Maksim Gorky


Gorky, Maksim.. Pen-name of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, born 28 March (16 March, Old Style) 1868 in Nizhny Novgorod, a city later to be renamed Gorky in his honor. His father, Maksim, had been born in Siberia, the son of a soldier, but had run away from his father’s cruelty. In Nizhny Novgorod, Maksim learned the trades of carpentry, cabinet-making and upholstering. Aleksei’s mother was the daughter of a former serf turned foreman of a dye shop.

Early in his life, Gorky’s family moved to Astrakhan, where he father worked as a shipping agent. His father died when the young Gorky was only five years old, and he was sent to live with his grandparents. At the age of eight, he quit school and was apprenticed to various tradesmen, including a shoemaker and an icon painter. When he was 12, Gorky left home and drifted from job to job. He worked as a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, where a cook taught him to read. In 1884, he moved to Kazan, dreaming of entering Kazan University, but was rejected. Gorky knew that he would have to make his own fortune in life. He wrote:

“I didn’t wait for help from outside and I didn’t hope for any lucky chance…. From early on I understood that man creates his own opposition to the surrounding environment.”
It was at this point that he began political propaganda work among the workers and peasants.

In 1889, Gorky attempted suicide, shooting a bullet through his lungs. The attempt, of course, failed, but Gorky’s lungs were damaged permanently and led to frequent bouts with tuberculosis.

Following his suicide attempt, Gorky set off on a two-year trek around Russia, ranging from Nizhny-Novgorod to Ukraine, the Caucasus, Tbilisi, and back again. He spent about a year in Tbilisi, working as a blacksmith, then a railway clerk while at the same time participating in underground revolutionary circles. It was also at this time that Gorky wrote his first story, Makar Chudra, which was published in a Tbilisi newspaper.

During his trip, Gorky got to know the poor and downtrodden, bums, thieves, and prostitutes–characters who were to play a major part in his writings.

In 1892, Gorky returned to Nizhny-Novgorod, where he took a job as a reporter for a provincial newspaper and continued his writing. His 1893 story Chelkash, about a harbor thief, was an immediate success, and by 1895 his works were appearing in Petersburg publications. He also worked as a feuilletonist, using the pen-name Iegudiil Khlamida. A three-volume collection of his work, Sketches and Stories appeared in 1898-1899. In 1899, he published his first novel, Foma Gordeyev, the story of a masterful barge owner and rising capitalist and his relatively feeble and intellectual son.

The the autumn of 1899, Gorky moved to Petersburg, becoming as the literary editor of Zhizn’. He also served as editor of the Znaniye publishing house in 1900. Gorky also continued his association with revolutionary circles and his revolutionary writings. In 1901 Gorky was arrested for publishing the poem Song of the Stormy Petrel (Pesnay o Burevestnike), a call for and a prediction of a stormy revolution. But he was released shortly thereafter.

Gorky became acquainted with Chekhov, who introduced him to the Moscow Art Theatre in the spring of 1900. The theatre company convinced Gorky to produce some plays for them. The first to be staged was The Petty Bourgeois (Meshchane). The play, which portrays the worker as superior to the average intellectual, was performed in 1902, but only in a censored version, and, to discourage any public demonstrations, a squadron of mounted Cossocks surrounded the theatre during the premiere.

Gorky was a popular and cricital success. He was elected to the Imperial Academy of Russian Artists; but, because of his outspoken views, the tsarist authorities had the election nullified. Chekhov and other members of the Academy resigned in protest.

1902 also saw the debut of Gorky’s second, more influential play, The Lower Depths (Na Dne). In 1904, three more plays appeared on the stage: Summer Folk (Datchiki), Children of the Sun (Deti Solntsa), and Barbarians (Varvary). The profits from Gorky’s plays went mainly to fund the Bolsheviks.

Gorky took an active part in the Revolution of 1905, writing anti-tsarist proclamations. For this, he was arrested and locked up in the Petro-pavlosky Fortress. But protests from within as well as without Russia persuaded the authorities to release him.

In 1906, Gorky left Russia and spent some time raising money for the Bolshevik cause. He visited American, where he caused a ruckus when it was learned that the woman traveling with him was not his wife. It was also in America that Gorky wrote the majority of his novel The Mother (Mat) (1906-1907). The novel tells the story of a religious woman who comes to join the socialists after her son’s arrest as a political activist.

Gorky went to live in a villa on the Italian island of Capri, where he continued to write. During this time, he produced the novel Ispoved (“Confession”) (1908). This novel touches upon secular issues (the power of money, the degredation of the workers, and the need to end the division of the people into social classes). But it is primarily a book about religion and one man’s search for God. The hero of the novel, Matvei visits monasteries, seeking out wise, holy men. These holy men, however, all turn out to be fakes and charlatans. He then meets a truly wise man who steers Matvei to a group known as “God- builders”. This group teaches that it is wrong to raise up individual leaders; that man’s state degenerated when humanity split into separate egos, apart from the Whole. When the people splintered, God died; when the people flow together as one, an irresitable strength will grow in it, and God will be resurrected. After leaving the God-builders, Matvei, filled with mystic wonder, takes part in a mass-faith-healing, where hundreds of religious marchers combine their psychic energy to give a paralyzed girl the ability to walk.

