Michael O'Donnell | Reader, Writer

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Red Leader

February 4, 2022  | 

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. Moreover, 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 does not 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 was not a gifted rhetorician or purveyor of original ideas like his contemporaries Lenin and Trotsky, for all that 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.

Scholars have preserved about 400 volumes that contain Stalin’s pometki—markings, notes and marginalia. It is not possible to know how many of his other books he actually read. The markings are as interesting as they are chilling, both in Mr. Roberts’s description and in the photographed plates reproduced in “Stalin’s Library.” As he turned pages, Stalin actively made lists, doodled and argued with authors. He showed deference toward his hero Lenin and contempt for his enemies. (“Swine,” “rubbish,” “nonsense,” he wrote in works by the anti-Bolshevik critic Karl Kautsky.) Stalin also read as a way to store up ammunition against his opponents, especially Trotsky, who derided him as an intellectual lightweight. Many of the authors whose books Stalin kept were purged on his own ­orders.

Yet a person’s library can tell us only so much. Mr. Roberts underscores the limitations of book collections and marginalia in illuminating his subject’s mind. He points to certain passages in Stalin’s books that were in fact marked by others, including Svetlana. Mr. Roberts makes the obvious but necessary point that underlining a passage about Genghis Khan does not make Stalin a Khan disciple. And sometimes, Mr. Roberts writes, “Stalin just read for pleasure and interest, his markings signalling little more than his level of engagement with the text.”

“Stalin’s Library” assumes the reader’s familiarity with the way the dictator’s reliance on book learning led him catastrophically awry. The point is fundamental and deserves to be emphasized. Mr. Roberts describes one instance in which Stalin intervened in a public discussion of linguistics by zealously editing an academic article about the origins of language itself. His emendations appear crass, ill-informed and politicized rather than rigorous: the hack-work of an amateur who had no business rewriting a scholar. Stalin’s biographer Robert Conquest noted that the most consequential area in which he overlooked the need for genuine expertise was in the field of military science. Stalin believed in himself “in spite of a total lack of training,” Conquest wrote. “His destruction of the military cadres, which nearly resulted in disaster in 1941–43, was a natural result.”

Books are what readers make of them. They can be disposable entertainments or a lens for understanding the world. Trivia about Stalin’s reading shouldn’t overshadow the way he failed to absorb the knowledge or truth that a lifetime of study can provide. It is a woeful leader who emerges from a well-stocked library to crush his nation and terrorize his people in pursuit of power. As for Gibbon, Stalin came to his own conclusions about that writer’s history of Rome. The passage he favored said that Roman soldiers feared their own officers even more than the enemy.

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