Stalin’s Library, by Geoffrey Roberts, Yale University Press, 259 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0300179040
Full biographies and biographical papers on Stalin have been produced on an almost industrial scale in many languages and in many countries, as well as at many periods during his life and after his death. There have, therefore, been almost as many Stalins as there have been biographies.
In Stalin’s Library, Geoffrey Roberts, emeritus professor of history at University College Cork, has brought readers yet another Stalin and has done so ingeniously through a meticulous research of the dictator’s library of more than 25,000 books, maps and documents. Through these, Stalin has spoken to Roberts from beyond the grave, particularly through his pometki, the annotations he inserted in the margins of books he read. As Roberts puts it: “We may not get to peer into his soul, but we do get to wear his spectacles.”
Up to now we have known the Stalin of the Second World War, where he was “Uncle Joe”, a friend in the struggle against Hitler and the Nazis. He was the man to whom Churchill presented a jewelled sword to commemorate the victory at Stalingrad that turned the Wehrmacht back towards home and led finally to Red Army soldiers hoisting the flag of the Soviet Union over the Reichstag in Berlin.
When the war ended, Uncle Joe became the stage-hand who rolled the iron curtain down on eastern and central Europe, slicing Germany and its capital in two. At the same time he was idolised in the USSR and by Communists elsewhere as the leader who had saved the Soviet Union from oblivion. When he died in 1953 there was universal grief. Andrei Sakharov, who later become Russia’s leading dissident and won the Nobel Peace Prize, was a thirty-one-year-old nuclear scientist at the time and wrote: “I am immensely impressed by the death of a great man. I keep thinking of his humanity.” He was, in fact, thinking of the Stalin that was portrayed to citizens through the internal Soviet propaganda system. That was the only information available about “the great man” at the time.
Another Nobel Prize winner, the poet and literature laureate Joseph Brodsky, writing in the 1970s, remembered being told of Stalin’s death as a schoolboy: “All of us were herded to the school hall and told to kneel and the secretary of the Party organisation, a manly woman with a row of medals on her chest, screamed from the stage as she wrung her hands – ‘Cry children, cry. Stalin has died’ ‑ she started wailing first. There was nothing else to do so we started sniffling and then literally howling.” The youngsters in Brodsky’s school were not alone. Crowds surged out of workplaces and apartment blocks throughout the USSR in genuine tears at the death of the Stalin they knew from what they had been told day in and day out throughout their lives.
In 1956, three years after his death, another Stalin emerged. His image as a genius, a hero and a man of steel, was systematically demolished by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, in what paradoxically became known as the “secret speech” but which in fact was widely published. Communist parties throughout the world instantly lost members. Riots had to be put down in Stalin’s native Georgia, where his status was closer to a that of a god than a genius.
After the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991 historians gained access to Soviet archives and were able to research even more reliable sources of information, but their interpretations were sometimes skewed by their own backgrounds and by how they wanted Stalin to appear. Simon Sebag Montefiore compared the pre-Soviet Stalin to a Mafia gangster boss involved in extortion, bank robberies, counterfeiting, protection rackets and general criminality. Montefiore’s own background was unlikely to have provided insights into the revolutionary mind. Roberts casts doubt on whether Stalin was involved in one of the more infamous of these robberies but his evaluation of the motivation for such activities rings true. It was deeply-held beliefs rather than criminality that led the young Stalin to diverge from accepted standards.
According to Roberts, “Stalin was no psychopath but an emotionally intelligent and feeling individual. Indeed the power of his emotional attachment to deeply held beliefs that allowed him to sustain decades of brutal rule.” There is, however, strong evidence in Roberts’s work and elsewhere of a paranoia that, while not psychopathic, was fairly close.
Roberts also takes issue with those who have portrayed Stalin as a man of limited intellectual ability, a person suited to minor administrative roles who found himself in charge of an empire, a micro-manager whose attention to smaller points of detail rather than the broader picture led him down a path that caused the deaths of millions. Few, until now, have regarded him as an intellectual, and not surprisingly his arch enemy Leon Trotsky portrayed him as someone whose “thinking is too slow, his associations too single-tracked and his style too plodding and barren”.
Stalin’s Library gives us a picture not of a dull plodder but of a formidable yet psychologically flawed intellectual who, surprisingly in the pre-revolutionary period had a high regard for Trotsky and after Marx, Engels and Lenin learned more from Trotsky’s writings than from anyone else. He is also shown to have had an enormous capacity for work and a broad world view as well as an ability to recognise the importance of apparently minor items. Some of my own experiences when I was Moscow correspondent of The Irish Times bear this out.
Anatoly Dobrynin, who served as ambassador of the Soviet Union in the United States for twenty years, spoke of Stalin’s attention to detail. As a young student working during holidays on the harvest at a collective farm he was called out from his mid-day meal by an official who said: “Come with me. You’re going to be a diplomat.” Dobrynin was a village boy without any experience of the sophisticated world he was he was about to enter. Most of his colleagues were village boys too but Stalin had thought things out. As well as ensuring they would be able to convey the Kremlin’s views in the West he needed them to have the decorum expected of members of the diplomatic corps. A team of aristocratic ladies from Tsarist days had been spared for this very purpose. They taught the village boys how to behave in polite circles, which wines to drink with which dishes and which cutlery to use with which courses.
In an interview I conducted with Vyacheslav Nikonov, he spoke to me of his grandfather Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister, as a kindly old man who loved him as a grandson who at one time saved him from drowning. When the archives were opened Nikonov saw his granddad in a different light, spending almost a full day with Stalin signing thousands of death warrants.
