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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical

Stalin's Library

Geoffrey Roberts

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To purchase Stalin's Library

Title: Stalin's Library
Author: Geoffrey Roberts
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 212 pages
Availability: Stalin's Library - US
Stalin's Library - UK
Stalin's Library - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Dictator and His Books
  • With 14 photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting, if somewhat limited, insight into and perspective on Stalin

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 31/1/2022 Tony Barber
The Guardian . 16/2/2022 Amelia Gentleman
Literary Review . 2/2022 Donald Rayfield
The New Criterion . 6/2022 G.S.Morson
New Statesman . 30/3/2022 John Gray
The Spectator . 5/2/2022 Nigel Jones
The Telegraph C 30/1/2022 James Walton
TLS . 8/4/2022 Lewis H. Siegelbaum
Wall St. Journal . 4/2/2022 Michael O'Donnell

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) truly fascinating study that leaves no doubt that Stalin took ideas as seriously as political power itself. (...) Perhaps there is a broader, more sobering lesson, too. In an era of dictatorships whose legacy lingers to this day, Stalin was one of the most bookish of them all. Yet to be well-read is in itself no guarantee of a humane approach to politics and life." - Tony Barber, Financial Times

  • "Roberts is startlingly forgiving towards Stalin (.....) 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 focus on their struggle in this book. Fascinating in parts, its promised insight into Stalin’s true feelings remains elusive." - Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian

  • "Alas, this book offers no significant discoveries, intimate or otherwise. It meanders pointlessly from topic to topic unrelated to the annotations 9...) but says nothing new about any of them. Frequently, Roberts seems to forget that this is a study of Stalin’s pometki. (...) Time and again, we wonder at Roberts’s judgment." - Gary Saul Morson, The New Criterion

  • "Stalin's Library is an account of the dictator's intellectual and political development, but the core of the book is a long chapter detailing his pometki (.....) The significance of these markings -- and the chief value of Roberts' book -- is in what they tell us of the workings of Stalin's mind. (...) In its examination of Stalin's debts to the books he read, this is a pioneering work of scholarship. As an assessment of the dictator, it is tendentiously and at times absurdly revisionist." - John Gray, New Statesman

  • "Stalin, as Geoffrey Roberts shows, took books at least as seriously as the purging of foes, real and imagined. (...) But this is no dry examination of dusty texts. Roberts takes us through Stalin’s life and shows how his reading moulded his actions. Books transformed the bright seminary student into a ferocious revolutionary (.....) He was no respectful bibliophile. (...) Stalin’s Library tilts our image of a paranoid killer interested only in power towards a more nuanced -- but even scarier -- one: of a deep thinker prepared to turn his ideas into bullets to mow down those who thought differently." - Nigel Jones, The Spectator

  • "Yet if Roberts's book makes an indisputable case for Stalin's bibliophilia -- including his willingness to read people he didn't agree with -- elsewhere it feels on much shakier ground, with the author's revisionism coming to seem increasingly compulsive. Roberts does take a stern line on Stalin's habitual failure to return library books, but otherwise his attitude tends strongly to the indulgent. (...) The book's special pleading reaches an almost comic climax in the chapter on Stalin's view of literature and the arts in the Soviet Union. (...) Meanwhile, the persecution of Mandelstam, Shostakovich and so many others -- along with what is now known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets” (all of them Jewish, incidentally) -- goes entirely unmentioned. Again, this is not uncharacteristic, given that nowhere in these densely-written pages will you find the word “gulag”. Annoyingly, there's always something of a thrill to be had from wildly heretical revisionist history -- and this is no exception." - James Walton, The Telegraph

  • "Basing his interpretation both on what Stalin read and on how he did so, the author contends we can not only “get to know him from the outside in”, but also “glimpse the world through his eyes”." - Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(H)is personal library, which he carefully maintained and treasured, offers a unique window into his thoughts. (...) 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. (...) 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." - Michael O'Donnell, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       There is no question that Stalin was bookish. Geoffrey Roberts notes that: "By the time of his death, Stalin's library contained some 25,000 books, periodicals and pamphlets", and repeatedly cites contemporaries' reports on how eagerly Stalin sought out and devoured books. Alas, in Stalin's Library Roberts can not offer a close analysis of the entire holdings of Stalin's personal library, as: "the dictator's books were dispersed to other libraries" and he sadly notes: "it is impossible to know precisely which books were in Stalin's library when he died or how many of them there were"; only a small selection can definitively be attributed to him -- among them: books with his ex libris stamp, as well as a collection of several hundred works with Stalin's pometki (пометки) -- his more-than-marginalia, which are obviously the most revealing, suggesting also what was of interest to Stalin as he read these works.
       The longest of the seven chapters in the work is devoted to these works which Stalin marked -- promisingly titled: 'Bah Humbug ! Stalin's Pometki' -- but Roberts also paints a fuller picture of Stalin as reader, and engaging with writing (notably in the editing of texts, Roberts noting that: "If there was anything Stalin loved as much as reading, it was editing").
       There is also material here that is more generally biographical, Roberts filling in details about Stalin's life -- especially his early life --, including in taking issue with familiar and standard accounts of Stalin, and pointing out that these are often based on limited or dubious evidence. Obviously deeply knowledgeable about the subject -- a list of books 'Also by Geoffrey Roberts' at the beginning of the volume lists six that include the name Stalin in the title ... --, he also cites and mentions many of the leading writers on Stalin (and is often critical about some of their conclusions, and how they reached these), and at times Stalin's Library feels like there's a bigger book about Stalin trying to burst through. Mostly, however, Roberts does return to his main focus -- showing just how central books were to Stalin, throughout his life.
       Early on, Roberts already sums up:

