The best Joseph Stalin books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about Joseph Stalin and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

Stalin

By Robert Service,

Book cover of Stalin: A Biography

If How to be a Dictator gives you an overview of the great tyrants of the 20th century, then Service’s biography of Joseph Stalin provides a close analysis of one of the great monsters of the 20th century. Everybody knows about Hitler’s terrible crimes, but Stalin’s are less familiar, due to a mystifying reluctance on the part of several generations of educators to teach “the youth” about the USSR. What I especially admire about Service’s book is that he really engaged with Stalin’s own writings (which are awful) and so he provides a lot of insight into the ideas that drove this ex-seminarian as he transformed himself into the supreme leader of the largest country in the world. The Stalin that ultimately emerges from this portrait is no raving lunatic but rather a highly intelligent and profoundly evil man who is completely in control of himself. Chilling.

Stalin

By Robert Service,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stalin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Overthrowing the conventional image of Stalin as an uneducated political administrator inexplicably transformed into a pathological killer, Robert Service reveals a more complex and fascinating story behind this notorious twentieth-century figure. Drawing on unexplored archives and personal testimonies gathered from across Russia and Georgia, this is the first full-scale biography of the Soviet dictator in twenty years.

Service describes in unprecedented detail the first half of Stalin's life--his childhood in Georgia as the son of a violent, drunkard father and a devoted mother; his education and religious training; and his political activity as a young revolutionary. No mere messenger for…


Who am I?

I lived in the former Soviet Union for ten years, primarily in Moscow, the home of many a brutal tyrant. My obsession with dictator literature began after I discovered that Saddam Hussein had written a romance novel, following which I spent many years reading the literary output of all of the 20th century’s most terrible tyrants, from Mussolini to Stalin to the Ayatollah Khomeini. This monumental act of self-torture resulted in my critically acclaimed book The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, And Other Catastrophes of Literacy


I wrote...

The Infernal Library

By Daniel Kalder,

Book cover of The Infernal Library

What is my book about?

Since the days of the Roman Empire dictators have written books, but in the twentieth century the phenomenon went into overdrive, and despots inflicted their soul-killing prose upon (literally) captive audiences. They produced theoretical works, spiritual manifestos, poetry, memoirs, and (as I mentioned above) even the occasional romance novel. What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? What function did they serve for so many terrible regimes? Did any of these despots have even a smidgen of literary talent? These questions and many others are answered in The Infernal Library.

The Great Fear

By James Harris,

Book cover of The Great Fear: Stalin's Terror of the 1930s

Written by one of the UK’s best historians of the Soviet Union, this book explores how fears of conspiracy and foreign invasion influenced Stalin and the Great Terror. The introduction contains a valuable survey and critique of major historical interpretations of the terror.

The Great Fear

By James Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Fear as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between the winter of 1936 and the autumn of 1938, approximately three quarters of a million Soviet citizens were subject to summary execution. More than a million others were sentenced to lengthy terms in labour camps. Commonly known as 'Stalin's Great Terror', it is also among the most misunderstood moments in the history of the twentieth century. The Terror gutted the ranks of factory directors and engineers after three years in which all major plan targets were
met. It raged through the armed forces on the eve of the Nazi invasion. The wholesale slaughter of party and state officials was…

Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.


I wrote...

Book cover of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

What is my book about?

Between the summer of 1937 and November 1938, the Stalinist regime arrested over 1.5 million people for "counterrevolutionary" and "anti-Soviet" activity and either summarily executed or exiled them to the Gulag. While we now know a great deal about the experience of victims of the Great Terror, we know almost nothing about the lower- and middle-level Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), or secret police, cadres who carried out Stalin's murderous policies. Unlike the postwar, public trials of Nazi war criminals, NKVD operatives were tried secretly. And what exactly happened in those courtrooms was unknown until now.

