Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 3. Stalin as a Thinker

THE EXISTENCE OF GOD vexed Stalin all his life. Around 1926, reading a Russian translation of Anatole France’s Sous la rose, Stalin was most intrigued by the story of Charles Baudelaire visiting Théophile Gautier, examining a grotesque African carved idol and wondering, “Suppose God is really like that!” Stalin exclaims in the margin: “Hah!! Sort that one out!” He seems distressed by France’s comment that, “God is the point of intersection for all human contradictions,” and scrawls: “Reason—feeling, is that really also image?!”

If Stalin lost faith in God, he kept his Calvinist beliefs on sin, the fall, grace, and damnation. He even retained his belief in the supremacy of love. Much has been plundered from Stalin’s library but his copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov still exists. The chapters that Stalin underlined most heavily have nothing to do with murdering one’s father or the right of the individual to do what he wants once God is shown to be dead; what held Stalin’s attention was the philosophy of Dostoevsky’s monks. Father Zosima’s musings on the nature of “active love” for one’s fellow human beings are underlined by Stalin: “active love, compared with dreaming love, is a cruel and terrifying business.”12

Stalin could accept Anatole France’s declaration that God was dead; as a Dostoevskian superman, Stalin felt he could supplant God with his own self. What distressed him was his own mortality. Reading France on old age, he underlined the remark that some persons would prefer hell to not existing at all. Even as an adolescent, Stalin worried about old age and death. His best (and last) Georgian poem anticipates the lonely impotence of his last years:

Our Ninika has grown old,
His hero’s shoulders have failed him
[ . . . ]
How did this desolate gray hair break an iron strength?
[ . . . ]
But now he can no longer move his knees,
Scythed down by old age,
He lies down, or he dreams, or he tells
His children’s children of the past . . .

In his last years Stalin could conjure up from the mob whenever he wanted the acclaim and gratitude that his romantic poet persona fails to win, but if he recalled this poem in his debilitated senility, it must have seemed a bitter prophesy.13

Dostoevsky’s vision of the Church’s cruel love was attractive; Tolstoi’s more Quakerish Christianity, with its leanings toward self-reliance and sentiment, irritated him. Stalin energetically marked up his (and his daughter’s) copies of Tolstoi’s work: one passage that provoked his mockery (“Ha-ha-ha” he scrawled in red) runs, “The sole, undoubted means of salvation from the evil people suffer from is that they should admit themselves to be guilty before God and therefore incapable of punishing or correcting other people.” 14

The most common mistake of Stalin’s opponents was to underestimate how exceptionally well read he was. That he was erudite we now know from the remnants of his library of 20,000 volumes, from the slips of paper and letters in which he asked for books, and from the recollections of those who knew him in his early years. What the seminary did not make its pupils read, it banned them from reading, thus stimulating the trainee priests to read even more. In 1910 the Tsarist secret police observed the exiled Stalin visiting the library in Vologda seventeen times in 107 days. By the time Stalin was thirty he had read quantities of classical, Western, and Russian literature, philosophy, and political theory. In four years’ exile, from 1913 to 1917, in the Siberian wilderness—unsociable, uncommunicative—Stalin read whatever he could scrounge from fellow exiles. Even in the chaos of revolution and the pursuit of power, he read. He read all Russian émigré periodicals from the 1920s to his death.

Once he had an office and an apartment in the Kremlin, as well as dachas around Moscow and on the Black Sea, Stalin built up his library. Some books he ordered, some he purloined from the state library; most came from the publisher or the author. Reading up to 500 pages a day, making notes in the margins and, despite his frequent laments about memory lapses, able to recall innumerable phrases and arguments years later, Stalin was a phenomenal, and dangerous, reader. As he got older, he quickly lost patience—typically he heavily annotated a book for around the first hundred pages. But if ever a devil could quote scripture to his purpose, it was Stalin.

A complete list of the books that a poet reads, Osip Mandelstam wrote, is his biography. Stalin liked books that gave an overview of European history, literature, linguistics. He was attached to books by authoritarian figures: Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, Otto von Bismarck’s memoirs. In the mid-1920s, when the bulk of Stalin’s books were in the Kremlin, Nadezhda Allilueva-Stalina, his second wife, took a lead from Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s satrap in Leningrad and fellow bibliophile. She had a librarian classify and reshelve them. Stalin was furious. He jotted down his own classification of books and had his secretary Aleksandr Poskriobyshev rearrange them accordingly.