Stalin was quick to pass judgement on authors but he respected their books. This showed in the care with which he marked and annotated them, even those of his enemies. Stalin rarely read to confirm what he already knew or believed. He read to learn something new.
       As with many larger-than-life figures, Stalin is most often still seen as personality, the focus on the man (so also, Roberts points out, in much of the writing about him), but one point Roberts effectively makes is how much Stalin himself focused on ideas and ideology. If not entirely self-effacing, Stalin repeatedly tried to shift the focus from personality to ideas, opposing an exhibition based on his life in 1933, for example, because: "such undertakings lead to the strengthening of the 'cult of the personality', which is harmful and incompatible with the spirit of our party". Similarly, Roberts points out Stalin's insistence on the 'de-personalisation' of the textbook, Short Course History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (e.g.), arguing against puffing up the roles of the personalities involved:
What do exemplary individuals really give us ? I don't want to put ideas and individuals against one another -- sometimes it is necessary to refer to individuals, but we should refer to them only as much as is really necessary. It is ideas that really matter, not individuals -- ideas in a theoretical context.
       Of course, one of the consequences of Stalin's focus on ideas and ideology was that it ignored the human side -- as Roberts also arguably does, in not considering very closely many of the horrific consequences that resulted from Stalin's policies and fixations. Stalin may have valued ideas and ideological purity, but, as the enormous human toll suffered by the Soviet people clearly shows, often these were -- to put it mildly -- misguided.
       The pometki are revealing as to much of Stalin's political ideology -- his close readings of Lenin, for example, with whom he found no fault; similarly, there is no criticism of Marx in his extensive readings of Marx (though he was more critical -- if still respectful -- of Engels' writings). Of particular interest is, of course, Stalin's readings of Trotsky, his main rival -- both as regards to power, as well as ideologically.
       Among the documents providing some insight into Stalin's library is the classification system he proposed for it (already in 1925), suggesting which subject matters and authors were of particular significance and interest to him. 'Fiction' was quite far down the list -- 27th on a list of 32 subject-matter categories, right after 'Trade Unions' -- and it's unfortunate that so little is known about Stalin's reading of fiction. Roberts can piece together some of what literature interested Stalin -- a voracious reader, he clearly had, at least in his younger years, read a great deal of classical fiction -- and notes a few favorites: Shakespeare, for example, or that he: "worshipped Zola" (so Beria's son). Overall, however, it's hard to get a sense of what fiction he enjoyed (and -- always looking for ideas -- what he got out of it).
       Discussion of Stalin's own writing and, especially, his editing -- which can also be seen as an extension of his inveterate annotation of texts -- is also quite illuminating, neatly presented by Roberts.
       Overall, Roberts' description seems correct:
     Admittedly, complexity, depth and subtlety were not strengths of Stalin's, nor was he an original thinker. His lifelong practice was to utilise other people's ideas, formulations and information -- that was why he read such a lot. His intellectual hallmark was that of a brilliant simplifier, clarifier and populariser.
       Roberts makes a convincing case for the central role of books in Stalin's life -- not merely in his formative period (he was an excellent student, and already very bookish) but throughout his life. It's unfortunate that, with the holdings of Stalin's library largely dispersed, it's impossible to know exactly what books he read and was familiar with, but Roberts gives a good overview of much that can be pieced together. If not a full-fledged intellectual biography of Stalin, or even just Stalin-as-reader, Stalin's Library is nevertheless a very useful and informative supplementary volume to the standard Stalin biographies.
       The book also includes fourteen photographs -- a neat little peek into a few of these books, including a Stalin-doodle from the back cover of an Alexei Tolstoy play:

Stalkin doodle

       Unfortunately, the book's index is very thin (there are at least five mentions of Leo Tolstoy and his work, for example, but his name is not in the index) -- disappointing, given that it is a book referring to so many authors and people; an exhaustive index would have been helpful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 February 2022

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Stalin's Library: Reviews: Geoffrey Roberts: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Historian Geoffrey Roberts teaches at University College Cork.

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© 2022 the complete review

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