Stalin — Reader and Thinker: A Look at Stalin’s Personal Library

From:  Overview of Stalin’s Personal Library (

By Geoffrey Lewis

All rights reserved to the author.

An aspirant Bolshevik intellectual, Stalin was an avid reader. His reading focussed naturally on left-wing publications but from an early age he devoured the classics of Russian and western fiction – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Schiller, Heine, Hugo, Thackeray and Balzac. In the 1920s much of Stalin’s reading concentrated on the writings of his rivals in the struggle for the succession to Lenin – Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin. Another preoccupation was the history of revolutionary movements in other countries. In the 1930s his attention switched to Soviet literature – to the post-revolutionary writings of Maxim Gorky, Alexander Fadeev, Aleksei Tolstoy, Iliya Ehrenburg, Isaac Babel and Mikhail Shokolov. Aside from revolutionary writings and fiction, Stalin also had enduring interests in History, Philosophy, Economics, Linguistics, Science and military affairs. After the Second World War he made a number of notable interventions in debates about genetics, military strategy, socialist economics and linguistic theory.[1]


Because of his peripatetic lifestyle as an underground revolutionary in Tsarist Russia Stalin did not begin to collect books and build a personal library until after the Russian Revolution and Civil War. In May 1925 he wrote to his aide and secretary I. Tovstukh outlining how he wanted his book collection to be classified.[2]  Stalin’s schema combined conventional library classification with categories that reflected his particular interests in the history, theory and leadership of revolutionary movements, including the works of anti-Bolshevik critics Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg as well as internal rivals Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. The inclusion of the French radical Paul Lafargue in the list of revolutionary leaders with a separate classification is somewhat surprising but Lafargue was Karl Marx’s son-in-law and famous among revolutionaries of Stalin’s generation for his utopian tract The Right to be Lazy (1880).

Stalin had in mind quite a grandiose personal library, one that would contain a vast and diverse store of human knowledge, not just the humanities and social science but aesthetics, fiction and the natural sciences. Given the extent of the Bolsheviks’ antireligious campaigning in the 1920s the fact that the library contained what Stalin called anti-religious trash or pulp literature (антирелигиозную макулатуру) is not as surprising as his wish to retain rather than discard it.

It is likely that Stalin envisioned his library as having a primary physical location. In the event his books came to be stored in a number of places – his Kremlin office and apartment and his two Moscow dachas at Zubalova and Kuntsevo.[3]

In the 1920s items in Stalin’s book collection were stamped Библиотека И.В. Сталина – “Library of J.V. Stalin” – and numbered,[4] but this practice was discontinued in the 1930s.[5] The other way of identifying a book, pamphlet or periodical as belonging to Stalin’s library was the presence of his autograph or some other annotation.

The size of Stalin’s library is difficult to estimate. The accepted figure is c.20,000, the source being an article published in 1993 by Leonid Spirin, a consultant of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, which was the recipient of the dictator’s books after Stalin’s death.  According to Spirin, when Stalin died in 1953 the library contained about 19,500 books, pamphlets and periodicals. About 14,000 unstamped or unautographed books, mostly fiction, art books and atlases, were dispersed to other libraries, leaving a residue of c.5,500 items, including c.400 annotated items.[6]

The Institute of Marxism Leninism (IML) eventually morphed into RGASPI and that is where the annotated texts from Stalin’s library are now stored as Opis’3 of the Stalin fond. This collection is part of the Stalin Digital Archive. So far a good one third of Stalin’s annotated books, pamphlets and periodicals have been digitised and are available for inspection on the site, not just the pages of the publications that have annotations but the complete texts.