Stalin’s Secret War

By Nikolai Tolstoy,

Book cover of Stalin’s Secret War

This book is the one exception to my rule about access to Soviet documents. Writing at a time when he had no such access, Tolstoy nonetheless blew up the field with bold arguments deriving from sources to which he did have access, from Soviet dissident memoirs to a vast trove of material he discovered in the Public Record Office in Kew Gardens, London, in particular on the often-neglected “Phony War” period of WWII between the fall of Poland and Hitler’s invasion of France and the Low Countries – a period during which Britain and France nearly went to war with the USSR after Stalin’s invasion of Finland. At a time when the Soviet bloc still denied Stalin’s responsibility for the “Katyn massacre” of Polish officers and elites in 1940, Tolstoy argued not merely for Stalin’s responsibility but explained why Stalin ordered the massacre when he did, confronted as the Soviet…

Stalin’s Secret War

By Nikolai Tolstoy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stalin’s Secret War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1 HARDCOVER BOOK WITH DUST COVER

Who am I?

In 1992, I graduated high school and although I did not then know how to read or speak Russian, I interviewed six Soviet veterans who happened to live in a nursing home in Rochester NY. I was blown away by their stories; each was missing at least one limb and had a tale to tell about it. The timing was fortuitous in that there was an exhibition at the U.S. Library of Congress that summer on “Revelations from the Russian archives,” which has just opened to researchers. Although it took me some years to master Russian, I resolved then and there to go to the source and research Soviet history in Moscow itself. I am a historian now and I have been working in Moscow archives for nearly a quarter-century now. Stalin’s War is my eighth book to date, all of which draw on this work in the Russian archives.


I wrote...

Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

By Sean McMeekin,

Book cover of Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

What is my book about?

World War II endures in the popular imagination as a heroic struggle between good and evil, with villainous Hitler driving its events. But Hitler was not in power when the conflict erupted in Asia--and he was certainly dead before it ended. His armies did not fight in multiple theaters, his empire did not span the Eurasian continent, and he did not inherit any of the spoils of war. That central role belonged to Joseph Stalin. The Second World War was not Hitler's war; it was Stalin's war.

Drawing on ambitious new research in Soviet, European, and US archives, Stalin's War revolutionizes our understanding of this global conflict by moving its epicenter to the east. Hitler's genocidal ambition may have helped unleash Armageddon, but as McMeekin shows, the war which emerged in Europe in September 1939 was the one Stalin wanted, not Hitler. So, too, did the Pacific war of 1941-1945 fulfill Stalin's goal of unleashing a devastating war of attrition between Japan and the "Anglo-Saxon" capitalist powers he viewed as his ultimate adversary.

Book cover of Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning

Alex Halberstadt’s paternal grandfather was the last living bodyguard for Josef Stalin. His maternal grandparents were Lithuanian Jews who watched firsthand as their world caught fire in the Holocaust. And Alex, who grew up in Moscow but moved to New York as a teenager, is now an out gay American man. From this mad tapestry of personal history, Halberstadt weaves an incredibly moving story of identity, family, and inherited trauma.

Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

By Alex Halberstadt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Young Heroes of the Soviet Union as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this “urgent and enthralling reckoning with family and history” (Andrew Solomon), an American writer returns to Russia to face a past that still haunts him. 
 
NAMED ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES CRITICS’ TOP BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Alex Halberstadt’s quest takes him across the troubled, enigmatic land of his birth, where decades of Soviet totalitarianism shaped and fractured three generations of his family. In Ukraine, he tracks down his paternal grandfather—most likely the last living bodyguard of Joseph Stalin. He revisits Lithuania, his Jewish mother’s home, to examine the legacy of the Holocaust and the pernicious anti-Semitism that…

Who am I?

Lisa Dickey is an author and book collaborator who’s helped write 20+ nonfiction books, including 10 New York Times Best Sellers. She’s also a Russophile from way back:  her first post-college job was working as a nanny at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the last days of the Soviet Union. Lisa began her writing career in St. Petersburg in the mid-1990s, writing for the Moscow Times and USA Today, and she’s the author of Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia.

I wrote...

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia

By Lisa Dickey,

Book cover of Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia

What is my book about?

In the fall of 1995, Lisa Dickey traveled across the whole of Russia, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, doing deep-dive interviews with people from all walks of life. She had such a good time getting to know everyone that ten years later, in 2005, she did the whole trip again, tracking down everyone she’d talked with to see how they were doing. And in 2015, she took this “once in a lifetime trip” for the third time, once again knocking on the same people’s doors to see how their lives had changed—now 20 years after first meeting them.

