In chapter seven of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the disillusioned Tatiana inspects the books in Onegin’s abandoned library. She finds ‘marks of his pencil on their margins. Everywhere Onegin’s soul can’t help expressing itself with a short word, a cross, or a question mark.’ Tatiana ends up wondering about the real character of the man she adored. Geoffrey Roberts has undertaken a similar inspection of the few hundred books that have survived of the 25,000 or so that Stalin owned, which have been kept by a Moscow archive because of Stalin’s annotations. Roberts remains, however, more impressed by Stalin than Tatiana was by Onegin. Certainly, Stalin gave himself away in marginalia, which were meant for nobody’s eyes but his own, but we are dealing with a soul far more cryptic and alien than Pushkin’s intelligent but vacuous dandy. Interpreting the reasons for Stalin’s reactions, usually negative, to what he was reading, and assessing the influence of his reading on his decision-making are tasks that demand not just the encyclopedic knowledge that Roberts has of his subject but also the intuition of a psychologist of genius.
The book starts with the surprising assertion that ‘Stalin was no psychopath