Maxim Gorky rose from poverty to become one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century, the father of Soviet literature and the heir to Tolstoy. Like Tolstoy, he wrote of the cruelty and insanity of Tsarism, and his struggle to survive his brutal childhood turned him into a revolutionary. He wrote of Russia’s poor and oppressed, its factory workers, peasants and social outcasts, the rejects of capitalism, “people who were once human”. As a self-educated intellectual, he understood his wealthy peasants and self-made millionaires, Russia’s new merchant capitalist class, “masters of our lives,” and he was particularly sensitive to the position of women in Tsarist Russia. He wrote of drunken despotic fathers selling off their daughters to pay their gambling debts, of child abuse, prostitution and domestic abuse, and women’s struggle to be free, and they are some of his most powerful characters.
Gorky’s works were read by millions—intellectuals and newly literate workers and peasants—and they made him a celebrity in Russia and abroad, a deeply romantic figure, much interviewed, photographed and painted, who gave most of his great wealth from his writing to revolutionary causes, was jailed four times for his political activities and spent several spells in exile.
He gave his money and support to the Bolsheviks, but was often politically and philosophically at odds with them. Idolised as a writer, he became a figurehead for the Revolution. But his relationship with the new government was often a tense and difficult one, and he never joined the Party. He saw it as a writers’ job not to glorify the Bolsheviks’ achievements, but to report truthfully what they saw, and he was often fiercely critical of them.
Trotsky coined the term “fellow travellers”, to describe writers like Gorky who were close to the Party, but wanted to produce high quality work free from Party interference. In his 1924 pamphlet Literature and Revolution Trotsky argued that fiction and poetry were not suited to being didactic. He called for strict discipline for Party members, but freedom outside it for the arts to flourish: “The domain of art is not one the Party is called upon to command”.1 He sharply denounced any attempts to use literature for propaganda purposes, insisting that the Revolution must keep alive the best traditions of the old culture, and that while Russia was still in the painful transition to the new classless society, the proletariat must be free to experiment and create the culture best suited to its needs.
Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin and Anatoly Lunacharsky also endorsed the principle of literary diversity. Disputes between the old and new cultures were not to be “won” by one side or another, Bukharin wrote, there must be room for argument and differences, and he called the clash between communist and non-communist values a “valuable molecular process”, which would produce the new proletarian culture of the future.
Yet in the days before and after October, Trotsky was often exasperated by Gorky, and his “fastidious hand washing”. “Gorky approaches the Revolution with the caution of a museum curator”, he wrote. The poet Demyan Bedny, defender of proletarian purity, who produced upbeat propaganda for the masses, called him a “weeper”, and Lenin accused him of allowing his politics to be ruled by his “moods and feelings”.
For the Bolsheviks’ enemies, who felt nothing but disgust and loathing for the workers occupying the Tsars’ palaces, Gorky was an ill-educated propagandist. When he left Russia four years after the Revolution to live in semi-exile, Russia’s émigré writers claimed him as one of theirs. And when he returned ten years later at Stalin’s invitation, he was called a Stalinist hack.
He was born Alexei Peshkov in 1868, seven years after the emancipation of the serfs, in the city of Nizhny Novgorod on the river Volga, one of the great river trading posts in the Tsarist empire. His father was a poor shipyard carpenter, and he grew up in the house of his grandfather, a former serf, who had worked his way up from hauling barges to running a small dye-works. The house was crammed with relatives, and the business faced ruin. Gorky was treated cruelly by his grandfather, who often whipped him to within an inch of his life. “Hatred filled my grandfather’s house like a fog”, he later wrote in the first volume of his autobiography, My Childhood.
When he was five, his father died of cholera. His mother died six years later of tuberculosis. When he was eight he was sent to school and learnt to read, but he was removed after a few months by his grandfather to earn his living as a rag picker on the shores of the Volga. At the age of 11 he left home to work as a cabin boy on the river steamers, and at night he devoured novels—Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens and all the classics he could get hold of.
Aged 16, determined to make a better life for himself, Gorky walked the 200 miles along the Volga from Nizhny Novgorod to Kazan, hoping to enrol at the university where Tolstoy had studied. When he was rejected he worked as a stevedore at the docks, and moved into a cellar with the group of students, poets and down and outs who would later become the characters of his play The Lower Depths.
