Published March 31, 2022
Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, written in 1906, when the Russian revolutionary infection was bringing on a high fever, states explicitly as its theme and also demonstrates as an object lesson the importance of books in making socialist revolution. Mikhail Rybin, an old factory hand and a perfervid latecomer to political enlightenment, can barely contain himself as he asks a comrade for forbidden books to distribute among the workers. “Give me your help! Let me have books — such books that when a man has read them he will not be able to rest. Put a prickly hedgehog to his brains. Tell those city folks who write for you to write for the villagers also. Let them write such hot truth that it will scald the village, that the people will even rush to their death.”
As one learns from Geoffrey Roberts’s new book, Stalin’s Library, among Gorky’s inflamed readers was Joseph Stalin, aroused by Gorky’s arousal, and marking up his copy of the novel with exuberant marginalia alongside this passage of political uplift. It was Stalin who coaxed the longtime émigré Gorky to return to Russia in 1932, who established him in an expropriated mansion not far from the Kremlin, who renamed Moscow’s main street in his honor, and who ordered the state prosecutor in the 1938 show trial of Nikolai Bukharin to implicate the disgraced secret-police chief Genrikh Yagoda in a plot that purportedly took Gorky’s life.
When a book Stalin was reading provoked his particular attention, the consequences were not often purely benign. Gorky’s privileged presence began to nettle Stalin. The writer not only thought for himself on occasion but worse still spoke such thoughts out loud, and that was not readily forgiven. If Yagoda did in fact murder Gorky, he was acting on Stalin’s orders. It is of course entirely possible or perhaps even likely that Gorky died of an innocent case of pneumonia, but many whom Stalin once held dear were known even to rush to their death, though usually not of their own volition.
Geoffrey Roberts, a prolific English scholar of the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time and a professor emeritus at University College Cork, proposes to add a much neglected facet of Stalin’s character to the familiar portrait of a “bloody tyrant, a machine politician, a paranoid personality, a heartless bureaucrat, and an ideological fanatic.” Stalin did indeed fit that now commonplace description as one of history’s most terrible monsters, but these unseemly quirks of character are largely redeemed in Roberts’s telling by Stalin’s shining mind, ever active, tirelessly probing, and heroically devoted to the utopian Soviet project. Roberts is plainly smitten with the dictator’s bookishness, which is the mark of a superior sort of man — “a dedicated idealist and an activist intellectual who valued ideas as much as power, who was ceaseless in his own efforts at self-education, a restless mind, reading for the revolution to the very end of his life.” Reading for the revolution does sound less obviously objectionable than sending millions to their deaths in order to secure absolute dominion over the most nearly perfected terror state ever devised.
By no means does Roberts dismiss altogether the severity of Stalin’s crimes, but there appears to be a vocational affinity nevertheless between the respectable English scholar and the murderous Soviet potentate. A passionate reader of serious books is instinctively drawn to a devotee similarly inclined wherever he might be found, and especially if he should be found in an unexpected place, the way someone wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of James Joyce would feel a thrill at the sight of someone else dressed the same at a NASCAR race or professional-wrestling smackdown. That Stalin was “the twentieth century’s most self-consciously intellectual dictator” sets him apart in Roberts’s estimation from the usual run of savage cretins and butcher boys. Idi Amin or Pol Pot could not boast a personal library of 25,000 volumes. The likes of them were unfamiliar with Herodotus and Gibbon and the best bourgeois-Russian accounts of Roman military and political history (by one Robert Vipper, we are told). They were not conversant with the masterworks of modern fiction, from Dickens to Hugo, Balzac to Zola, Gogol to Dostoevsky. (In a 1952 Pravda editorial that Roberts attributes to Stalin, the duty of Soviet literature is “to unmask ruthlessly all that is stagnant, backward and hostile to the people. We need our Gogols and Shchedrins!” And in a conversation recollected by Party ideology chief Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin declared Dostoevsky a nasty reactionary who “called for humility, resignation, Christian virtue. Only that, according to him, could save Russia from the catastrophe of socialism.”) Although Stalin may have been as wicked as everybody says he was, for Roberts his case is not exactly one of straightforward evil. “Stalin was no psychopath but an emotionally intelligent and feeling intellectual.” It happened to be the misfortune of those who fell beneath his flail that his feeling intellect had a blind spot where his ideological opponents were concerned. “What he lacked was compassion or sympathy for those he deemed enemies of the revolution. If anything, he had too much human empathy and used it to imagine the worst in people, inventing a mass of fictitious acts of betrayal and treachery — a critical ingredient of the Great Terror that swept through Soviet society in the 1930s, engulfing millions of innocent victims arrested, imprisoned, deported or shot for political crimes.” This has to be the most convoluted and cockamamie apology on the books for Stalin’s mass murder. What Roberts calls empathy is more commonly and more accurately known as paranoia, combined here with rampant inhumanity, both of which Stalin possessed in superabundance.
