certainty and willingness to take any measures he felt necessary to achieve his goals. Stalin was a true Marxist in that his goal was not just to understand the world but to change it. And change it he did, with all the certainty of the self-didact intellectual that he was. Stalin was not really a creative intellectual, according to Roberts, but he was not the man of low cunning and limited horizon that his enemies, especially Trotsky, depicted. He was not as brilliant intellectually as a Trotsky, but he possessed a broad and massive amount of knowledge and was adept at using it to achieve his goals. After all, it was Stalin who ended up in the Kremlin and not his enemies.

2The first three chapters of Roberts’ book are somewhat at odds with the final chapters. These early chapters do not delve so much into Stalin’s library or his reading habits. These early chapters are essentially biographic and concise. They highlight aspects of Stalin’s life up to the Russian revolution. Material is drawn mainly from general works and there is little analysis of Stalin or his development based on his library or his reading. There is some discussion of how Stalin was able to keep reading even during his exile in the years before the 1917 events. Some information is included about Stalin’s performance in school, his reading curriculum, and his turn toward revolutionary activity. The most interesting conclusion to be drawn from these chapters is that Stalin, far from being some kind of rebellious street ruffian, presaging his latter revolutionary demeanor, was in fact a rather studios young man, a good student and attentive.

3Chapter four includes an interesting discussion of Stalin’s “library.” Here Roberts traces what “library” meant and how it evolved. Stalin’s was not a library of brick and mortar, although the dictator could certainly have had that built. Nor was it all collected in one place. Roberts skillfully describes the various places that Stalin kept books and other material, scattered between his Kremlin office, his two dachas, and even a room in the General Secretary’s office in the Central Committee building. Stalin employed people to help organize his works with a unique cataloging system, but, as Roberts writes, there are few reliable sources about who these people were. Stalin’s library was scattered even more after his death, especially during Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist policies. Various parts of it were reassembled after Khrushchev’s ouster and were housed in areas of the Kremlin and the dictator’s dacha. The library that scholars could access after the fall of the Soviet Union was nowhere near as complete as at the time of the dictator’s death, and there is no way to know how much may have been lost over the years.

4Chapters 5 and 6 move into a substantive discussion of what Stalin read and how that influenced his view of the world. Chapter 5 is the longest in the book at 74 pages, and it is worth the read. The Marxist classics, of course, held priority in Stalin’s library by number, but histories, especially ancient history and history of wars, also held a prominent place in terms of sheer volume and presence of marginalia and notes. Here, we read that Stalin read the works of even his most ardent enemies. He knew them well and read them closely: Kautsky, Trotsky, Rakovsky, others. We also find the intriguing tidbit that Stalin preferred Bismarck over Machiavelli as a source of wisdom about statecraft. In these chapters, Roberts includes an interesting description of Stalin’s use of marginal comments and markings such as brackets and double underlining. And, of course, the oft used colored pencil, usually blue or red, but sometimes even green. Any scholar familiar with Stalin’s official papers will find this description familiar.

5These two chapters, 5-6, are perhaps the best in the book. Roberts also compares Stalin’s readings of certain authors with comments by other statesmen, such as Churchill, who read and commented on the same books. Based on his reading of Stalin’s readings, Roberts concludes that Stalin read not just for reasons of self-education, but as research directly related to the issues that confronted him as ruler. This is an important point for it shows that Stalin was a man of his own ideas. He did not just follow blindly the doctrines of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, He agreed with Lenin on many issues not just as a loyal follower, but because Stalin read and came to his own conclusions: whether about the possibility of coexistence with capitalist countries during the 1920s or about the inevitability of war between capitalism and socialism.

6Through Robert’s analysis, we (or at least this reviewer) comes away with a somewhat changed view of Stalin’s often public intervention in specialist debates. This kind of intervention became increasingly frequent in the post-war years as Stalin began to make public statements about all kinds of areas of knowledge, society, and culture. Many scholars pass these off as the vain and superficial pronouncements of an aging dictator, and damaging to the genuine pursuit of knowledge. In many areas, Stalin’s intervention did, indeed, set back Soviet knowledge, as in the famous cases of relativity as “Jewish science,” and Lysenko’s genetic studies. As Roberts shows, however, Stalin’s polemics about linguistics, history, culture and class formation were not just ideological and shallow pontifications but were based on serious reading. One might disagree with the premise of his arguments, but Stalin’s essays where at least logically constructed with a coherent argument at the center (151-152). Although Roberts acknowledges Stalin’s seriousness as a polemicist, the author also emphasizes that Stalin was first and foremost a Bolshevik revolutionary and only second an intellectual. In principle, he stood for intellectual rigor and truth, but in practice, Stalin bent everything he read to fit his Marxist political dogma (208). But, the point is that Stalin read. Voraciously. His whole life. As Roberts concludes, Stalin possessed many different parts and faces—revolutionary, state builder, modernizer, calculating politician, mass murderer, charmer, intellectually acute savant, warlord. But, Stalin’s life as an intellectual was one of continuity. He read continuously and in the same thorough manner from the time he was a young man until his death. This was perhaps the one consistent aspect of Stalin’s character.

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David Shearer, « Geoffrey ROBERTS, Stalin’s Library. A Dictator and His Books »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 843-845.

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David Shearer, « Geoffrey ROBERTS, Stalin’s Library. A Dictator and His Books »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 08 décembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/monderusse/13583 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/monderusse.13583

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David Shearer

Thomas Muncy Keith Professor of History, University of Delaware

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