After a year he moved out and found work in a bakery, sleeping at night by the ovens. The misery of his life threw him into a deep depression, and at the age of 19 he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the heart. The bullet missed, but permanently damaged his left lung, and he began to suffer the first symptoms of tuberculosis.
The following year he set off across Russia, on foot and stowing away on trains, to Moscow, Ukraine and the Caucasus, the Black Sea and the Caspian, working as a dish washer, farm labourer and grape picker, in mines and on construction sites, meeting socialists and learning about revolutionary ideas. He renounced the spiritual bankruptcy of the Orthodox faith in which he had been raised, with its antisemitism and hatred of women, and practised his own faith which he called the “religion of rebellion”. “I was living in a turmoil of contradictory thoughts, desires and feelings, searching for something in life and people that would lighten the weight on my heart”, he wrote in My Childhood.
His first short story, Makar Chudra, about the tramps and wanderers he had met on his travels, was published in 1892 in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was working in the railway paintshop, and appeared under his new name, Maxim Gorky, Maxim after his dead brother, and Gorky, meaning “bitter”. “The bitterness of my life made me a writer. The harder things were for me, the stronger and wiser I became”, he wrote.
In 1894 the new Tsar Nicholas II, “Bloody Nicholas,” came to the throne. He declared political rights “alien to the Russian soul”, calling for education to be limited to basic arithmetic and the Bible—“all the rest is superfluous and dangerous”. The first years of his reign saw an explosion of strikes across Russia, which increasingly turned into political strikes against the autocracy itself. Students rioted and demonstrated, and socialists in St Petersburg’s underground discussion groups began to discover a new strategy and philosophy of revolution in the works of Karl Marx. Gorky learnt about Marxist ideas and called himself a Marxist, and he joined a strike support group in Tbilisi, raising funds for sacked workers. He was arrested for the first time in 1898, for “disseminating socialist ideas among the workers”, and was jailed for a month in solitary confinement.
The following year saw the publication of his first novel, Foma Gordeev, and two volumes of his Sketches and Stories, whose spellbinding narratives and powerful message of revolution made him the most popular and discussed writer in Russia. His story Twenty-Six Men and a Girl, set in the bakery in Kazan, is one of the finest things he wrote. It opens with “twenty-six miserable prisoners, living machines, locked in a damp airless basement from 5am to 10 at night, kneading dough”. The only ray of light in the men’s lives is the innocent young girl who comes every day to collect loaves: “We spoke so crudely of women that we were often disgusted by our words. But Tania heard no loose jokes from us.” Then a drunken soldier arrives and bets he can seduce her, and wins. They turn their anger on her, saying they have been “robbed,” and it is only then that they understand her true character, and are shamed when she emerges from the encounter “upright, proud and beautiful”.2
Gorky’s writings also brought him more attention from the police. In 1900 he was jailed again for speaking at a student protest against their conscription into the army, at which he had called for the overthrow of the Tsar. On his release from jail he met Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov for the first time, and saw a performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which inspired him to write his first play, Philistines, a darkly comic portrait of a bourgeois family thrown into turmoil after the children learn that their father has reported their friends to the police as revolutionaries. The manuscripts of Philistines and his second novel, The Three Of Them, about three friends trying to live by their revolutionary ideals, were seized by the police. He was banished to the Crimea, and was carried to the train on people’s shoulders as a hero. Two years later, drastically censored versions of Philistines and The Lower Depths were staged by the Moscow Arts Theatre, with the ushers replaced by police, and the theatre surrounded by large contingents of mounted troops.
In the summer of 1903, the industrial south of Russia was gripped by an economic slump in which workers suffered layoffs, wage-cuts and worsening conditions, and mass strikes brought railways, factories, mines and oil wells to a halt. Local revolutionaries demonstrated and organised strike support groups. And in August exiled Marxists close to Lenin established the new Bolshevik Party, to coordinate and politicise the struggle.
