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Learning About Stalin from His Books: An Interview with Geoffrey Roberts

(L-R) Kliment Voroshilov, Maxim Gorky and Josef Stalin, October 11, 1931.

Professor Geoffrey Roberts has just published Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, diving deep into the books, reading habits, and intellectual disposition of this key figure of the twentieth century. Aaron J. Leonard recently corresponded with him to discuss the book.


Aaron Leonard: As your book makes clear, Stalin was a passionate reader. Could you talk about the breadth and depth of his personal library?

Geoffrey Roberts: There were about 25,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals in Stalin’s library by the time of his death in 1953.  The plan was to retain the collection intact as part of a Stalin Museum based at his main Moscow dacha, the model being Lenin’s former residence at Gorki on the outskirts of the Soviet capital. By the time Lenin died in 1924 there were nearly 9,000 books in his personal library. But Stalin’s personal effects, including his books, were dispersed after Khrushchev denounced the dictator at the 20th party congress in 1956. However, party archivists retained in storage some 5,500 texts that were identifiably Stalin’s, either because they contained his ex libris stamp or he had marked them in some way. They also kept several hundred books inscribed to Stalin by their authors. The remnants of his library only became available to researchers beginning in the late 1980s.

Stalin was a devoted reader of fiction as well as non-fiction. His book collection reputedly contained many thousands of novels, plays and short stories. Unfortunately, Stalin didn’t habitually mark literary works, nor did they bear his library stamp. But he did have a lot to say about the kind of fiction he liked and about his preferred authors, which enabled me to write a chapter in my book about Stalin and Soviet literature.

The books you find in the surviving remnant of Stalin’s library are the texts you’d expect to find in the collection of a devoted Marxist with particular interests in history, philosophy, economics and politics. Most of these books’ authors are Marxists and socialists but Stalin was happy to take ideas and information from anyone, including political opponents such as Leon Trotsky. Stalin’s favorite historian was the non-Marxist Robert Vipper, who specialized in early Christian history. Vipper also wrote a book that changed Stalin’s view of Russian history —a defense of Ivan the Terrible as a patriotic state-builder.  The Tsars had done a lot of terrible things, Stalin told his closest associates in 1937, but they had also built a vast and strong state, which the Bolsheviks who now controlled it had a duty to defend.

Another state-builder much-admired by Stalin was the “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, whose memoirs he read.  Marx, Engels and Lenin were also greatly interested in Bismarck, particularly his “revolution from above” that had unified Germany. As Arfon Rees has pointed out, more than one Stalin biographer has compared that Bismarckian revolution to Stalin’s state-driven modernization of Soviet Russia through accelerated industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. But I also think Stalin was interested in Bismarck as a practitioner of realpolitik in the sphere of foreign policy. There were a lot of books on diplomacy, war and international relations in Stalin’s collection.

As an internationalist, Stalin’s interests were global and he collected and read books on many different countries – China, Japan, India, Mexico, the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Ireland and numerous others,

Apart from Russian, Stalin’s grasp of foreign languages was very limited. There were hundreds of books in English, French, German, Italian and other languages in his collection but there is no evidence he read any of them. Stalin’s library was overwhelmingly a collection of Russian-language texts plus a few books in his native Georgian.

Stalin annotated as well as read in Russian and there are nearly 500 books that contain his pometki (markings), though mostly in the form of underlinings rather than words.

Stalin’s religious training seems to have left a lasting impression. I remember reading in his later work, Economic Problems of Socialism, his challenge to a comrade that invoked the concept of sin, “To equate a part of the means of production (raw materials) with the means of production, including the implements of production, is to sin against Marxism…” Allowing for his use of exaggeration, this does suggest a view that the tenets of Marxism were — as in religion — unassailable. How do you see his early training in regard to his larger ideological framework later in life?

As you know, Stalin was educated in a church school in his home town of Gori and then in an Orthodox seminary in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, where he trained to be a priest. He spent a decade immersed in Christian education before he rebelled against the Church and gave up the priesthood to become a professional revolutionary. Stalin liked to reminisce about reading Marx’s Das Kapital but my guess is that there is no book he read more thoroughly than the Christian Bible.

Stalin’s belief in Marxism was certainly very dogmatic in the sense of the ideology being deemed true and beyond question. So, you could see the teenage abandonment of his childhood Christian convictions and his transition to Marxism as swapping one faith for another. But that was not how Stalin saw it. For him, Marxism was rooted in reason and science, and the knowledge it produced was empirically verifiable. He believed Marxism was irrefutable because it was true but it could, in principle, be disproved, unlike religion, whose eternal truths were based on faith and revelation.

Stalin used religious-infused words and phrases throughout his life – as many convinced atheists do—but I don’t think this signified any deep or enduring influence of his religious upbringing, except in one important respect: Stalin’s Christian convictions were deeply emotional and the same was true of his Marxism and Communism.

In the book I propose that we should see Stalin as a feeling intellectual for whom ideas had an emotional as well as a rational resonance. It was the emotional force of his belief system that underpinned his intellectual commitments and enabled him, as a person, to sustain decades of brutal, dictatorial rule that resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent people. The pious young Stalin’s religious sensibilities can be seen as the inception of the kind of political intellectual that he later became.

Flowing from that, Stalin gave the utmost importance to the theoretical level of cadre—you write about the premium he put on publishing History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: Short Courseas a tool to rectify the Party after the Great Purge. Putting aside, if that is possible, how disturbing that is, Stalin was not simply a dogmatist. As you point out, he saw the study of history as a science based on evidence. To what degree did Stalin employ critical compared to dogmatic thinking? Or perhaps better put, how did he reconcile the two?