Lisa wrote Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia about her experiences on the road. Madeleine Albright called the book “brilliant, real and readable,” while Kirkus dubbed it “an affecting travelogue that reveals true Russian personality.” Her curiosity about the Russian people remains unabated, so you know what that means: she’s currently planning trip #4, in 2025…

Stolen Girl

By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch,

Book cover of Stolen Girl

I love all of Marsha Skrypuch’s YA books. Page-turning plots, engaging characters, inspired by real events. Her novels focus on Ukrainian and Polish young people’s experiences under both Hitler and Stalin. This one stands out to me, first because of the cover and secondly, because of the author’s ability to wrench my heart. The novel focuses on a young Polish girl, deemed Aryan enough, so she can be raised in a Nazi family. It was a story that opened my eyes. These horrendous things happened to innocent kids.

Stolen Girl

By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stolen Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

And, who are you? I write the stories I wish I could have read when I was growing up. As the self-conscious first-born daughter of post-war German/German-Russian immigrants, I looked for my reflection in books. My masters’ degree in 20th German literature only whetted my appetite. I needed more and continued to search for my family’s stories. That search included climbing Hitler's mountain, perusing Soviet secret police files, and cycling through old East Prussia searching for amber. Now I write my own stories even as I continue to read, listen, watch and travel. The past is everywhere.


I wrote...

Crow Stone

By Gabriele Goldstone,

Book cover of Crow Stone

What is my book about?

It’s January, 1945. A sense of doom pervades Katya’s East Prussian world. Trying to avoid Soviet troops, she and her two sisters trek along crowded, snowy roads towards ships waiting along the Baltic coast. Katya, separated from her sisters, gets dragged deep into the Ural Mountains. As a prisoner of war, her Russian language skills leftover from a kulak childhood, elevate her to a leadership position as a starosta. It’s a position fraught with danger as she navigates the two enemy worlds. Katya learns to eat crow, to find love, and to believe in herself.

Inspired by the author’s mother’s memories of more than two years in a Soviet forced labour camp at the end of the Second World War.

A Terrible Revenge

By Alfred-Maurice de Zayas,

Book cover of A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans

This book opened the window to my mom and her sisters’ experiences in the last months of the war. I was blown away. It validated my mom’s memories in a way that no other book had up to this point. Growing up on the Canadian prairies I had little patience for my family’s memories filled with pain and suffering. Finally, I understood, that my mom had her own PTSD... something that I inherited and I feel compelled to explore.

A Terrible Revenge

By Alfred-Maurice de Zayas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Terrible Revenge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

And, who are you? I write the stories I wish I could have read when I was growing up. As the self-conscious first-born daughter of post-war German/German-Russian immigrants, I looked for my reflection in books. My masters’ degree in 20th German literature only whetted my appetite. I needed more and continued to search for my family’s stories. That search included climbing Hitler's mountain, perusing Soviet secret police files, and cycling through old East Prussia searching for amber. Now I write my own stories even as I continue to read, listen, watch and travel. The past is everywhere.


I wrote...

Crow Stone

By Gabriele Goldstone,

Book cover of Crow Stone

What is my book about?

It’s January, 1945. A sense of doom pervades Katya’s East Prussian world. Trying to avoid Soviet troops, she and her two sisters trek along crowded, snowy roads towards ships waiting along the Baltic coast. Katya, separated from her sisters, gets dragged deep into the Ural Mountains. As a prisoner of war, her Russian language skills leftover from a kulak childhood, elevate her to a leadership position as a starosta. It’s a position fraught with danger as she navigates the two enemy worlds. Katya learns to eat crow, to find love, and to believe in herself.

Inspired by the author’s mother’s memories of more than two years in a Soviet forced labour camp at the end of the Second World War.

Assignment

By Walter Henry Thompson,

Book cover of Assignment: Churchill

It will take some digging, but do try to hunt this down. Thompson was assigned as Churchill's bodyguard just a week before the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference began. His account of his boss's attitudes and habits is refreshingly irreverent. (While smoking a cigar, Churchill “looked like an upholstered toad, slowly incinerating himself.”) Thompson also provides an important contemporaneous description of how T. E. Lawrence was regarded by Arabs in 1921, before either he or Churchill became enveloped in mythology.