Stalin acquired his books in various ways, including by borrowing them from other libraries and not returning them. In 1956 the Lenin Library asked for the return of 72 such books. However, when it was found that 62 of these books contained Stalin’s annotations other ways were found to compensate the Lenin Library for its losses.[7]

The 5000 or so unannotated items are stored at what was the library of the IML – Государственная Общественно-политическая Библиотека – the State Social-Political Library (SSPL) – in Moscow.  The card catalogue of Stalin’s library books in the SSPL is divided into a number of sections. Firstly, a listing of 3747 texts with the Stalin library stamp; secondly, 587 texts with Stalin’s autograph (with or without the library stamp); thirdly, 189 items addressed to Stalin (some stamped and some not); fourthly 102 with a subject-heading written on them but no stamp or signature; and, fifthly, 347 with no stamp, autograph or subject-heading. There are also two smaller collections of books belonging to members of Stalin’s family and books originating in other libraries.

None of the books in the two main collections (stamped and/or signed) post-date 1933, which suggests they are not, as Spirin suggests, the residue of the total holdings of Stalin’s library minus the 14,000 dispersed to other libraries but a subset from a particular location. One possibility is Stalin’s Zubalova dacha where he spent a lot of time in the 1920s. In 1934 Stalin acquired a new dacha, at Kuntsevo, which was designed to house a large number of books, and judging by photographs of the interior of the building it actually did.[8] It is reasonable to assume that after 1933 acquisitions to Stalin’s library went to the new dacha – where he now spent most of his leisure time – as well as to his Kremlin apartment and office. What happened to the post-1933 books remains a mystery. Only the whereabouts of those in the annotated collection in RGASPI are known.


There are various reports of books from Stalin’s library being in private hands but so far none of these have come into the public domain. Finally, it should be noted that there are a number of books in other opisi of the Stalin fond, which may be viewed on the SDA, too.[9] Arguably, these should also be considered part of Stalin’s library.

The catalogue of the texts in the SSPL is the best guide we have to Stalin’s non-fiction reading interests. A list of the texts in the first section of the catalogue – the 3747 stamped items – maybe found in the SDA here.[10]

As this list shows, Stalin’s library was overwhelmingly a Soviet library – a collection of post-1917 texts published in Soviet Russia. Most of the texts are books but there are also a large number of short, pamphlet-type publications. All the texts are in Russian and the great majority are written by Bolsheviks or other varieties of Marxists and Socialists. The most heavily featured author is Lenin (243 publications) and there are also numerous works about Lenin and Leninism. The most favoured authors after Lenin are Stalin (95), Zinoviev (55), Bukharin (50), Marx (50), Kamenev (37), Molotov (33), Trotsky (28), Kautsky (28), Engels (25), Rykov (24), Plekhanov (23), Lozovsky (22), Rosa Luxemburg (14), and Radek (14). It may be noted in passing that five of these authors (Zinoviev, Bukharin, Kamenve, Rykov, and Lozovsky were subsequently purged an executed by Stalin while Radek died in the Gulag and Trotsky was assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico in 1940. The collection also contains hundreds of reports of communist party congresses and conferences as well as those of associated organisations such as Comintern and Soviet trade unions.

Apart from Rosa Luxemburg female authors are mostly notable for their absence but the collection does contain a number of works by the German communist, Clara Zetkin, and by Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskyaya, as well as one of feminist Alexandra Kollantai’s early diaries.

Apart from the works of Marx, Engels, Kautsky and Luxemburg, there are very few foreign translations in Stalin’s collection. Notable exceptions include translations into Russian of Winston Churchill’s book about the First World War, The World Crisis; three books by the German revisionist social democrat Eduard Bernstein;  the German economist Karl Wilhelm Bucher’s Work and Rhythm; an early work by Karl Wittfogel on the ‘awakening’ of China; John Hobson’s Imperialism; Werner Sombart’s book about modern capitalism; some works of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk; the Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola on historical materialism; John Reed’s Insurgent Mexico; several works by the American writer Upton Sinclair, and the letters of executed US anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.  Among the many works on economics in the collection is a translation of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.[11]

Another theme of the collection is military theory and history.  Among these books are Clausewitz’s On War,[12] together with volumes by the holy trinity of interwar Soviet military strategy – Frunze, Svechin and Tukhachevsky. There is also a translation of Julian Stafford Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, originally published in English in 1911.[13] Corbett was a British seapower theorist who emphasised the importance of control of the seas in war as opposed to the advocates of grand engagements with the enemy’s fleet.

