I’m reading a new novel by Almudena Grandes, one of Spain’s leading authors. At the very beginning of the book, the narrator tells a story in which Stalin makes a reference to Romeo and Juliet. “This must mean the story is apocryphal,” the narrator immediately concludes. “Stalin couldn’t have been aware of Romeo and Juliet because his Russian was never very good.”
It is true that Stalin spoke Russian with a strong accent his entire life. This is not surprising since it wasn’t his language. However, poor knowledge of Russian has never prevented anybody from being familiar with works of Shakespeare. I have a strong suspicion that Shakespeare himself was not a fluent speaker of this language.
At the same time, having an accent, even a strong one, in no way precludes very high proficiency in reading in a language. Stalin was not only a poet, who in his youth managed to get published and even included into an anthology of best poetry in Georgia, he was also an avid reader, and not only in Georgian but also in Russian. His party nickname was “Koba”, after a character in a novel. After his death, Stalin’s huge personal library was recovered and is now available to researchers. Many a learned volume has been written on the extensive notes Stalin left in the margins of his favorite books.
It is important to remember, that even at the height of purges, Stalin almost never killed writers who wrote in Russian. He exterminated every single Ukrainian writer of note but Russian-language authors were cherished by him. Osip Mandelshtam, the greatest poet of the twentieth century in Russia (in my opinion) and a Jew, and Isaak Babel, another Soviet Jewish writer, were the only ones killed by Stalin. Mandelshtam wrote a poem criticizing Stalin and making fun of his appearance, and Babel had an affair with the wife of the NKVD chief. Save from these two egregious cases, Stalin protected Russian-speaking writers.
Stalin’s favorite writer, Mikhail Bulgakov (not a Jew and actually a notorious anti-Semite), wrote books that were very critical of the Soviet Union and also very complex in a truly Modernist way. Stalin loved Bulgakov’s work so much that he attended the performance of one of his plays dozens of times. He also protected Boris Pasternak (who was actually one of the greatest translators of Shakespeare into Russian. And a Jew). Pasternak’s name was put on a list of people to be arrested and Stalin himself crossed him off the list.
There is ample evidence that Stalin read very carefully every single work of literature that was nominated for the highest literary prize in Soviet Union, a prize that bore Stalin’s own name.
I’m not writing this to defend Stalin in any way. He was a bloody dictator and a horrible person. An ignoramus, however, he was not. He was an autodidact from an indigent family who spoke with an accent. None of these things, however, suggest that he was stupid or illiterate.