Assignment

By Walter Henry Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Assignment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

AN UNIQUE, INTIMATE VIEW OF WINSTON CHURCHILL BY THE MAN WHO GUARDED HIM NIGHT AND DAY FOR 20 MOMENTOUS YEARS.

When Tommy Thompson as assigned to guard Winston Churchill by Scotland Yard he shuddered. Churchill was considered a tough assignment and Thompson had had his share of tough ones. From Lloyd George to King Alexander of Yugoslavia. But he did it for almost 20 years.

Here is a delightful intimate view of the great statesman and his contemporaries—Lawrence of Arabia, F.D.R., Joseph Stalin, seen with the well-trained eye of a Scotland Yard man.

“As intimate a portrait of Churchill as…

Who am I?

Mary Doria Russell is the New York Times best-selling and award-winning author of The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, Dreamers of the Day, Doc, Epitaph, and The Women of the Copper Country. Widely praised for her meticulous research, fine prose, and compelling narrative drive.


I wrote...

Dreamers of the Day

By Mary Doria Russell,

Book cover of Dreamers of the Day

What is my book about?

A novel about the making of the modern Middle East. A schoolteacher still reeling from the tragedies of the Great War and the influenza epidemic travels to the Middle East in this memorable and passionate novel. With prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile, Mary Doria Russell illuminates the long, rich history of the Middle East with a story that brilliantly elucidates a few pivotal days in Cairo that changed the world.

Archangel

By Robert Harris,

Book cover of Archangel: A Novel

A brilliant novel set in 1990s Russia. The plot involves Stalin and one of his deep secrets. The author seamlessly moves the story from the 1930s to 1990s and back. One rarely sees a historical novel so accurate in capturing the historical events and so utterly captivating. It is on par with some of the best thrillers.

Archangel

By Robert Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Archangel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_______________________________________
'With Archangel, Robert Harris confirms his position as Britain's pre-eminent literary thriller writer' The Times

'He has a talent for heart-poundingly tense story-telling, and an ability to conjure up atmospheres almost palpable with menace' Sunday Times
_______________________________________
Deadly secrets lurk beneath the Russian ice.

Historian Fluke Kelso is in Moscow, attending a conference on recently unclassified Soviet papers, when an old veteran of the Soviet secret police visits his hotel room in the dead of night. He tells Kelso about a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin, stolen on the night of his death.

Though Kelso expects little, he…


Who am I?

History has always been my passion. Since I was 16, I tried to understand the world around me and the forces that shaped it. I thought that history as a discipline provided the best answers. In the 1970s, because of the official anti-Semitism, it was impossible to get into the history department programs at the Soviet universities. Nonetheless, I resolved to study history after my emigration to the US in 1979 and joined a graduate program at the University of Chicago. For four decades I have been writing about Russian history, although I also read, teach, and write on global history.


I wrote...

Russia's 20th Century: A Journey in 100 Histories

By Michael Khodarkovsky,

Book cover of Russia's 20th Century: A Journey in 100 Histories

What is my book about?

Michael Khodarkovsky's innovative exploration of Russia's 20th century, through 100 carefully selected vignettes that span the century, offers a fascinating prism through which to view Russian history. Each chosen microhistory focuses on one particular event or individual that allows you to understand Russia not in abstract terms but in real events in the lives of ordinary people. Russia's 20th Century covers a broad range of topics, including the economy, culture, politics, ideology, law, and society. This introduction provides a vital background and engaging analysis of Russia's path through a turbuturbulent 20th century.

Stalin

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Book cover of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Sebag Montefiore was the first western historian to really take advantage of the opening of Russian – and Georgian – archival sources on Stalin and his career. Court of the Red Tsar offers a precious glimpse into Stalin’s inner circle and the way the USSR was governed in the 1930s and 1940s. Although gossipy at times, and written in a popular style some professional historians resent, the book is deeply researched and a treasure trove of information which is hard to find elsewhere.

Stalin

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stalin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the British Book Awards History Book of the Year

Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize

This thrilling biography of Stalin and his entourage during the terrifying decades of his supreme power transforms our understanding of Stalin as Soviet dictator, Marxist leader and Russian tsar.

