August 31st, 2020 / 10:22 am

Some Good Books About A Bad Man


Edvard Radzinsky, H.T. Willets (Translator)

Once, while partying with his comrades, Stalin wondered aloud whether a star in the night sky was Cassiopeia or Orion. Comrade Molotov and Comrade Kaganovich couldn’t agree on the answer, so they decided to call the planetarium. The man who answered the phone was a security officer, so he didn’t know. He promised to call them back. He then sent two other security officers in a black limousine to fetch the most well-known astronomer in Moscow. This was during the Great Terror, when Stalin had prominent scientists, writers, doctors, etc, randomly arrested in the middle of the night, then tortured, shot, or sent to the gulag. When the black limo pulled up at the first house, the astronomer, whose friend Numerov was arrested just the previous week, had a heart attack before he could answer the door. They decided to visit a second astronomer. When the second astronomer saw the black limo pull up, rather than risk torture and imprisonment, he threw himself out of the window. The third astronomer shot himself. The fourth astronomer answered “Cassiopeia” then urinated himself. By the time word got back to the party, everyone had gone to bed. 

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 

Stephen Kotkin

When Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power, they no idea how to run a country. They made stuff up as they went along. They commandeered a girls finishing school in Smolny, the headmistress of which kept her office next to Lenin. Stalin was randomly appointed head of the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities, his first real job in years. He sat in his office with his deputy Pestkowski and waited for phonecalls. Trotsky tried to take over the tsar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, but the employees just laughed him out the door. When Trotsky came back with a small group of armed men, the employees fled. Trotsky stole what money they left behind. When Pestkowski succeeded in stealing a portion of the cash from Trotsky, he was named head of the State Bank.    

Young Stalin

Simon Sebag Montefiore  

Young Stalin’s unofficial role in the early days of the party was to rob, hold people for ransom, and extort funds for the revolution. He spent many years “expropriating funds” in oil rich Baku, a city in Azerbaijan with flame-spewing refineries and elaborate palaces built by its many oil barons. One oil baron named Musa was kidnapped by the Bolsheviks, but refused to give them money. “Of course, you can slice me up,” he said, “but then you’ll get nothing.” Stalin, who normally preferred to work in the shadows, decided to meet in private with Musa. After a 10 minute conversation, the oil baron decided to pay up. Later the same year, Musa was kidnapped by the Bolsheviks a second time. This time, he paid up immediately. Musa, like most wealthy peasants after 1917, was stripped of his fortune, but not before he received a note from Comrade Stalin that read, “Thank you for your generous contributions to the revolution.”  


  1. Alec Niedenthal

      Important write-up on a Monday morning at the verge of civil war.

  2. TWS

      thank you Alec. i started to draw parallels but the post got too long and too political for this forum.

  3. Ken Baumann

      Thanks for recommending these.

      I remember opening what I think is that Kotkin book in a bookstore and reading a passage describing Stalin’s life or death power over hundreds of millions of people spread across millions of square miles, then putting the book back on the shelf, sitting down, and not standing up for awhile. What hell.

  4. TWS

      thanks ken. yeah 17% of the planet under the control of one man is wild. if your interest is ever spurred again, i’d recommend the first or the third book. the kotkin book was a bit of a slog at times, but does a really good job of drawing cultural parallels like how the rise of both dadaism and bolshevism coincided.

  5. Ken Baumann

      First or third in this list: got it. And that’s good to know about the Kotkin book’s strength. Thanks again.

  6. lorian long

      woah, interesting. curious to hear what brought u to these

  7. TWS

      thank Lorian. my partner asked the same. i typed something out but it was too long for the internet, i felt. ultimately, i wanted a break from fiction and started reading more history. i feel like a combination of basic curiosity, being raised by a domineering father, my own left-wing politics, and a sprinkling of depression led me to read ~7 books about stalin over the course of 10 years. also one of my favorite pieces of writing is mark bowden’s 2002 essay in the atlantic magazine titled “tales of the tyrant” which provides a fascinating look at the day-to-day life of saddam hussein a dictator who also created a cult of personality. maybe i will find some forum to explore this in the future because clearly i have a lot to say. hope you’re well btw <3.

  8. lorian long

      tales of the tyrant sounds wild, will check it out. i recently went thru a holocaust memoir phase, maybe stalin is next. sending u guys love