In exile, Stalin had once refused to talk to a comrade who'd teased him for sleeping in his socks. Small of stature and puny, he had appeared especially vulnerable in Siberia. He was always cold, so he slept in his socks. Stalin owned a multicolored, quilted silk blanket, and that, too, became the butt of jokes, which Stalin took as proof of his own inability to adapt and as a sign of weakness. Eventually they stopped laughing at him. The realized it was impossible to quarrel with Stalin, as he was incapable of reconciliation.
It's one thing to know that the man had a mustache, or how he assumed the leadership of the party from Lenin, or that in 1934 he believed it was France, England and Japan that Russia needed to fear, not Germany. It's another to know that Stalin's inflexibility extended from the contrary opinion of a once valued advisor about the threat Germany could pose to Russia, to the insecurity he felt about having to wear socks to bed. Or that, on a shopping excursion to replace a lost scarf, Stalin takes a long time because he didn't want a wool that would scratch his neck. He buys the softest and most expensive scarf. Rybakov is collecting for us the kind of details you would want if you were to act the role of Stalin in a play.
The whole portrait of the time is rife with these kind of everyday details. Another important storyline is that of a Komsomol or a student cell of the Communist Party, one of them. Sasha, is first expelled from school and then imprisoned following the publication of a newspaper deemed disloyal. His mother slowly learns from friends and neighbors what kind of foods should be in the packages she sends to her son in prison, or how to interpret the phone call she will receive from the prison officials as to understand whether he will perform forced labor in the North or the South of the country and therefore whether he needs boots and a heavy coat.
A simple detail I particularly enjoyed was that one evening some of Sasha's recently graduated colleagues from school get tickets for a production at the Vakhtangov theater - a tidbitthat was exciting for me to read because I studied everything I could find on this short lived genius of Russian theater - once a pupil of Stanislavsky - from pieces of his production books, to moment-by-moment descriptions of his rehearsal processes. Here is a picture of his legendary production of Turandot.