One can provide an almost reasonable explanation for the viciousness that attended Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, including the unconscionably punitive famine in which 4 million Ukrainians starved to death. So too with the infamous Moscow show trials that initiated the Great Terror, the public abasement and ritual liquidation of some of Stalin’s closest and most eminent associates — Old Bolsheviks, Politburo members, NKVD officers — whom he could rightly consider legitimate threats to his supreme power. One might concede that Stalin did consider such rivals “enemies of the revolution,” but only because the revolutionary truth was strictly whatever he said it was at any particular moment. Harder to reckon with is the creation of the Gulag universe, the open secret that everyone was in on but almost no one dared to speak of, the mass imprisonment of the insignificant and harmless multitudes for offenses they never dreamed of committing. Leszek Kolakowski, the late Polish émigré philosopher and apostate from communism, in his magisterial tome Main Currents of Marxism (1976), summarizes with caustic eloquence the logic of such apparently motiveless devastation: “Why the tremendous effort to induce unknown victims to sign fantastic admissions which would be buried in police files and not used for any public purpose?” What Stalin pursued was the wholesale “moral annihilation” of the citizenry, who had to learn on their own bodies and thus in the depth of their souls the irresistible mastery of Stalin and Stalin alone. The Stalinist Soviet Union, in Kolakowski’s telling, aspired to the tyrannical ideal in which “everyone in the country (except Stalin) was an inmate of a concentration camp and also an agent of the secret police.”
Kolakowski, one of the foremost thinkers of the late 20th century, finds Stalin notably wanting in mental throw weight: “Everyone knew that Stalin’s articles, pamphlets, and speeches contained nothing original and showed no sign that they were intended to: he was not a ‘Marxist theoretician,’ but a party propagandist like hundreds of others.” Roberts to the contrary, it was not Stalin’s intellectual passion and prowess that made him unique; it was his raging megalomania — his insatiable craving for power and his utter ruthlessness in securing it. Marxist-Leninist ideology served his purpose because it too is perfectly ruthless, treating the individuals who reject it as vermin to be exterminated. Moreover, it provides the definitive theory of everything, the ultimate truth about the whole of reality, and such certainty is highly seductive to a particular type of intellectual, credulous and devout, who will fill the ranks of the revolutionary cadres. Stalin was not such a man himself, but he found such men eminently useful as his allies, and pliable as his subjects. (Pervasive fear helped them obey.)
Roberts cites approvingly Eric Hobsbawm, the preeminent historian on the English left and a Stalinist stooge who a decade ago died unrepentant, on the fundamental appeal of dialectical and historical materialism: “What made Marxism so irresistible was its comprehensiveness.” Some men need to bow down before this masterful idea, while others resist its mastery and are punished by its outraged adherents. In a passage that Roberts quotes at some length, Stalin himself addresses the condition of both of these types of men, explaining his commanding role in the enterprise of many hands that produced the Short Course History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, required reading for every citizen: “It is ideas that really matter, not individuals — ideas in a theoretical context.” The theoretical context spelled out in practical terms means destruction for noncompliant individuals, and often enough for perfect innocents who sadly slip as though by accident into the machinery.
The integrity of the socialist idea is sacrosanct to the true believer. Yet Stalin was no true believer, no devoted servant of doctrine received from on high. No idea mastered him, for he was his own master. He used ideas as he used men, he was always in command, his individual interest was ever foremost, and Marxist-Leninist dogma was the instrument he shaped according to the needs of the moment. He sought, won, and kept supreme power, and he used it monstrously, invariably for his own ends. The bookish are drawn to his mind at their peril.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Churchill’s Military Histories.