There is very little in the way of fiction but Stalin’s great interest in the history of the ancient world is reflected in the presence of a translation of Flaubert’s Salammbo, a novel set in Carthage at the time of the First Punic War.

Three slightly off-beat authors who feature in the collection are L.N. Voitolovskii, an early Soviet theorist of the social psychology of crowd behaviour; Moisey Ostrogorsky, the author of one of the founding texts of western political sociology, Democracy and Political Parties;

and Viktor Vinogradov, a Soviet literary theorist, who wrote a book about the evolution of naturalism in Russian literature.[14] Vinogradov fell out of favour in the 1930s and was exiled to the provinces but he was brought back to Moscow after the Second World War when Stalin intervened in the Soviet linguistics controversy about the origin and nature of language.  Made chief of the Institute of Linguistics Vinogradov was awarded a Stalin prize in 1951.

The pattern of the publications found in this first section of the SSPL catalogue of Stalin’s library is replicated in the other sections. The only exception is that among the 347 items in the fifth section (unstamped, unmarked and with no subject-heading) there are a number of foreign language books, mostly in French, German or English. These include John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World; Alfred Kurella’s Mussolini: Ohne Maske (1931), a book about the Spanish civil war, Garibaldini in Spagna (1937), a signed copy of the 1935 edition of the Webbs’ Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation; various translations of works by Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Radek; and a photocopy of a description of the Madsen 20mm machine gun.

Erik Van Ree’s view is that the absence of annotations by Stalin of the books in the SSPL means that he probably did not read them. Stalin, Van Ree argues, was an inveterate annotator not just of books but of any texts he read.[15] However, the lack of annotations is not definitive proof that he did not read or browse a particular text. Among the annotated collection of Stalin’s books – dealt with below – there are many examples of minimal annotation indicative of limited reading of the text. In the absence of even that skimpy annotation the conclusion might have been drawn that he hadn’t read the text when he had, or at least looked at it. Moreover, Stalin displayed knowledge and interests which indicate that it is likely he paid some attention to particular texts even if he did not read and annotate them. For example, Stalin was very knowledgeable about naval affairs. It seems unlikely that he did not at least have a look at the copy of Corbett’s book in his library.

The annotated collection of Stalin’s library consists of 391 books, periodicals and pamphlets.[16] Like the SSPL collection it is dominated by Marxist and Bolshevik literature, especially the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin himself. According to Van Ree’s count about three-quarters of the titles are concerned with communist ideology and tactics. The other major categories are history (36), economics (27) and military affairs (23).[17] There are also several texts about diplomacy, including a translation of Harold Nicholson’s classic work on the subject.[18]


Unlike the SSPH collection the annotated collection does contain a number of pre-1917 publications, including the heavily annotated works of the historian Robert Vipper[19] and the Tsarist military strategist Genrykh Leer.[20]

Robert Vipper (1859-1954) was a diverse historian but what caught Stalin’s eye were his works on the ancient world, which focussed on the social and economic history of classical Greece and the Roman empire. In 1922 Vipper published a study of Ivan the Terrible, the second edition of which was published during the Second World War and became a favoured patriotic text of Stalin and the Soviet authorities. No edition of this text has been found among Stalin’s library holdings but it seems unlikely that he didn’t have a copy given his great interest in Ivan the Terrible.[21]

The Tsarist military office and educator Genrykh Leer (1829-1904) is a more obscure figure than Vipper but in his time he was considered by many to be the Russian Clausewitz. Leer’s books on strategy were the foundation of the military education of generations of Tsarist and even Bolshevik officers.[22] Doubtless what appealed to Stalin about Leer was his emphasis on the scientific principles underlying the conduct of modern warfare – a theme echoed in the dictator’s own pronouncements about military strategy.