All that hampered Stalin were his linguistic limitations: only in Georgian and Russian could he cope without a dictionary. Yet here too Stalin was underestimated by his opponents. In the seminary he had learned a lot of Greek (visitors were amazed to find Stalin in his Kremlin office perusing Plato in the original) and afterward a little French and German. For a while, in Siberian exile, he even toyed with Esperanto.15 Stalin’s interest in Marxism and his first prolonged stay in Berlin impelled him to struggle with German periodicals.

People wrote to Stalin not only in Russian and Georgian, but also, from Baku, in Azeri Turkish (then written in Arabic script). When on the run from the police, Stalin sometimes went under the name Zakhariants or Melikiants; either would have been foolish without a smattering of colloquial Armenian. In 1926 during the British General Strike, and afterward, Stalin perused the British press. His letters to his wife from Sochi express annoyance at her forgetting to send him his copy of A Model Complete Teach-Yourself English Course.16 In languages, as in many other subjects, Stalin’s tactics were to conceal, not display, his knowledge.

Stalin had an intimidatingly detailed recall of what he read and heard. He showed an uncanny instinct for inconsistencies and things left unsaid, although his evaluations of what he believed a writer had meant are often naive, even weird. Stalin’s throwaway remarks and angry scrawls in red pencil give us insight into his motives at points in his endless war on opposition and dissent.

Some books which Stalin read in his formative years sketch out his future actions. One work is credibly rumored to have authenticated for Stalin the principles of revolutionary dictatorship: Dostoevsky’s The Devils. The well-informed Georgian novelist Grigol Robakidze asserts in his novel The Murdered Soul that the Tbilisi seminary library copy of The Devils was heavily marked up by Stalin. The most vociferously anti-revolutionary novel in Russian literature, it was approved by the seminary authorities. Dostoevsky’s plot, in which a cynical provocateur uses a self-destructive aristocrat and a nihilist philosopher to create a violent uprising in a provincial town, must have given Stalin ideas for how to organize a revolution. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, a theorist who demands that a hundred million heads roll to make future generations eternally happy, did not seem to Stalin as ghoulish as he did to the author.

Like Dostoevsky’s heroes, Stalin sought in philosophy a license to transgress human and divine law. The most significant statement that Stalin ever made is a note he made in red pencil on the back flyleaf of the 1939 edition of Lenin’s theoretical work Materialism and Empirocriticism (a treatise on the existence of the real world outside our perception). Stalin’s comment gives a Machiavellian gloss to the credo of a Dostoevskian satanic antihero and is an epigraph to his whole career:

1) Weakness, 2) Idleness, 3) Stupidity. These are the only things that can be called vices. Everything else, in the absence of the aforementioned, is undoubtedly virtue. NB! If a man is 1) strong (spiritually), 2) active, 3) clever (or capable), then he is good, regardless of any other “vices”! 1) and 3) make 2)17

It is not surprising to learn that in 1915, when both were in Siberian exile, Lev Kamenev (shot by Stalin twenty years later but then Stalin’s mentor) gave him a copy of Machiavelli. Kamenev’s praise of Machiavelli reflects the political theorist’s enthusiasm for a precocious precursor; Stalin’s reading shows the pragmatist’s appreciation of a writer who authorizes what he has long been thinking and doing. Marxism provided Stalin (and Lenin) with the end—the terminology and justification for action; Machiavelli provided the means—the political tactics and amorality. Stalin was a Marxist in the same sense that Machiavelli was a Christian: both saw the retention of power as the sole task for a ruler and examined all the means by which power, once acquired, could be retained, regarding the ideology in whose name the ruler ruled as a mere rallying flag.


Stalin’s marginal doodling is sometimes mystifying: elaborate patterns of triangles and circles.18 Occasionally we come across two initial letters scrawled in the margin of a book: T and U. One can infer that T stands for Tbilisi and its seminary, and the psychological insights that Stalin had gained from a Christian education. U stands for uchitel’— teacher. Possibly, the teacher is Lenin, or perhaps it is Stalin’s view of himself.