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||Maksim Gorky (1868-1936) - born on March 16 (New Style March 28) 1868 - pseudonym Gorky means "bitter", originally Aleksei Maximovich Peshkov|
Russian short story writer, novelist, autobiographer and essayist, whose life was deeply interwoven with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. Gorky ended his long career as the preeminent spokesman for culture under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Gorky formulated the central principles of Socialist Realism, which became doctrine in Soviet literature. The rough, socially conscious naturalism of Gorky was described by Chekhov as "a destroyer bound to destroy everything that deserved destruction."
"The long files of dock labourers carrying on their backs hundreds of tons of grain to fill the iron bellies of the ships in order that they themselves might earn a few pounds of this grain to fill their own stomachs, looked so droll that they brought tears to one's eyes. The contrast between these tattered, perspiring men, benumbed with weariness, turmoil and heat, and the mighty machines glistening in the sun, the machines which these men had made, and which, after all is said and done, were set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and sinew of those who had created them – this contrast constituted an entire poem of cruel irony." (from 'Chelkash', 1895, translated by J. Fineberg)
Aleksei Peshkov (Maksim Gorky, also written Maksim Gor'kii) was born in Nizhnii Novgorod, the son of a journeyman upholster. Later the ancient city was named 'Gorky' in his honour, and in Moscow one of the leading thoroughfares was named Gorky Street. Gorky lost his parents at an early age – his father died of cholera and his mother died of tuberculosis. The scene of his mother, wailing and mourning over her dead husband, opens his book of memoir, My Childhood: "All her clothes were torn. Her hair, which was usually neatly combined into place like a large gray hat, was scattered over her bare shoulders, and hung over her face, and some of it, in the form of a large plait, dangled about, touching Father's sleeping face. For all the time I'd been standing in that room, not once did she so much as look at me, but just went on combing Father's hair, choking with tears and howling continually."
Orphaned at the age of 11, he experienced the deprivations of a poverty. The most important person in Gorky's life in those years was his grandmother, whose fondness for literature and compassion for the downtrodden influenced him deeply. Otherwise his relationships to his family members were strained, even violent. Gorky stabbed his stepfather, who regularly beat him. Gorky received little education but he was endowed with an astonishing memory. He left home at the age of 12, and followed from one profession to another. On a Volga steamer, he learned to read. In 1883 he was a worker in a biscuit factory, then a porter, baker's boy, fruit seller, railway employee, clerk to an advocate, and in 1891 an operative in a salt mill. Later Gorky used later material from his wandering years in his books. In 1884 he failed to enter Kazan University, and in the late 1880s he was arrested for revolutionary activities. At the age of 19 he attempted suicide but survived when the bullet missed his heart.
After travels through Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Crimea Tiflis (late Tbilisi), Gorky published his first literary work, 'Makar Chudra' (1892), a short story. 'Chelkash,' the story of a harbour thief, gained an immediate success. He started to write for newspapers, and his first book, the 3-volume Sketches and Stories (1898-1899), established his reputation as a writer. Gorky wrote with sympathy and optimism about the gypsies, hobos, and down-and-outs. He also started to analyze more deeply the plight of these people in a broad, social context. In these early stories Gorky skillfully mixed romantic exoticism and realism. Occasionally he glorified the rebels among his outcasts of Russian society. In his early writing career Gorky became friends with Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Lenin. Encouraged by Chekhov, he composed his most famous play, The Lower Depths (1902), which took much of the material from his stories of outcasts, but did not have any single predominant figure. It was performed at the Moscow Art Theater under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Lower Depths enjoyed a huge success, and was soon played in Western Europe and the United States.
Gorky was literary editor of Zhizn from 1899 and editor of Znanie publishing house in St. Petersburg from 1900. Foma Gordeyev (1899), his first novel, dealt with the new merchat class in Russia. The short story Dvadsat' shest' i odna (1899, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl) was about lost illusions, a theme which Gorky explored in a number of subsequent tales. "There were twenty-six of us – twenty-six living machines locked in a damp basement where, from dawn to dusk, we kneaded dough for making into biscuits and pretzels. The window of our basement looked out onto a ditch dug in front of them and lined with brick that was green from damp; the windows were covered outside in fine wire netting and sunlight could not reach us through the flour-covered panes. Our boss had put the wire netting there so we could not give hand-outs of his bread to beggars or those comrades of ours who were without work and starving." (from 'Twenty-Six Men and a Girl', 1899) The joy in the lives of the bakers is the 16-year old Tania, who works in the same building. A handsome ex-soldier, one of the master bakers, boasts of his success with women. He is challenged to seduce Tania. When Tania succumbs, she is mocked by the men, who have lost the only bright spot in the darkness. Tania curses them and walks away, and is never again seen in the basement.
