Book Reviews: Stalin’s Library | Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia

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Journalists watch a statue of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin being lifted by a crane on Berlin’s Karl-Marx Allee on January 23, 2018 PIC: John MacDougall/AFP/via Getty Images

Writer Geoffrey Roberts is best known for his work on Stalin and other warring Soviet leaders, but his new book, Stalin’s Libraryoffers a new look at the dictator: his intellectual curiosity, his reading, his studies and his accumulation of 25,000 books accompanied by diaries and pamphlets.

The books were kept in an outbuilding of Stalin’s dacha with all volumes cataloged and arranged according to subject, although there were separate sections for books by leading Marxist thinkers and members of the Politburo. He annotated his books at length and noted spelling and grammatical errors. Favorites from its fiction shelves included Balzac, Cervantes, plays by Shakespeare and short stories by Guy de Maupassant. The only pleasant room in the dacha itself, noted one observer, was the library, and particular books were brought to it at his request.

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Roberts uses the library as a way to access a broader discussion of Soviet arts and culture. Stalin had his own private cinema, enjoyed westerns and read scripts, often demanding to see screenwriters and directors to harangue them about the political inadequacy of their work before any filming.

Stalin’s Library, by Geoffrey Roberts

After his death and the ensuing de-Stalinization campaign, the library was dispersed. The task of tracking down what happened to everything is partly a trigger for Roberts’ book, and also part of its content.

Published the same day by the same publisher is another book dedicated to Soviet-era Russian art and artists, Elizabeth Wilson’s biography of pianist Maria Yudina, Play with fire. It also has to do with a Stalin story, albeit tangential and ultimately unproven. The story goes that while listening to the radio one evening, Stalin heard Yudina play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and asked Radio Moscow for a recording. The broadcast had been live, so the musicians were called back to record the track, and an outraged Yudina slipped a note in the sleeve denouncing Stalin. Wilson convinces the reader that the story is false, and the rigorous research she deploys to show this is evident throughout her book.

Wilson carefully follows Yudina from her birth in present-day Belarus until her death in Moscow in 1970. The threads of her life intertwine to illustrate not only an amazing career, but also aspects of Russian life and culture. before and during the Soviet era. Yudina was a religious woman, born into a Jewish family, converted to Orthodox Christianity at the age of 20, and becoming active against some aspects of state control over the Church in the 1920s and 1930s. only one way to God: through Art,” Yudina said.

During World War II, she was at the height of her fame, playing for troops, submarine crews, in hospitals and for the beleaguered citizens of Leningrad, where she arrived at the military airport with a huge bag filled with provisions for those in need, and declared, “the Muses… are not silent in Leningrad”. She was close to Shostakovich, and Boris Pasternak gave his first reading from Dr. Zhivago in his Moscow apartment. Obviously, this book is filled with dramatic experiences and details, but Wilson’s craft as a storyteller ensures engaging reading, she also gives us four pages of acronyms, revealing some obscure Soviet organizations, a discography as well as a bibliography.

Playing with Fire by Elizabeth Wilson

Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, by Geoffrey Roberts, Yale University Press, 268pp, £25

Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia, by Elizabeth Wilson, Yale University Press, 331pp, £25

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