On top of this type of murderous activity Stalin was leafing through his massive library on political, military and literary matters as well a writing his own papers, attending meetings and, back in his dacha at Kuntsevo, holding alcohol-fuelled get-togethers where he is believed to have persuaded Khrushchev to perform Ukrainian dance routines. One wonders if he ever slept. Roberts does not accept claims frequently made by other writers and memoirists that Stalin read 500 pages a day: his workload was simply too heavy to make this possible.
Stalin’s terror in the 1930s involved not only his political opponents but those who looked after his books and illustrated the paranoia that inhabited his mind. In words he spoke to the Orgburo of the party’s central committee in May 1935:
A single person who has access to the apartments of our leaders ‑ a cleaning woman who cleans the rooms, or a librarian who visits an apartment under the pretext of bringing the books in order. Who are they? Often we don’t know that. There exists a very great number of poisons that are very easy to apply. The poison is put in a book ‑ you take the book, you read and write. Or the poison is put on a pillow ‑ you go to bed and breathe and a month later it’s all over.
A victim of this patently disturbed mind-set was the librarian Nina Rosenfeld. She was arrested and shot.
Stalin and Trotsky had their bloody differences, which ended with an ice-pick in Mexico, but when it came to political terror Stalin bore Trotsky’s words in mind. On revolutionary history Trotsky wrote “the more ferocious and dangerous is the resistance of the class enemy who has been overthrown the more inevitably does the system of repression take the form of a system of terror”. Stalin underlined those words and in the margin he expressed his approval with the notes NB and tak (really).
Stalin’s terror, however, was directed not at a class enemy but at his party colleagues and the cleaners and librarians mentioned earlier. The House of Government on the embankment of the Moscow River, built for the elite of the communist party, became one of the most sinister places in Russia, where knocks on the doors of the quite spacious and well-appointed apartments often signified the advent of death.
The works most read by Stalin were those by Lenin, whom he idolised and considered to be his master. He would, as one eyewitness noted, take one of Lenin’s works from his shelves and say: “Let’s have a look at what Vladimir Ilyich has to say on the matter.” Lenin’s works constituted the largest component of his library with 243 titles. His own writings were next, followed by Zinoviev (55), Bukharin (50), Marx (50), Kamenev (37), Trotsky (28), Engels (25), Rykov (24), Plekhanov (23), Lozovsky (22), Rosa Luxemburg (14) and so on. There was literature too, with the Russian classics by Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Pushkin along with translations of Jack London and A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur by Mark Twain. But perhaps the most bizarre volume read by Stalin was by an eccentric Irishman. The self-styled “Professor Taid O’Conroy” had his book The Menace of Japan published in Russian in 1934. His real name was Timothy Conroy, and he was born in Ballincollig, Co Cork in 1883. He ran away to sea when he was fifteen and served with the Royal Navy in South Africa, Somaliland and the Persian Gulf before working as a teacher of English in Saint Petersburg and ending up in Japan, where he married a waitress.
There was also an important collection of maps in Stalin’s library and here there are similarities to the mind-set of Vladimir Putin’s near obsession with a great Russia threatened on its borderlands by smaller nationalities that could not be trusted. An anecdote attributed to Molotov showed Stalin perusing a map of the Soviet Union saying: “Everything is all right to the north. Finland has offended us, so we moved the border to Leningrad. Baltic States ‑ that’s age-old Russian land! ‑ and they are ours again. All the Belorussians live together now, Ukrainians together, Moldovans together. It’s ok to the west.”
The big difference between them, of course, is that Putin is a Russian from St Petersburg while Stalin was from one of those pesky minor nationalities at the edge of the empire. All the same that concern over a possible attack from outside was present in the earlier era and was epitomised in a speech in February 1931 on the need for modernisation and industrialisation. Russia, Stalin told his listeners, was beaten by the feudal Swedish rulers; she was beaten by the Polish-Lithuanian lords; beaten by the Japanese barons, by the Mongol Khans and the Turkish Beys. Everyone, Stalin said, “had given her a beating for her backwardness; her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, her state backwardness, her agricultural backwardness”. We can almost hear him speak those words in the same way Putin does, with no rhetorical flourishes and in an unimpressive monotone voice, the main difference being Stalin’s strongly accented Russian, which, though competent, was obviously not his first language.
Napoleon was not mentioned in that speech, for Russia had not been beaten by the grande armée, which was instead was chased to the gates of Paris. But the folk memory of invasion remained and a decade after this speech was given Hitler’s forces arrived, imposing a massive death toll on those Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Balts, Moldovans and others. While the Soviets won the war, their losses were immense and when it ended Stalin ensured that the Soviet Union was encircled by buffer states that protected it from immediate and direct attack. One by one these states fell to the West. The Berlin wall fell. Germany was re-united, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania became members of NATO, which moved its military axis right up to the borders of Russia.
Stalin would have been apoplectic with rage to have seen these developments. Putin’s mind would have been similarly conditioned. The siege of Leningrad, his home town, was a major catastrophe of the war. More people died there than the combined death tolls of the United States and the United Kingdom in the entire war. One of those who lost his life during a virulent diphtheria epidemic during that siege was a little boy called Viktor. He was Vladimir Putin’s elder brother.
A quote from Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin which Roberts uses in his book might fit better in a biography of Putin. It suggests that Stalin’s political experience and character formed a mind that was in many ways repellent but was ideally suited to holding onto power.
Seamus Martin is a retired Moscow Correspondent and International Editor of The Irish Times.