Stalin and His Books: The Librarian’s Tale

Geoffrey Roberts, author of Stalin’s Library, recounts the story of Shushanika Manucharyants, Stalin’s personal librarian, who he inherited from Lenin and was responsible for classifying his vast collection of books.

Joseph Stalin savoured many triumphs during his decades of dictatorship, but none greater than the Victory Parade through Red Square in June 1945. While his Deputy Supreme Commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, accepted the troops’ salute, Stalin looked on from the plinth above Lenin’s Mausoleum as thousands of captured Nazi banners and flags were thrown to the ground at the foot of the Kremlin’s walls.

Moscow Victory Day, 1945: Soviet soldiers throwing the banners of defeated Nazi armies at the foot of Lenin’s Mausoleum, – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That evening Stalin hosted a lavish banquet in honour of his generals. But it was not them that he raised his glass for a heartfelt toast, it was to what the New York Times reported as ‘the little people’, those millions of ordinary Soviet citizens without whom Hitler could not have been defeated.

Among these ‘little people’ was an obscure female functionary called Shushanika Manucharyants, a woman with whom Stalin had once had a close professional relationship.

Shushanika spent the war working in the Stalin section of the Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin (IMEL), her job being to help produce Stalin’s collected works – an important task in a country governed by communist ideology. Before that she had worked for 10 years in IMEL’s Lenin section, playing a similar role. She retired from IMEL, without fanfare, in 1955 but found belated fame in the 1960s as having been Lenin’s personal librarian.

The Lenin Institute Building, Soviet Square, Moscow, 1931 – Branson DeCou, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lenin loved books. He lived and worked surrounded by them. By the time he died in 1924 he had accumulated a personal collection of nearly 9,000 titles. Shushanika’s job, she recalled in her memoirs, was to:

Have a look at the newly received books and take the most essential to the table beside Lenin’s desk. Register the new books and fill out the cards for the catalogue. Tidy up the bookshelves and bring to Lenin the books he has asked for. Order books that he needs from other libraries.

What she did not tell her readers was that she had also been Stalin’s librarian. After Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of the dictator at the 20th party congress in 1956, reminiscences of Stalin by ‘little people’ like Shushanika were forbidden by the Soviet authorities. Hidden from history was her key role in the consolidation of Stalin’s disparate private book collection into an identifiable personal library.

Of Armenian heritage, Shushanika (Shusha to her friends) was born in the southern Russian city of Stavropol in 1889. Aged 18 she enrolled at a women’s university in St. Petersburg where she encountered Tsarist Russia’s revolutionary underground. Married to Bolshevik activist Leonid Stark, she followed him into exile in 1912. They ended up on the island of Capri, where the Russian writer Maxim Gorky hosted a colony of radical intellectuals and artists. Returning in 1917 to St Petersburg (renamed Petrograd), in 1918 she moved to Moscow to work as a publisher’s librarian. A Bolshevik party member herself, she joined Lenin’s office in March 1920. Among her co-workers was Stalin’s young wife, Nadezhda (‘Nadya’) Alliyueva.

Lenin’s personal library was preserved intact after his death and the initial plan was to do the same with Stalin’s collection. By the time of his death in 1953 Stalin possessed some 25,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals but the preservation plan was abandoned after Khrushchev’s 1956 attack. Instead, Stalin’s library was disassembled and his books dispersed to other libraries. But thanks to Shushanika Manuchyarants’ efforts in the 1920s, an important remnant of several thousand books survived this purge. When, after the collapse of Soviet communism in the 1990s, the Russian archives became accessible, historians were quick to grasp the significance of these library remnants as a unique point of access to the mind of a dictator. But Shushanika’s part in preserving this vital source has, until now, remained in the shadows.

Lenin was Stalin’s only lasting role model, not least as an intellectual. Stalin shared his mentor’s passion for books and, like Lenin, often wrote in them in response to what he was reading. Their pometki (markings) were remarkably akin, although Lenin also filled separate notebooks with comments and quotes from books. All Stalin’s research notes are to be found in the books themselves, including the thin pieces of paper he inserted to aid their retrieval.