Other works from this period include the plays The Last Ones (Posledniye) (1908) and Vassa Zheleznova (1910) as well as the novels Summer (Leto) (1909) and The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin (1910-1911). Also Enemies (1906); The Life of a Useless Man (1907); The Confession (1908); The Last Ones (1908); The Meeting (1910); Strange People (1910).

The plays Enemies and The Last Ones were banned in Russia.

In 1913, Gorky published Childhood (Detstvo), the first volume of his autobiography. In this year he also returned to Russian, taking advantage of a amnesty afforded to political activists. He settled in Petersburg, where he worked on the Bolshevik publications Zvezda and Pravda. In 1915 he established the journal Letopis’, in which other writers–such as Shishkov, Prishvin, and Gladkov–also participated. The second volume of his autobiography, My Apprenticeship, appeared in 1916. The story Strasti-Mordasti, said to be one of Lenin’s favorites, appeared in 1917.

Following the Revolution of February 1917, Gorky established the paper Novaya Zhizn. Although allied with the Bolsheviks, Gorky thought their seizure of power in October of 1917 was premature; and he used his paper to criticize various aspects of the Bolshevik program. Harsh words were exchanged. Gorky accused the Bolsheviks of adventurism and dogmatism and claimed they were in danger of destroying Russian culture “in the chaos arising from their crude instincts.” The Bolsheviks accused Gorky of betraying the revolution. In the end, Lenin approved the order to shut down Novaya Zhizn in July 1918.

Gorky eagerly immersed himself in in the artistic frenzy of revolutionary Petrograd. He helped organize the first Workers and Peasants University, the Bolshoi Dramatic Theatre in Petrograd, and the World Literature Publishing House. He was of great help in sustaining writers through the troubles and hunger of the Civil War years.

In 1921, Gorky again went abroad, seeking treatment for his tuberculosis in Germany and Czechoslovakia. He then settled down in Sorrento, Italy. He worked as editor of Dialogue and produced the final installment of his autobiography, My Universities, and the novel The Artamonov Business, about three generations of a self-made bourgeois family. In addition to the burly and amoral founder of the dynasty, the three main characters are Peter, the eldest son who comes to run the firm and tries to come to a better understanding of life, but fails; Nikita, the youngest son, a cripple who becomes a saintly monk who tells pilgrims what he knows to be beautiful lies; and Tikhon, the old servant of the family. Following the October Revolution, the firm and house are seized and the now elderly Peter is left to die a natural death from hunger.

In 1928, amid great public fanfare, Gorky returned to the Soviet Union. He admitted that his position concerning the timing of the October Revolution has been mistaken and that he had underestimated the creative forces of the proletariate in revolution. He was generous in his praise of Stalin, collectivization, and Soviet constrcution projects, including the Belomorsky Canal. He settled down in Moscow and set to writing dramas. He produced the play Somov and Others (1931). This work takes as its theme the sabotage of Soviet industry by engineers; GPU agents show up in the end to arrest the evil engineers.

The play Egor Bulychev and Others (1932) is set in a provincial town in February 1917. Social order is falling apart, and Bulychev, the head of a large local firm, is dying. He tries various priests, sorcerers, and faith-healers–even though he knows they are all frauds–but none of them, of course, can cure his cancer. He watches as the vultures–his relatives–all gather, eager to divide up his wealth. He knows their true nature; but he also knows that his own life was built on fraud and so he cannot bring himself to denounce them. As he dies, he shouts, “And the Kingdom perishes where there is foulness.” This work was a great literary success. Nemirovich-Danchenko called it “Youthful…alive…simple…Fearless, wide-souled.” A.N. Tolstoy wrote to Gorky:

You never before rose to such simplicity of art….The presentation makes an enormouse and lofty impression. It is astonishing that, having traveled such a path, you have arrived at such a fresh and youthful art.
Another play followed in 1933, Dostigaev and Others.

In 1932, Nizhny-Novgorod was renamed “Gorky”, and the writer’s name was given to countless factories, theatres, ships, kolkhozes, streets, etc. He championed the cause of Socialist Realism as the best way to tell the story of the new Soviet man. Serving as head of the newly established Writers Union, he told its first Congress in 1934:

A new type of man is springing up in the Soviet Union. He possesses a faith in the organizing power of reason. He is conscious of being the builder of a new world, and although his conditions of life are still arduous, he knows that it is his arm and the purpose of his rational will to create different conditions and he has no grounds for pessimism.
Gorky served as head of the Writers Union from 1934 until his death on 18 June 1936. There is some mystery surrounding Gorky’s death, which occurred while he was undergoing routine medical treatment. Years later, police chief Grenrikh Yagoda confessed to having ordered Gorky’s death. But there is no proof of this, and some say Gorky was killed under orders from Stalin.

Maksim Gorky was buried by the Kremlin wall in Red Square.

Maksim Gorky