A compelling intellectual biography of Stalin told through his personal library
“[A] fascinating new study.”—Michael O’Donnell, Wall Street Journal
In this engaging life of the twentieth century’s most self-consciously learned dictator, Geoffrey Roberts explores the books Stalin read, how he read them, and what they taught him. Stalin firmly believed in the transformative potential of words, and his voracious appetite for reading guided him throughout his years. A biography as well as an intellectual portrait, this book explores all aspects of Stalin’s tumultuous life and politics.
Stalin, an avid reader from an early age, amassed a surprisingly diverse personal collection of thousands of books, many of which he marked and annotated, revealing his intimate thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Based on his wide-ranging research in Russian archives, Roberts tells the story of the creation, fragmentation, and resurrection of Stalin’s personal library. As a true believer in communist ideology, Stalin was a fanatical idealist who hated his enemies—the bourgeoisie, kulaks, capitalists, imperialists, reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, traitors—but detested their ideas even more.
Geoffrey Roberts is emeritus professor of history at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. A leading Soviet history expert, his many books include an award-winning biography of Zhukov, Stalin’s general, and the acclaimed Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War.
“A truly fascinating study that leaves no doubt that Stalin took ideas as seriously as political power itself.”—Tony Barber, Financial Times
“[A] fascinating new study.”—Michael O’Donnell, Wall Street Journal
“Fascinating in parts. . . . Perhaps the biggest insight his book collection offers is that [Stalin] was a diligent, reverential and genuinely enthusiastic reader of works by Lenin.”—Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian
“Roberts has produced a relatively compact, engagingly written study of the Soviet leader as an intellectual. . . . 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.’ . . . . The world glimpsed through his eyes was a frightening place. It has become so again. Whether or not dictators of Stalin’s ilk will emerge once more, they are unlikely to be as well read.”—Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Times Literary Supplement
“In its examination of Stalin’s debts to the books he read, this is a pioneering work of scholarship. . . . The core of this book is a longer chapter detailing his pometki—the markings he made in the volumes he read. . . . The significance of these markings—and the chief value of Robert’s book—is in what they tell us of the workings of Stalin’s mind.”—John Gray, New Statesman
“Stalin’s Library is ‘among the best means we have of accessing the dictator’s inner life’ and Geoffrey Roberts does so admirably and revealingly here.”—Brian Maye, Irish Times
“Can one define a life from a personal library? Geoffrey Roberts, an expert on Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, thinks you can. Such analysis is particularly relevant as Stalin did not keep a diary nor write a memoir.”—Colin Steele, Canberra Times
“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.”—Nigel Jones, Spectator
“Interpreting the reasons for Stalin’s reactions, usually negative, to what he was reading, and assessing the influence of his reading on his decision-making skills are tasks that demand not just the encyclopedic knowledge that Roberts has of his subject but also the intuition of a psychologist of genius.”—Donald Rayfield, Literary Review
“Offers a new perspective on the dictator: his intellectual curiosity, his reading, his studying and his accumulation of 25,000 books along with journals and pamphlets. . . . Roberts uses the library as a way in to a wider discussion of Soviet arts and culture.”—Vin Arthey, The Scotsman
“New books on Russian history include two Stalin-related ones, the Georgian dictator remaining ever popular as a subject of interest. . . . I was particularly intrigued by the one on his voracious reading habits: Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books.”—Sophie Roell, Five Books, “Notable Nonfiction of Early 2022”
“Roberts’ book is dedicated to getting beyond the ‘moral revulsion’ and understanding how Stalin did what he did.”—Noonie Minogue, The Tablet
“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. . . . It’s an intriguing infill of detail, a niche presentation or a sidelight shone on a titan of political power well within living memory.”—Basil Ransome-Davies, Shiny New Books
“A balanced and informative book, in which Roberts punctures many myths about Stalin. A mustread for anyone interested in an accurate, non-partisan history of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the Stalin phenomenon.”—John Green, Morning Star
“Analyses the extensive marginalia Stalin left in hundreds of books. They reveal that intellectual engagement is not incompatible with ruthless megalomania.”—George Garnett, History Today, “Books of 2022”
“Roberts . . . makes a compelling case that through an examination of his books and pometki, it is possible to build ‘a composite, nuanced picture of the reading life of Stalin.’”—William A. Clark, Europe-Asia Studies
“It is the rigorous yet lively analysis of the library itself—from surveys of its holdings to deciphering markings on individual pages—that holds the greatest appeal for historians of the book and of the Soviet Union alike.”—Polly Jones, English Historical Review
“Stalin was a lifelong reader of astonishing stamina and range. In this shrewd and compelling exploration, Geoffrey Roberts finds the key to understanding the despot and his despotism hidden in plain sight in the pages of his books. The love of reading drew Stalin to the revolution and gave him the intellectual assurance that all his ruthless violence was both necessary and justified. Stalin’s Library offers a new and fascinating depth of insight into the mind of a fanatic.”—Rachel Polonsky, author of Molotov’s Magic Lantern
“Innovative and intriguing: the warlord and mass-murderer as bookworm, librarian and intellectual. A fascinating read.”—David Reynolds, coauthor of The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt
“A German philosopher once said, ‘Tell me how you read and I’ll tell you who you are.’ Geoffrey Roberts’s study of the remains of Stalin’s library, and the angry exclamations and demanding queries made by the tyrant’s blue pencil in the margins (and sometimes whole rewritten pages) reveals Stalin as a fanatical proof-reader, a phenomenally gifted interrogator of other persons’ opinions.”—Donald Rayfield, author of Stalin and His Hangmen
“This fascinating, original, and meticulously researched study of Stalin’s library offers penetrating insight into the mind of a dictator who valued ideas as much as power. In exploring Stalin as an avid reader of books, Roberts punctures many myths about the man.”—Stephen Smith, author of Russia in Revolution
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