Stalin.” by young shanahan is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Stalin may well have wanted to inherit Lenin’s librarian as well as his mantle as Bolshevik party leader. But the more mundane reason for Shushanika’s involvement with Stalin’s books may have been Nadya’s suggestion that she be employed to tidy up the clutter of volumes in their Kremlin apartment.

Stalin was a voracious reader from an early age. Educated by the Georgian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was prohibited from reading books deemed subversive, but among the favourite authors of his generation of radical students were Shakespeare, Schiller, Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Hugo, Darwin, Gorky and Galileo. When he left the seminary in 1898, he took with him 18 unreturned library books.

At the top of Stalin’s reading list were the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the works of Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik faction of Russia’s revolutionary socialist movement. At a meeting of party propagandists in 1938, Stalin reminisced about how he and other young revolutionaries in Tbilisi pooled their resources to pay for a hand-written transcription of the only available copy of Marx’s Capital.

His peripatetic life as an underground revolutionary meant that Stalin did not begin to amass a personal library until after the 1917 revolution. By the mid-1920s, however, he was already homing a couple of thousand books.

Shushanika’s first asked Stalin how he wanted her to classify his books. His reply, on 29 May 1925, encapsulated both the range of his reading interests and the ambitions he had for his personal library. “My advice and request”, he wrote, “is to classify the books not by author but by subject-matter.” Among his subject-headings were Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, Political Economy, History, Diplomacy, Fiction, and Art Criticism, as well as numerous sub-categories devoted to the history and politics of Bolshevism. Separated for distinct classification were Stalin’s pantheon of Marxist authors; the first three names he listed were no surprise: Lenin, Marx, and Engels, but next came Karl Kautsky, the German Marxist with whom the Bolsheviks were at loggerheads because of his critique of their authoritarian regime; followed by Georgy Plekhanov, the so-called founding father of Russian Marxism and another opponent of the Bolsheviks; and then Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s chief rival in the fierce succession struggle after Lenin’s death. The inclusion of Trotsky, the ‘renegade’ Kautsky and Plekhanov in Stalin’s list was symptomatic of the nascent dictator’s ability to appreciate and utilise the writings of even his most unremitting enemies.

Shushanika got to work and on 3 July 1925 wrote to Stalin to ask if he wanted to expand his categories to include Transport, Education, Statistics, Popular Science and Law. She also wanted to know if items such as reports, surveys and popular tracts were to be kept separate and whether to order some adjustable shelving that she thought would be ideal for his library. As was his custom, Stalin replied by writing his answers in the margins of her memo. To the first question, he answered nuzhno (one should) but added in brackets after Law, iskluchaya dekrety – ‘excluding decrees’. The answer to the second and third questions was a simple da (yes).

Shushanika also organised an ex libris stamp for Stalin – Biblioteka I.V. Stalina – the Library of J.V. Stalin. Lenin had such a stamp and the design of Stalin’s stamp was identical. As she had for Lenin, Shushanika then numbered as well as stamped Stalin’s existing book holdings. Stalin very much appreciated her efforts to impose order and systematise his library and, in 1926, presented Shushanika with a copy of his book, Questions of Leninism inscribed: “To dear Comrade Manuchuryants, from the author”.

Shushanika did not serve as Stalin’s librarian for very long, and only in a part-time capacity as she had continued working for Lenin’s sister, Maria, and his widow, Krupskaya. Her most important legacy was that she stamped Stalin’s books, making them easily identifiable as his. For reasons unknown that practice stopped in the early 1930s but by then there were some 4,000 stamped books.

Stalin had a passion for literary fiction as well as history and Marxist theory. Famously, he described writers in a socialist society as ‘engineers of the human soul’. For Stalin, fiction was a means to win the hearts as well as minds of the masses. Reportedly, he possessed thousands of novels, plays, poetry anthologies and short story collections. But, with very few exceptions, Stalin’s fiction books were not stamped ex libris.