In January 1904 the Tsar used the time-honoured tactic of liquidating dissent by mobilising men into the army, and declared war on Japan. Six months later most of the Russian fleet was at the bottom of the Tsushima Straits, and the country was convulsed by more strikes. Students rioted and occupied the universities, and the war produced a surge of support for the Bolsheviks and the terror tactics of the new Socialist Revolutionary Party.
In January, Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard opened at the Moscow Arts Theatre. Ten months later Gorky’s Summerfolk opened for a short run at St Petersburg’s Passage Theatre. The play was written in the summer of 1903, and is set in the new world imagined by Chekhov. His businessmen have chopped down the cherry orchard to build holiday homes, and Russia’s new bourgeois professionals, doctors, lawyers and writers, descend on their dachas for the summer to drink, philosophise and party, oblivious to the mayhem around them.
On 9 January 1905 Gorky joined the twenty thousand workers in St Petersburg who marched to the Winter Palace to tell the Tsar of their suffering. Over two thousand were gunned down by the Tsar’s troops, and “Bloody Sunday” was the spark that lit Russia’s first revolution. Gorky marched in demonstrations with a red flag, visited arrested strikers in jail and put out a leaflet calling for “a united struggle against the autocracy”. In February he was arrested and sentenced to six months solitary confinement in the brutal Peter and Paul Fortress. There he worked feverishly on his play Children of the Sun, firing it off in eight days, an allegorical “tragicomedy” set during a cholera epidemic, about a family of intellectuals remote from the struggle, “whose blood is poisoned by pessimism,” and the enraged workers and revolutionaries who storm their home. “If Summerfolk boxed the ears of the bourgeoisie, Children Of The Sun spits in their faces”, wrote one literary critic.
Over 300 writers in Europe and America successfully petitioned the Tsar for Gorky’s release, and he served only a month of his sentence. He was then held under house arrest for two months, demanding the right to be tried in court, “to explain to the world why I am a revolutionary, and the motives for my ‘crimes’ against the existing social order, which slaughters peaceful unarmed Russian citizens, including children”.
1905 changed the face of Russian literature, and produced a completely new kind of political writing. Articles and strike leaflets by Lenin and others poured into the factories from the revolutionary underground. Writers became revolutionaries, and workers and peasants became writers, and the new Russian version of the “Internationale,” by the miner Aaron Kotz, was sung at demonstrations. On his release from house arrest, Gorky gave literature classes in St Petersburg’s factories, encouraging workers to publish their songs, poems and stories in the Bolshevik press. And in December he moved to Moscow to support the general strike, distributing weapons to workers and turning his flat into an operations centre for the street fighting.
The uprising ended in a bloodbath, leaving five hundred dead, and the revolution was crushed. People suffered in terrible ways in the reaction that followed. The Tsar and his wife locked themselves in the Winter Palace with a mass of charlatans offering magic cures. There was an epidemic of murders and suicides, and pornography and child prostitution did a thriving trade. In this climate of despair the strike movement slumped and terrorism flourished, with a staggering 2,500 terrorist attacks on hated police chiefs and government officials in 1906 alone. Terror suspects were rounded up and arrested, revolutionary groups became riddled with police agents and revolutionaries went deep underground or fled into exile. The Tsar’s Black Hundreds gangs, prototypes for Hitler’s brownshirts, roamed the cities killing workers, students and Jews, and Gorky had to be protected by armed bodyguards after he narrowly escaped being shot.
In December 1906 he left Russia illegally for Finland. From there he travelled to Berlin, Paris, London and New York, fundraising for the Bolsheviks and writing his play Enemies, set in a factory strike in 1905, and his epic novel of working class resistance, Mother. Both were banned in Russia. The manuscript of Mother was confiscated by the censors, and Enemies was banned for “depicting the irreconcilable enmity between workers and employers, with the former portrayed as resolute fighters, advancing clear-sightedly to their declared goal of overthrowing capitalism, and the latter as blinkered egotists. The play is a direct provocation against the ruling class, and cannot therefore be allowed for performance”.