If you include revolutionary history and military history then historical works are by far the most frequent category of books in Stalin’s annotated collection apart from the Marxist classics. As well as ancient and medieval history Stalin’s historical interests were heavily focussed on Russia. Among his Russian history collection there are several Soviet school textbooks, which he edited rather than annotated, presumably with a view to improving their pedagogical content, a concern that may have been encouraged by the fact that his own son and daughter were undergoing secondary education in the 1930s.[23] Economics was another subject on which Stalin was keen to correct textbook writers but here his target was texts aimed at the education of party cadres.[24]

Another category of books that interested Stalin was memoirs and diaries. Among the books read and annotated by Stalin are the memoirs of the British intelligence agent, R.H. Bruce-Lockhart, the First World War German General Erich Lundendorff, and Annabelle Bucar, who defected to the Soviet Union from the American embassy in Moscow in 1948 and became a star of Radio Moscow’s English-language broadcasting service.

Stalin annotated his books in diverse ways. Some books he read and annotated in detail, others more cursorily. His annotations were sometimes passive and sometimes active. He treated some authors and texts with more respect than others. The meaning and significance of Stalin’s annotations are not always clear and in many instances trivial. The next section of this guide to Opis’ 3 will analyse and exemplify Stalin’s annotations using material accessible on the SDA.

[1] R. Medvedev, Chto Chital Stalin? Prava Cheloveka: Moscow 2005 p.33 ff.

[3] B. Ilizarov, Tainaya Zhizn’ Stalina, Veche: Moscow 2003, part one, chap.2.

[5] The highest number I have come across in my researches is a copy of Alexander Svechin’s book on the history of military art published in 1922 which is numbered 4643.

[6] L. Spirin, “Glazami Knig Lichnaya Biblioteka Stalina”, Nezavisimaya Gazeta. 25 May 1993.

[7] Ilizarov pp.163-164

[8] S. Devyatov, A. Shefov, U. Ur’ev, Blizhnyaya Dacha Stalina, Kremlin Multimedia: Moscow 2011 pp.191-219.

[9] For example, this annotated edition of Stalin’s Voprosy Leninizma.

[11] Адам Смит, Исследование о природе и причинных богатства народов, М,-Л., Соцэкгиз, 1931.

[12] A second copy of the Clausewitz maybe found in the annotated collection but the two volumes have hardly annotations.

[13] Ю. Корбетт, Некоторые принципы морской стратегии, М., Воениздат, 1932

[14] В.В  Виноградов, Эволюция русского натурализма. Гоголь и Достоевский, “ACADEMIA”, 1929; Л. Н. Войтоловский Очерки коллективной психологии. Часть 1-2. Госиздат, 1924 -1925; М. Острогорский, Демократия и политические партии, М., Ком. Акад., 1927.

[15] E. Van Ree, “Stalin and Marxism: A Research Note”, Studies in East European Thought, vol.49, 1997 pp.23-33.

[17] Van Ree op.cit

[18] Г Никольсон., Дипломатия,  Москва 1940

[19] Р. Виппер, История Греции в классическую эпоху, Москва 1916; Древняя Европа и восток, Москва: 1923; Очерки римской империи, Москва 1908.

[20] Г. Леер, Метод военных наук, б/д.; Опыт критико-исторического исследования законов искусства ведения войны, Ч.I. Петербург: 1869;Сложные операции, Петербург: 1892; Стратегия, Ч.I. Петербург:1885.

[21] See H. Graham, “R. Iu. Vipper: A Russian Historian in Three Worlds”, Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, Vol. 28, No. 1 (March 1986) and M. Perrie, The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia, Palgrave: London 2002.

[22] P. von Wahlde, “A Pioneer of Russian Strategic ThoughtG.A. Leer, 1829—1904,” Military Affairs, vol.35 (December 1971).

[23] О. Жемчужина и С. Глязер, Элементарный курс истории СССР, Москва 1937; И.И., Минц, Е.А Мороховец. и др. Элементарный курс истории ССС (для начальной школы), Москва 1935; З.Б., Лозинский,  Бернадский З.Б., и др. Элементарный курс Истории СССР. Учебник для начальной школы, Ленинград 1935.

[24] For example: Политическая экономия. Краткий курс Москва 1941