Known as a writer with a mission, Gorky was put under close
watch in his hometown. He became involved in a secret printing press
temporarily exiled to Arzamas, central Russia in 1902. In the same year
he was elected to the Russian Academy, but election was declared
invalid by the government and several members of the Academy resigned
Because of his political activism, Gorky was constantly in trouble with
the tsarists authorities. He joined the Social Democratic party's left
wing, headed by Lenin.
raise money to Russian revolutionaries, Gorky
went to the United States in 1906. However, he was compelled to leave
his hotel, not because of his political opinions, but because he
traveled with Mlle. Andreieva, with whom he was not legally married. At
that time, he had not obtained divorce from his first wife, Ekaterina
Pavlovna, with whom he had two children. The American author Mark Twain
expressed his support to Gorky at a dinner party, saying, "My
sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course." In his reply,
Gorky spoke of the importance of financial assistance to the
revolution, that was not over. While staying on Staten Island at the
home of John Martin, a rich
Fabian socialist, he learned that his five-year-old daughter had died
During his ill-fated mission to raise funds for the Bolshevik cause, Gorky wrote in the Adirondack Mountains greater part of his classic novel, The Mother, which came out in 1906-1907. The novel was first published in English and later translated into Russian. Its heroine, Pelageia Nilovna, adopts the cause of socialism in a religious spirit after her son's arrest as a political activist. Pelageia's husband is a drunkard and her only consolation is her religious faith. Pelageia's husband dies, and her son Pavel changes from a thug to socialist role model and starts to bring his revolutionary friends to the house. Pavel is arrested on May day for carrying a forbidden banner. While continuing to believe in Christ's words, she joins revolutionaries, and is betrayed by a police spy. Gorky based her character on a real person, Anna Zalomova, who had travelled the country distributing revolutionary pamphlets after her son had been arrested during a demonstration. The novel, considered the pioneer of socialist realism, was later dramatized by Bertolt Brecht. Vsevolod Pudovkin's film from 1926 largely contributed to the popularity of the novel.
helping the main organizer of a worker's march to
from Russia, Gorky found himself once again in jail. He also had to
leave Russia, going to Finland and then to Germany. While in Finland,
he met Lenin; it was their second meeting. Over the years, the "author
of the workers" had become rather important in Lenin's life. In 1906
settled in Capri, where he stayed until 1913 when the Russian Duma
passed an amnesty act to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Romanov
dynasty. With Anatoly Lunacharsky and Alexander Bogdanov, a prominent
Bolshevik philosopher, he founded in Capri a "Party school" which was
to train "permanent cadres of Party leaders from working class". Gorky
lectured in the history of Russian literature. Lenin strongly opposed
the school and established his own in Paris. At that time Gorky was
more close to Bogdanov, who advocated the revision Marxism along the
lines of a "religion of socialism," than Lenin, who ridiculed
Lenin visited his villa in 1908, he fished there and played chess, becoming childishly angry when he lost a game to Bogdanov. Gorky was disgusted by Lenin's smug Marxism and after reading only a few pages from his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he threw it on the wall. In the controversial novel The Confession (1908), which rapidly fell after the Revolution into relative obscurity, Gorky coined the term "God-building," by which he combined religion with Marxism.
In 1913 Gorky returned to Russia, and helped to found the
first Workers' and Peasants' University, the Petrograd Theater, and the
World Literature Publishing House. The first part of his acclaimed
autobiographical trilogy, My Childhood (1913-14),
was followed by In
the World (1916), and My Universities (1922), which was
written in a different style. In these works the author looked through
the observant eyes of Alyosha Peshkov his development and life in a
Volga River town. When the war broke out, Gorky ridiculed the
enthusiastic atmosphere and broke off all relations with his adopted
son, Zinovy Peshkov, who joined the army.
First the author also rejected Lenin's hard-line policy, defending the Petrograd intelligentsia. "Lenin's power arrests and imprisons everyone who does not share his ideas, as the Romanovs' power used to do," he wrote in November of 1917. After Russian revolution Gorky enjoyed protected status, although in 1918 his protests against Bolsheviks dictatorial methods were silenced by Lenin's order. Gorky's memoir of Lev Tolstoy (1919) painted nearly a merciless portrait of the great writer.
Following the arrest of Anna Akhmatova's former husband Nikolai Gumilyov in 1921, Gorky rushed to Moscow to ask Lenin for a pardon for his old friend. His intervention came too late, Gumilyov had been shot without trial.
Dissatisfaction with the communist regime and its treatment of
intellectuals lead to his voluntary exile
during the 1920s. Lenin had also recommended, that recommended that he
would feel better abroad. "To an old man any place that's warm is
Gorky once wrote. He spent three years at various German and Czech
and was editor of Dialogue in Berlin (1923-25).
