Stalin’s Library

From The Wall Street Journal:

Edward Gibbon sits proudly upon my bookshelf. A set of volumes that I own, neatly stacked, comprises his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” What do you make of me because it is there? The set might indicate that I am a classicist, a scholar. It could signal my ambition—or my vanity. Perhaps it marks me as an anachronism: In this impatient, up-to-the-second moment, I display something written almost 250 years ago about a subject that is itself far older. While you form your judgment, let me divulge a secret. I have not read to the end of the famous series. Somewhere between Julian’s residence at Antioch and the revolt of Procopius, I lost the thread and laid Gibbon aside.

A famous reader who is the subject of a fascinating new study would have sniffed me out. Joseph Stalin went into the libraries of Communist Party officials to see if their books had truly been read or merely served to decorate the room. Stalin prized his own books and used bookmarks rather than dog-earing a page, good man. Yet his literary hygiene was not above reproach. One lender complained that Stalin smudged the pages of books with greasy fingerprints. As the party’s general secretary, he sometimes disregarded due dates. After he died in 1953, many of the volumes he had borrowed from the Lenin Library were quietly returned, the late fees unpaid.

Why should this matter of a cruel tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of people? Geoffrey Roberts, a professor emeritus of history at University College Cork in Ireland, notes in Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books that Stalin kept no diary and wrote no memoirs. Therefore his personal library, which he carefully maintained and treasured, offers a unique window into his thoughts. “Through an examination of these books,” Mr. Roberts writes, “it is possible to build a composite, nuanced picture of the reading life of the twentieth century’s most self-consciously intellectual dictator.”

That is a complex claim. Mr. Roberts doesn’t assert that Stalin’s books or the marks he made in them hold the key to his psyche. And the word “intellectual” will raise an eyebrow—the man was as coarse as smashed rocks—although “self-consciously” is an essential qualifier. Stalin wasn’t a gifted rhetorician or purveyor of original ideas like his contemporaries Lenin and Trotsky, yet he lived in their highbrow shadow. Mr. Roberts writes that “complexity, depth and subtlety” were not his strengths. Instead, his “intellectual hallmark was that of a brilliant simplifier, clarifier and popularizer.” The American diplomat Averell Harriman observed that Stalin possessed “an enormous ability to absorb detail.” He came to meetings “extremely well-informed.”

. . . .

Books were his secret weapon. During World War II, Stalin read widely on topics like military strategy, artillery and field tactics. At other times, he devoured volumes on history and Marxism. He had always been a reader, Mr. Roberts says. As a boy, Stalin was a bookworm; in the seminary, he was censured for reading forbidden novels on the chapel stairs. His daughter, Svetlana, said that in his Kremlin apartment there was scarcely room for art on the walls because they were lined with encyclopedias, textbooks and pamphlets, many well-thumbed. Stalin often asked others what they were reading and was known to interrupt meetings by taking down a volume of Lenin’s to “have a look at what Vladimir Ilyich has to say.”

At the time of his death, Mr. Roberts estimates, Stalin’s personal library ran to approximately 25,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. Roughly 11,000 were classics of Russian and world literature by authors like Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hugo and Shakespeare. The remainder were nonfiction titles in Marxism, history, economics and other fields. Lenin was far and away the most represented author, at nearly 250 publications—there were also scores of works by Bukharin, Trotsky and Engels. Stalin had his own ex-libris stamp and classification system. The centerpiece of his Moscow residence was its library, although he preferred to store his collection off-site and have an assistant bring him reading material upon request.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)