In late 1907 Gorky found refuge on the Italian island of Capri. His home became a centre for political exiles, and he set up a revolutionary training school for Russian factory workers, bringing them to the island with false papers, and inviting the exiled revolutionaries Lunacharsky, Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai from Paris and Berlin, to give lectures on sexual relations and the class struggle, Italian art and philosophy, and the techniques of illegal publishing, codecracking and underground propaganda.
Sickened by the violence of the revolution, a group of Bolsheviks close to Lunacharsky, the “seeking Marxists”, were discovering Sigmund Freud, and his revolutionary new insights into human behaviour and the bourgeois family. Many socialists abandoned socialism to join Russia’s new bourgeois liberal parties. Others joined anarchist groups, or were drawn to new age religions, and became disciples of George Gurdjieff, Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner.
Gorky wanted politics to be “spiritualised”, in a new socialist religion. He explored his religious ideas in three plays he wrote on Capri, set in the bloody aftermath of 1905, Vassa Zheleznova, The Zykovs and The Last Ones. And in his book Confession, he elaborated his philosophy of “Godbuilding”, which held that miracles could be made and God could be “built” on Earth through the collective faith of the people, impelling Lenin to enter the philosophical battle with his now little read work Materialism And Empiriocriticism.
Gorky returned to Russia under the Tsar’s political amnesty of 1913. When Russia mobilised for war in 1914, he lost many friends in the newly renamed Petrograd who became patriots, and in 1916 he financed and edited a new anti-war literary magazine, Chronicle. Chronicle published the first two volumes of his autobiography, My Childhood and In The World, and the work of some of Russia’s greatest writers—Isaac Babel, Alexander Blok, the peasant poet Sergei Esenin, the Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky and the theoretician of Futurism Viktor Shklovsky. Gorky joined the crowds who gathered for Mayakovsky’s performances in Petrograd’s clubs and cafes and in the streets, storming the stage in his face paint, mocking “beautiful” writing, and although Mayakovsky’s poetry was alien to him, he wrote appreciatively in Chronicle of the Futurists’ rage and power, and called them the voice of the revolution.
The magazine published articles by the Bolsheviks Lunacharsky and Kollontai, but Gorky wanted it to represent a diversity of political views, Bolshevik and non-aligned. He saw Science as the common ground on which different politics could meet, “which is democratic, and must be accessible to all,” and he paid particular attention to the its popular science section. As Russia’s only anti-war publication, Chronicle was highly vulnerable to censorship, and he insisted contributors avoided the crude personal attacks the Tsarist press used against its enemies, “which distort the truth and arouse dark hatreds in people”, and would mean its inevitable closure.
After the February 1917 revolution that toppled the Tsar, Gorky brought out his socialist paper New Life. Like Chronicle, New Life spoke the language of pacifism, and he was deeply critical of Lenin’s call to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary class war. Like most of New Life’s writers, he believed Russia was still too poor and backward to be ready for a socialist revolution, warning that the Bolsheviks risked “leading millions and millions of virtually illiterate politically uneducated Russians, who don’t know what they want, in politically and socially dangerous directions”.
With Mayakovsky, Esenin, Babel and Shklovsky, he taught literature in the factories, sharing his writing skills with workers and encouraging them to write for the paper, and there were noisy editorial meetings and writers’ workshops in his flat. Despite his well-known views on the Bolsheviks, the government agents attending these gatherings described them as “recruiting grounds for the revolution”, and his enormous police files made special mention of his views on the war and the “Jewish question”.
On the eve of October, New Life published his front page appeal for Petrograd’s historic monuments to be protected: “Citizens, do not touch one stone! This is our history, our pride!” When the crowds stormed the Winter Palace on the night of the 25th to arrest the Provisional Government, they smashed several paintings and sculptures in their rage at finding its leader Alexander Kerensky gone, and he greeted the first day of the Revolution with a New Lifebroadside against the Bolsheviks, “CIVILISATION IN DANGER!”, calling Lenin and his supporters “socialist Napoleons, who suppress free speech and put Russia’s proletariat in mortal peril”.
Only a handful of writers supported the new government in the months after October. Hundreds emigrated, or stayed in Russia as open enemies of the Revolution, denouncing those who worked with it as traitors. But by the spring of 1918, most of Petrograd’s leading writers had rallied to the Bolsheviks. As the massed armies of the West invaded Russia to bring them down, the war to defend the Revolution became a war of total social mobilisation, and Gorky buried his differences with Lenin, and was elected to the executive of Petrograd’s Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.