Based on groundbreaking research, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals in captivating detail the fear and betrayal, privilege and debauchery, family life and murderous cruelty of this secret world. Written with extraordinary narrative verve, this magnificent feat of scholarly research has become a classic of modern history writing. Showing how Stalin's triumphs and crimes were the…


Who am I?

In 1992, I graduated high school and although I did not then know how to read or speak Russian, I interviewed six Soviet veterans who happened to live in a nursing home in Rochester NY. I was blown away by their stories; each was missing at least one limb and had a tale to tell about it. The timing was fortuitous in that there was an exhibition at the U.S. Library of Congress that summer on “Revelations from the Russian archives,” which has just opened to researchers. Although it took me some years to master Russian, I resolved then and there to go to the source and research Soviet history in Moscow itself. I am a historian now and I have been working in Moscow archives for nearly a quarter-century now. Stalin’s War is my eighth book to date, all of which draw on this work in the Russian archives.


I wrote...

Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

By Sean McMeekin,

Book cover of Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

What is my book about?

World War II endures in the popular imagination as a heroic struggle between good and evil, with villainous Hitler driving its events. But Hitler was not in power when the conflict erupted in Asia--and he was certainly dead before it ended. His armies did not fight in multiple theaters, his empire did not span the Eurasian continent, and he did not inherit any of the spoils of war. That central role belonged to Joseph Stalin. The Second World War was not Hitler's war; it was Stalin's war.

Drawing on ambitious new research in Soviet, European, and US archives, Stalin's War revolutionizes our understanding of this global conflict by moving its epicenter to the east. Hitler's genocidal ambition may have helped unleash Armageddon, but as McMeekin shows, the war which emerged in Europe in September 1939 was the one Stalin wanted, not Hitler. So, too, did the Pacific war of 1941-1945 fulfill Stalin's goal of unleashing a devastating war of attrition between Japan and the "Anglo-Saxon" capitalist powers he viewed as his ultimate adversary.

Yezhov

By J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov,

Book cover of Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's Iron Fist

This is a great book because it is probably the only truly even-handed treatment of one of the most reviled people in Soviet history, Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD during the great terror. The authors by no means treat him as a sympathetic character, but they convincingly dismiss the many myths about him that have gotten in the way of understanding his relations with Stalin and his true motivations and behavior during the purge. They show that he played a truly significant role in convincing Stalin to let him purge the party and then the whole Soviet population because he believed there was a vast conspiracy to undermine Stalin’s version of Soviet power. Rather than a psychophant who groveled at Stalin’s feet, it is clear that he exercised agency to accomplish a task he believed in. You almost get to know Yezhov as a real human being, which is…

Yezhov

By J. Arch Getty, Oleg V. Naumov,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yezhov as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The definitive study of Nikolai Yezhov's rise to become the chief of Stalin's secret police-and the dictator's "iron fist"-during the Great Terror

Head of the secret police from 1937 to 1938, N. I. Yezhov was a foremost Soviet leader during these years, second in power only to Stalin himself. Under Yezhov's orders, millions of arrests, imprisonments, deportations, and executions were carried out. This book, based upon unprecedented access to Communist Party archives and Yezhov's personal archives, looks into the life and career of the enigmatic man who administered Stalin's Great Terror.

J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov seek to…


Who am I?

Roger Reese has studied, researched, and or taught Soviet history since 1984. He has been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since 1990. He has published five books and numerous articles and book chapters on the military history of Russia and the Soviet Union. He was awarded the Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. book prize for his most recent book, The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917.


I wrote...

The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

By Roger R. Reese,

Book cover of The Imperial Russian Army in Peace, War, and Revolution, 1856-1917

What is my book about?

Reese’s comprehensive social history takes readers beyond the battlefield to examine living conditions, military education, and officer-soldier relations in the late Imperial Russian Army. He argues that the officer corps’ incompetence, abusive behavior, and reactionary attitudes eventually drove the soldiery to revolt. Thorough, critical, and well written, it challenges numerous myths and presents a provocative new explanation for Russia’s collapse in 1917. He uses letters and memoirs to get the soldiers’ and officers’ view of their experience in the army, which humanizes the reader’s understanding of what the men went through.

Or, view all 28 books about Joseph Stalin

New book lists related to Joseph Stalin

All book lists related to Joseph Stalin

Bookshelves related to Joseph Stalin