Literate Tyrants

Gary Saul Morson is a professor of literature at Northwestern whose frequent essays in The New Criterion focus on Russian authors and intellectuals like Turgenev and Koropotkin. His recent commentary on Joseph Stalin tackles a somewhat different subject, since the Soviet dictator was no mere theorist. He was a “man of action.” Yet, as Dr. Morson explains, he was very much a “man of ideas.”

“Like other liberal and radical leaders of tsarist Russia,” says Morson, “Stalin grew up in an ideologically charged milieu. Ideas mattered, and one’s attitude to literature and ‘science’ defined one.” People mistakenly accept the view of his Communist rival Leon Trotsky that Stalin was “a consummate intellectual mediocrity.”

In fact, Stalin was not only highly intelligent but also supremely well-read. When the Soviet archives were opened after the fall of the USSR, it turned out that Stalin had accumulated a personal library of twenty-five thousand volumes.

The Soviet leader was surprisingly ecumenical in his tastes, purusing not only Russian authors such as Pushkin and Gogol but also the contemporary French novelist Emile Zola. Later in life he devoted time to the works of ideological opponents such as Trotsky, Bukharin and Zinoviev, and even Hitler.

It would no doubt be instructive to compare Stalin’s library with Hitler’s. The Führer was a voracious reader as well.  While many of the books he owned were tendentious nationalist and racialist tracts, he appreciated such non-political (and non-German) masterpieces as Don QuixoteRobinson CrusoeGulliver’s Travels and the plays of Shakespeare.

Morson sardonically notes that “Americans usually presume that Stalin, as a mass murderer, must have been a semi-literate thug, as if intellectuals are somehow less capable of brutality.” Such a judgment puts ruthless idealists, past and present, into appropriate perspective.

Related commentary: Stalin’s Short Cuts and the Judgment of History

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