Shushanika left the Kremlin for IMEL in 1930 – a move that certainly safeguarded her career and may even have saved her life. Her departure meant she avoided becoming entangled in the so-called ‘Kremlin affair’. This 1935 purge of Kremlin support staff started when three cleaners confessed to spreading slander about Soviet leaders. Among those implicated in an alleged conspiracy to murder Soviet leaders were three Kremlin librarians. Of the 110 staff arrested, 108 were imprisoned and two shot, including one of the librarians, Nina Rozenfeld, who had the misfortune of being connected by marriage to Lev Kamenev, a rival of Stalin’s in the 1920s who, in 1936, he had tried on trumped-up charges of treason and executed.

The ‘Kremlin affair’ was a conspiracy concocted by Stalin’s secret police but he believed in it. “We have a government library”, he told the French writer Romain Rolland, “which has female librarians who can enter the apartments of responsible comrades in the Kremlin in order to tidy up their libraries. It turns out that some of these librarians had been recruited by our enemies for the purposes of terrorism. We found out that these women had poison and intended to poison some of our officials.”

Stalin was not a classic bibliophile. As Paul Lafargue said of Marx, books were tools for his mind, not aesthetic objects or items of luxury. He loved books for their ideas and information and for the resources they provided for the attainment of a higher level of communist consciousness.

Stalin’s library was a personal working archive and its holdings were spread across his various domestic and work spaces. In the mid-1930s, however, it acquired a centre of gravity at a new dacha constructed for him on the then outskirts of Moscow. This rather grand country mansion had a purpose-built Library Room which contained four large bookcases with shelves wide enough to accommodate double rows of books. But the bulk of his books were kept in an adjoining outbuilding and were brought to him by staff as and when required.

Stalin spent a lot of time at his dacha, which was only a 10-15 minute drive from the Kremlin on a highway reserved for high-ranking officials. It was a place to play with his children, party with his cronies, entertain distinguished foreign visitors, and do some gardening. Above all, it was a refuge from affairs of state and a chance to browse his books and do some extra-curricular reading. Indeed, it was to his Library Room that the 74-year old Stalin retired late one night in March 1953 and died of a stroke.

Initially, the party leadership resolved to preserve his memory by turning the dacha into a Stalin Museum, much like they did to Lenin’s place at Gorki just outside Moscow. But then came Khrushchev’s broadside against the dictator’s ‘personality cult’. The museum project was abandoned and decrees issued to dispose of Stalin’s personal effects. His books were to be given away to other libraries except for texts he had marked, together with those bearing his ex libris stamp or other identifiers such as his signature or an author’s inscription.

About 5,500 of Stalin’s books were retained by IMEL in its archives and library. When the existence of this collection became known in the late 1980a, it was the around-400 publications Stalin had annotated that attracted most attention, but without the significant remnant of Stalin’s unmarked but stamped books, we would have little knowledge of the breadth, variety and intellectual weight of his personal library.

Stalin’s use of Shushanika Manucharyants as a professional librarian showed how seriously the dictator valued books as he strove to create a personal library that would contain a vast and diverse store of human knowledge, not only the humanities and social science but aesthetics, fiction and the natural sciences.. Had he continued to retain Shushanika Manucharyants’ services – and had she survived the ‘Kremlin affair’ – he may have actually achieved that goal instead of amassing a huge but ramshackle collection whose lack of organisation and coherence left it vulnerable to the predations of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation campaign.

But as Walter Benjamin observed in a famous essay about unpacking his own library, it is not books that come alive by being collected, it is the collector. Among the remnants of his library, on the pages and in the margins of its surviving books, Stalin lived on.

Featured image: “File:Tumba de Joseph Stalin, Moscú, Rusia, 2016 03.jpg” by Benjamín Núñez González is marked with CC BY-SA 4.0.

About the book

Stalin’s Library
A Dictator and his Books
Geoffrey Roberts

A compelling intellectual biography of Stalin told through his personal library

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

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