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Review by Basil Ransome-Davies

One review of this book has come on quite strong against Roberts’ view of Stalin – prominent among the twentieth century’s most publicised murderous dictators and handy posthumous folk devil – accusing the author of ‘airbrushing’ his subject’s horrific record. Perhaps the reviewer missed the opening of chapter one, ‘Bloody Tyrant and Bookworm’, in which after acknowledging Stalin’s crimes, the author adds ‘Moral revulsion, however, is no substitute for explaining how and why Stalin was able to do what he did’.  I concur, and  Roberts re-emphasises the case against more than once in this book (indeed repetition is a characteristic minor vice of his); there is no denial or excuse-mongering. 

What he proposes is a ‘different lens’ through which to view Stalin, namely as a ‘dedicated idealist, and as an activist intellectual who valued ideas as much as power… a restless mind, reading for the revolution to the very end of his life.’   Roberts’ language may be over-egging the pudding, but he pluckily pursues the task of second-guessing a dictator via his voracious reading habits and the pometki – ‘marks’ such as underlining, brusque comments, ’piss off’ apparently among them – and annotations he made in the books he devoured. 

Roberts’ source material here initially shared a fate with its disgraced owner. After Stalin’s death in 1953, a second power struggle (the first was after Lenin’s death in 1924) among the Bolshevik hierarchy threw up a new leader, Khrushchev, who at the party’s twentieth congress in 1956 denounced Stalin and his crimes in a closed session, the shocking ‘secret speech’ that launched a programme of de-Stalinisation  and a return to ‘socialist legality’. Though his body remained in the Lenin Mausoleum till 1961, the dismantling of his legacy included the break-up and dispersal of his personal library of 25,00 volumes, kept in his Moscow dacha. When, in the late 1980s, these books were rediscovered, becoming archive resources rather than dodgy material to be suppressed or forgotten, researchers had a useful chance to add to the Stalin ‘narrative’.  

Stalin was not only a reader but a committed writer and editor, and Roberts gives numerous illustrations of his interventionist style in redacting or stamping his approval on the writing of others, finalising documents in the autocratic manner of Big Brother. Through seven chapters of closely argued analysis  part-chronological, part-thematic, Roberts builds up the picture of a three-dimensional Stalin, at times abrupt and dogmatic, at others reflective and even self-critical; nor is he humourless. His attention as de facto head of state shifts with the pace and rhythm of events, from concern with cementing the foundations of the Soviet state to urgent economic problems, to liquidating Trotskyites and other ‘saboteurs’, most dramatically of all to world war, invasion and the long, bloody, heroic defeat of Nazism.

However composite or variable Stalin’s character may have been, the residual glow of one overwhelming presence its constant background: Marxism-Leninism, and above all the authoritative leadership of Lenin, the great pragmatic genius of revolution. Stalin was fond of humblebrags, affecting to disown the delirious cult of personality he had fostered, but he always presented himself as Lenin’s heir, wearing the role like a cloak of infallibility. It’s Lenin’s decades-long outpouring of revolutionary ideas which topped his reading list and Lenin whose sacred name Stalin invoked to validate his twists and turns of policy. Lenin himself had bequeathed a warning to the party in his ‘testament’ of Stalin’s greed for power and rude, abrasive behaviour and advised his removal from the post of General Secretary. Too late. Stalin had built up his support in the Central Committee. Quite often derogated by the sophisticated Bolshevik party élite as a Georgian roughneck or a dull bureaucratic blur, he was neither, but as complex as anyone else – plus the inner dynamic of secret personal thoughts and machinations that helped engineer his route to enormous power. Not even Roberts’ ingenuity can get sufficiently behind the mask to expose them.   

So pace the Telegraph’s reviewer, I doubt that Stalin’s Library will change anyone’s all-round judgement of Stalin in his favour. But it’s an intriguing infill of detail, a niche presentation or a sidelight shone on a titan of political power well within living memory. As recently as 2021 an independent poll found that 56% of Russians thought of Stalin as a ‘great leader’, while Putin’s approval level had slumped to 15%. A case of ‘historical amnesia’? Maybe, but the scale of their misdeeds aside (Stalin sacrificed millions of his own citizens in the hectic drive to industrialise the Soviet Union), the two may have more in common than their assiduously promoted public images suggest – one a genial, pipe-smoking, avuncular figure, the other a lean, bare-chested ninja with a stony stare. I’m left half-wondering what Putin’s reading habits might be. Informal sources online lean towards reading kids’ books to his grandchildren but also mentioned are literary tough guys Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Stalin’s favourites included the consciousness-raising socially critical novels of Zola and – quelle surprise! – Machiavelli’s The Prince. 

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin’s Library (Yale University Press 2022). 978-0300179040, 259pp., hardback.

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