On Capri in the 1920s Gorky wrote his best novel, The Artamov Business (1925), dealing with three generations of a pre-revolutionary merchant family. Gorky's essay 'V.I.Lenin' was written immediately after Lenin's death. The author expressed his great admiration for the Revolution leader and gave a lively account of their discussions in Paris and Capri. "You're an enigma," he once said to me with a chuckle. "You seem to be a good realist in literature, but a romantic where people are concerned. You think everybody is a victim of history, don't you? We know history and we say to the sacrificial victims; 'overthrow the altars, shatter the temples, and drive the gods out!' Yet you would like to convince me that a militant party of the working class is obliged to make the intellectuals comfortable, first and foremost."
In 1924-25 Gorky lived in Sorrento, but persuaded by Stalin, he returned in 1931 to Russia, where he settled in Moscow with his wife. As a sign of Gorky's literary stature, the new Soviet leader renamed the writer's hometown Nizhnii Novgorod in honor of the author. Gorky founded a number of journals and became head of the Writers' Union – his photograph in the congress hall was nearly as large as Stalin's. Gorky's speech at The First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1935 established the doctrine of socialist realism.
Although Gorky criticized the bureaucracy of the Writers' Union, but nothing changed. All the proposals of the congress were very soon buried when the Great Terror started. Writers were shot and Stalin showed personal interest in the activities of writers. Gorky's actions and statements before and after his return to Russia are controversial. He wrote positively about the Solovki prison camp in the White Sea, and praised the construction of the White-Sea-Baltic Canal (Belomor) – it has been estimated that over 100,000 prisoners died on the canal site. "The conclusion, it seems to me, is clear: such camps as the Solovki, and labour communes as Bolshevo are necessary," he stated in an article published in the journal Nashi dostizhenia (Our Accomplishments). "This is the way in which the state will quickly attain one of its purposes – the abolition of prisons." Gorky's son Maxim, a reputed communist, died in 1934, presumably from pneumonia. A potential danger to the Stalinist regime, Gorky himself was denied permission to leave the Soviet Union. His final novel was The Life of Klim Samgin, about an intellectual, who wavers between his own ambition and political commitment.
Gorky died suddenly of pneumonia in his country home, dacha, near Moscow on June 18, 1936. In some source the cause of death was said to be heart desease. The author was buried in a special niche in the Kremlin wall. Stalin, who had brought with aides Gorky's urn to Red Square, started earnest his Show Trials on the same year. Rumors have lived ever since that he may have been assassinated on Joseph Stalin orders. Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin's secret police chief during the great purges of 1936-38, made a "confession" at his own trial in 1938, that he had ordered Gorky's death. According to another rumor, Gorky had been administered 'heart stimulants in large quantities', and the ultimate culprits were 'Rightists and Trotskyites'. The murder of Gorky's son in 1934 was seen as an attempt to break the father. After KGB literary archives were opened in the 1990s, not much evidence was found to support the wildest theories. Stalin visited the writer twice during his last illness. The most probable conclusion is that Gorky's death was natural.
As an essayist Gorky dealt with wide range of subjects. His underlying theme is a passionate humanistic message and political commitment to bolshevism. In Notes on the Bourgeois Mentality he accuses the bourgeoisie of self-absorption and concern only with its own comfort. On the Russian Peasantry sees peasants as resistant to the new social order. City of the Yellow Devil, written in New York, condemns American capitalism. On the other hand, Gorky early opposed Bolsheviks, criticizing their use of violence against their fellow men. Among Gorky's important essays are biographical sketches of such writers as Tolstoy, Leonid Andreev and Anton Chechov.
For further reading: Letopis' zhiznii i tvorchestva A.M. Gor'kogo (1958-59, 3 vols.); Maxim Gorky: Romatic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary by Richard Hare (1962); Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life by Irwin Weil (1966); Stormy Petrel: the Life and Work of Maxim Gorki by D. Levin (1967); by F.M. Borras (1967); The Bridge and the Abyss: The Troubled Friendship of Maxim Gorky and V.I.Lenin by Bertram D. Wolfe (1967); Maxim Gorky by Barry P. Scherr (1988); Gorky by Henri Troyat (1989); The Early Fiction of Maxim Gorky by Andrew Barratt (1993); File on Gorky, ed. by Cynthia Marsh (1993); The KGB's Literary Archive by Vitaly Shentalinsky (1995); Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography by Tova Yedlin (1999); The Murder of Maxim Gorky: A Secret Execution by Arkadi Vaksberg (2006); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars (2008) - See also: Isaak Babel, Ivan Bunin.