Being a dogmatic Marxist did not blind Stalin to reality or deprive him of the power to reason and engage in critical self-reflexivity. Indeed, he always claimed to be a creative Marxist, someone whose ideas changed and developed as history progressed and the realm of human experience expanded. That said, Stalin did not like to admit mistakes and was fond of blaming others when the practical implementation of his ideology went awry. As Fidel Castro put it, if socialism had defects these were the result of people, not the system or the ideology.

As David Brandenberger and others have shown, Stalin was the prime author of the Short Course, which is an interesting example of his dogmatic yet creative Marxism. On the one hand, it is a sectarian, self-serving history of the party that trashes Stalin’s socialist political opponents as traitors – a narrative that cannot withstand serious empirical scrutiny.  On the other hand, Stalin also strove in this text to counter-balance the excesses of his personality cult. In editing and composing the book he reduced considerably his personal presence in its pages because he wanted people to love and commit to the party as an institution. He also wanted to arm party cadres with knowledge of Marxist theory that would insulate them from harmful bourgeois influences and enable them to correctly interpret and implement party policy.

I’m not saying that Stalin succeeded in these aims but the book was read and studied in depth by millions of Soviet citizens, including his son Vasily who had to sit an exam based on it – which he passed with flying colors.  Stalin also gave a copy to his daughter Svetlana to read, but she found it too boring!

On something of a lighter note, in describing Stalin’s marginal markings you write, “among his choice expressions of disdain were ‘ha ha,’ ‘gibberish,’ ‘nonsense,’ ‘rubbish,’ ‘fool,’ ‘scumbag,’ ‘scoundrel’ and ‘piss off”.’ Could you talk about how he used marginalia and what it tells us about him?

Those are examples of negative expressions that Stalin used, but he could also be positive and enthusiastic about texts. Indeed, by far his most frequent annotation – in documents as well as books - was NB [note well], which he wrote in Latin script. Stalin read to learn, not to sound off. Lenin was his top author but he was willing to learn from anyone, including arch rivals and sworn enemies. Stalin’s emotional engagement is apparent from his annotations, as is his complete fidelity to Marxism: in the many thousands of book pages marked by him in the privacy of his personal reading, there is not the slightest hint of any doubt about his chosen politics and ideology.

Most of Stalin’s pometki consist of underlinings of sentences and paragraphs and lines in the margin. He also liked to number points that he picked out from the text. Stalin’s non-verbal markings show what was interesting and important to him and how systematic and engaged a reader he could be. Technically, there is nothing special about Stalin’s pometki. Lenin’s were quite similar. Indeed, they look like those of anyone who marks their books, including my own!

When the remnants of Stalin’s library became accessible to researchers there was a rush to find smoking-guns that would reveal all about Stalin as a person, especially his motivation for the Great Terror. But while Stalin’s marginalia are interesting, and often intriguing, they mostly confirm what we know from many other sources, for example, that he was a devoted disciple of Lenin. The explanation for the Terror is not to be found in Stalin’s marginalia but hiding in plain sight in the politics and ideology of ruthless class struggle in defense of the revolution and the pursuit of socialism.

What Stalin’s pometki do show is that he was a serious intellectual who had a rich reading life, a life-longer learner who took seriously the Bolshevik admonition to revolutionize your own mind as well as society.

Finally, to get contemporary, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been a proliferation of comparisons between Stalin and Putin. For example, Stalin biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote recently, “Putin’s repression at home increasingly resembles Stalinist tyranny – in its cult of fear, rallying of patriotic displays, crushing of protests, brazen lies and total control of media – although without the mass deportations and mass shootings.” While I don’t think Montefiore’s example is particularly compelling — it could describe the behavior of any number of dictatorships, past or present — I’m curious about how you see the comparison between the two?

After Stalin’s death Soviet socialism became far less authoritarian and violent but it remained recognizably the system he had created. Putin was born and brought up in that relatively relaxed post-Stalin system. Like most Soviet citizens he accepted its values, ideology, politics and socio-economic structures. He was a member of the communist party and served in the KGB. But when the USSR collapsed in 1991 he reinvented himself as a pro-capitalist liberal democrat and later transitioned to a conservative and more authoritarian politician.

The great political continuity between Stalin and Putin that I see is their espousal of multinationalism–their shared concept of a state based not on ethnicity but on the patriotic loyalty of its citizenry. In that regard, the Soviet multinational state still exists in the form of the Russian Federation. Like Stalin, Putin is determined to defend that state against foreign foes, including through the expansion of its borders.

Putin is without doubt a very well-read politician. Like Stalin, his favorite reading is history and fiction. He has published respectable, albeit controversial, articles on the origins of the Second World War and on the history of Russia-Ukraine relations. His speeches are peppered with references to history and to literary classics. He keeps a copy of Lermontov’s poetry on his desk and claims you can’t understand Russia without reading its great literature.

Putin is also greatly interested in ideas, especially those of conservative Russian philosophers who provide an alternative worldview to both Marxism and liberalism. But I don’t get the impression that his engagement with their ideas is particularly deep, or that he is a systematic thinker like Stalin, let alone a theorist or ideologue.

As an intellectual, Stalin’s politics were shaped by his utopian ideology and by his profound belief in the transformative power of ideas. He was an intellectual in power. Putin is a more conventional politician, albeit one with a deep love of reading.

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. His previous books include the acclaimed Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953 (2006) and Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov (2012), which won the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award. Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books was published by Yale University Press in Febrary 2022.