Stalin’s Library by Geoffrey Roberts Critique – Marks of a Leader | Biography books

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Stalin was a voracious reader, who set himself a daily quota of 300 to 500 pages. When he died of a stroke in his library in 1953, the desk and tables around him were filled with books, many of which were heavily marked with his handwriting in the margins.

As he read, he took notes with red, blue and green pencils, underlining the passages that interested him or numbering the points that seemed important to him. Sometimes he was expansive, noting: “yes-yes”, “agree”, “”good”, “perfect”, “it’s true”. Sometimes he expressed his disdain by scribbling: “ha ha”, “gibberish”, “nonsense”, “garbage”, “bastards”, “scoundrels” and “shit”. He became extremely irritated whenever he encountered grammatical or spelling mistakes, and corrected the errors with his red pencil.

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During his lifetime he amassed a personal library estimated at around 20,000 books, but he also read extensively from the collections of friends. Soviet poet Demyan Bedny complained that Stalin left greasy fingerprints on the books he borrowed.

After Stalin’s denunciation by Khrushchev in 1956, plans to preserve his dacha library were abandoned and his books (which included volumes on child psychology, sports, religion, syphilis and hypnosis as well as works by Turgenev and Dostoyevsky were scattered, so it became difficult to make an exhaustive study of what he liked to read.Geoffrey Roberts acknowledges that many scholars before him have gone through the remains of his collection, in the hope of glimpsing Stalin’s true nature or finding the “key to the character who made his reign so monstrous”.

Roberts finds no hard evidence, but suggests, “By following the way Stalin read the books, we can see the world through his eyes. We may not be able to peer into his soul, but we can wear his glasses.

In the abstract, Stalin admired writers, telling the Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 that while civil engineers were needed to build socialism, the country also needed “engineers of the human soul, writer-engineers, building the human spirit”. He insisted that his family and colleagues be read just as well. He gave his adopted son a copy of Robinson Crusoe, inscribing “the wish that he would grow up to be a conscious, steadfast and fearless Bolshevik.” He gave his daughter a short course in Communist Party history, ordering her to read it. Svetlana said she never cared because “it bothered me so much”. (She later defected to the west). Sergo Beria, the son of Stalin’s security commissar, Lavrenty Beria, claimed that when Stalin visited someone close to him, he would go to their library and start opening the books, to check for signs indicating that they had actually been read.

But he wrote frustratingly little about his views on literature. His huge collection of Russian and international classics – Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hugo, Shakespeare – was lost after his death. So his thoughts on Dostoyevsky, for example, can only be inferred from casual comments to friends who recall that Stalin concluded he was a bad influence on Soviet youth rather than from incisive notes taken while reading. .

From the surviving works we discover that he was very interested in history, preoccupied with the lessons of Tsarist rule in Russia, disturbingly obsessed with the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and Peter and Catherine the Big. Most of the surviving annotated works relate to Marxist thought. Perhaps the greatest insight into his book collection is that he was a diligent, reverent, and genuinely enthusiastic reader of the works of Lenin. Failing that, he contented himself with books written by his rivals. When Trotsky’s conclusions annoyed him, he wrote “Fool!” in the margins.

Stalin kept no diaries and wrote no memoirs, so these scribbles in the margins are invested with greater importance than perhaps they deserve. Roberts cautions against reading too much into Stalin’s decision to underline a line attributed to Genghis Khan, “The death of the vanquished is necessary for the peace of mind of the victors”, or to assume that the scrawled word “Master” on the cover of a play on Ivan the Terrible means that Stalin considered this tyrant as a model.

Roberts is surprisingly lenient towards Stalin, noting: “Given the extent of his misdeeds as a Soviet leader, it is natural to imagine him as a monster, to see him in spirit furiously denouncing his opponents.” Instead, he concludes that Stalin was “a dedicated idealist”, “not a psychopath but an emotionally intelligent and sensitive intellectual”.

According to Vitaly Shentalinsky, in his book The KGB’s Literary Archive, approximately 1,500 writers perished during Stalin’s Terror. There is surprisingly little attention to their struggle in this book. Fascinating in places, its promised insight into Stalin’s true feelings remains elusive.

Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books is published by Yale (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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