The new Commissariat for Education, under Lunacharsky, was the first to start functioning after October, and Gorky joined its campaign to spread literacy and culture in the midst of hunger, civil war and foreign invasion. Paper and ink were in short supply, but he set up the new State Publishing House (Gosizdat), which brought out mass paperback editions of Gorky’s works and the Russian classics, printed on the cheapest paper. He established a literacy department, departments for further and polytechnic education, and an art department, and Gorky headed his Commission for the Preservation of Artistic and Historic Monuments, appointing teams of soldiers and workers to guard Petrograd’s museums, libraries and palaces, now the property of the people.
Despite poverty and scarce resources, the years after the Revolution were a time of huge freedom for writers. Censorship was abolished, and a mass of new literary groups and alignments battled for the meaning and purpose of literature in the new Russia, denouncing bourgeois art and culture, calling on writers to fight illiteracy, poverty and ignorance.
Leading the way were the Futurists and the Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organisation (Proletkult). Mayakovsky designed posters, and became a poet-agitator for the Revolution, travelling the country reading his work to vast audiences of factory workers. Proletkult, established two months after the Revolution, saw literature as a vehicle for organising labour in the new collective spirit. Generously funded by Lunacharsky, Proletkult sent writers, film crews and drama collectives to the civil war fronts, and by 1921 was a mass movement, with a membership of almost a million, and claimed to be the “leading cultural class organisation of the proletariat”, on a level with the party.
The film director Sergei Eisenstein and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold both got their start at Proletkult’s First Workers’ Theatre in Moscow, and it sponsored and financed over 30 groups and journals, via the Commissariat of Education, including Young Guard, journal of the Komsomol, the new Communist Youth League, which published songs, poems and articles from the factories, garrisons and villages, and declared itself “inseparable from the worker peasant masses”.
Closely identified with Proletkult and the Party were the factory poet Demyan Bedny, of the proletarian “Cosmists”, the peasant poet Nikolai Klyuev, Alexei Gastev of the “Smithy” group, and Esenin, of the “Imaginist” group, who Gorky called “Russia’s greatest lyrical poet since Pushkin”. There were the new worker and peasant novelists of the civil war, who wrote of fighting as Bolshevik partisans and in Trotsky’s new Red Army, dashing down their novels between battles, often delivering the manuscripts still in their army uniforms. And there were the “fellow travellers” Boris Pilnyak and the “Serapion Brothers” (they included several women). The publishing sensation of 1922 was Pilnyak’s novel The Naked Year, about the upheavals in the countryside after 1917, warmly praised by Trotsky for its truthfulness to village life and speech.
Gorky celebrated the great flowering of literature after October, and attended writers’ meetings and read their manifestos and journals. But he was never a follower of literary “platforms,” or the schematic formulations of the Futurists and Proletkult. He wrote in the great romantic realist tradition of Tolstoy, and was the precursor of what came to be known as socialist realism. His advice to the new writers of the revolution was to stay as close to the reality of people’s lives as possible, guiding them in the spirit of socialism without didacticism or moralising commentary. “Ideas should be conveyed through their living bearers, in their mutual relations, in the flaws and contradictions of their characters, in their flesh and blood”, wrote the civil war novelist Alexander Fadeev.
Gorky helped writers with their rations and accommodation and found them work as translators for his Gosizdat World Literature series, which published cheap editions of the foreign classics. He set up a writers’ hostel, the House of the Arts, in a mansion on the Nevsky Prospect, with a library, cheap canteen and meeting hall, where art shows, poetry readings and writers’ meetings were held, and he arranged for many who had left Russia after 1917 to return and work with the Bolsheviks. The poet Anna Akhmatova stayed in Russia as an “internal émigrée,” refusing to work with the new regime and rejecting his offers of work, and she suffered for it.
Seven years of war and civil war, two revolutions, and the West’s blockade of the Revolution left an estimated seven million dead and Russia’s factories, mines, farming and transport system in ruins. Another five million died in the famine of 1921, and Gorky joined Lev Kamenev, of the Party Central Committee, on the All-Russia Committee to Aid the Starving. He gave most of his money to the Committee, and became spokesman for its international campaign, appealing to the world to “save the country of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pavlov and Mussorgsky from starvation”. The result was the agreement signed by the American Relief Administration and the Soviet government in August to ship in food.
The Committee had been set up by the Provisional Government to secure aid from the West, and was still run by its original members, many of them, according to Trotsky, in touch with émigré business circles in America, working to use its aid programme to build a new counter-revolutionary army in Russia. The committee was disbanded soon after the agreement was signed, and Gorky protested, and was ill and exhausted and in despair. Lenin urged him to get treatment abroad for his worsening tubercular condition, and at the end of 1921 he left Russia for a sanatorium in Germany, paid for by the Party.
He stayed on in Germany, and lived in Berlin for the next three years, then moved to Italy and settled in Sorrento, on the Bay of Naples. He remained a revered writer in Russia, and in Berlin he became a founding editor of the new literary journal Red Virgin Soil, backed by Lenin and the Commissariat of Education, to keep alive the great traditions of Russian literature in the commercial culture of the New Economic Policy. Red Virgin Soil published new talents, and commissioned original works by some of Russia’s greatest writers, communist and non-communist. It published articles and essays on art and the theatre, women’s liberation, international revolution and economic theory, by Lunacharsky, Kollontai, Bukharin and the late Rosa Luxemburg, and included a large popular science section, edited by Gorky’s science editor on Chronicle.
In 1922 the new Soviet censorship board, Glavlit, was established, forcing writers to cover up problematic issues and bend the truth. When Gorky learnt of the “index” of books to be withdrawn from Russia’s public libraries, he considered renouncing his Soviet citizenship. But he loved his country and longed to go back, and he used his influence instead to mobilise support abroad for writers arrested by Stalin, saving many from jail.
In 1932, when Stalin persuaded him to return permanently, he was welcomed home as a hero. The new Maxim Gorky Literary Institute opened in Moscow, his plays were performed all over the country in lavish productions, and his birthplace Nizhny Novgorod was renamed Gorky.
By 1932, Russia’s literary groups had all been absorbed into the new Union of Writers of the USSR, writers’ only professional legal body. Two years later, as the Union’s first Chairman, he presided over the First All-Russian Congress of Soviet Writers, at which he endorsed as official Soviet literary policy the new distorted one-sided Stalinist version of socialist realism, commanding writers in the spirit of socialist competition to perform assigned tasks and report on the achievements of the Five Year Plans.
By 1935, the main defendants in the First Moscow Show Trial were all in jail, and Gorky was living under virtual house arrest. He died in June 1936, a month before the Trial opened. He was said to have been preparing a statement denouncing Stalin’s crimes to the world, and the unexplained circumstances of his death convinced many that Stalin had him murdered.
His play The Last Ones (originally titled The Father) had its British premiere in London this summer in my translation. It was banned by the Tsarist censors for portraying the authorities with blood on their hands, and “undermining the social order and family life.” Set in 1907, in the chaos and despair of the failed revolution, it shows the family of a murderous police chief, tearing itself apart after a terrorist attack on his life. The house of horrors is a microcosm of a society in breakdown, and the children begin to question everything they have been brought up to believe.
When the Grenfell fire started, a week after The Last Ones opened, it became a call to protest and demonstrate. Gorky’s plays have all Chekhov’s dark comedy and pathos, the same “laughter through tears”. But they are always connected to the world beyond the stage, of revolutionary struggle and resistance and the “madness of the brave”, of the fight against the crimes of the rich and powerful for a better future, for freedom and justice.
Cathy Porter’s books “Larisa Reisner. A Biography (second edition) and “The Translated Writings of Larisa Reisner” will be published next year in Brill’s Historical Materialism series, and “Alexandra Kollontai. Writings From The Struggle” by Haymarket Books. Her translations of Gorky’s plays “The Zykovs,” “Egor Bulychev, “Vassa Zheleznova” and “The Last Ones” are published by Methuen Drama (2003), and by Bloomsbury Online.