Gorky's autographed portrait
|Born:||March 28, 1868 [O.S. March 16] |
Nizhny Novgorod, Russian Empire
|Died:||June 18, 1936 |
|Literary movement:||socialist realism|
Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov (In Russian Алексей Максимович Пешков) (March 28, 1868 [O.S. March 16]–June 18, 1936), better known as Maxim Gorky (Максим Горький), was a Soviet/Russian author, a founder of the socialist realism literary method and a political activist. From 1906 to 1913 and from 1921 to 1929 he lived abroad, mostly in Capri, Italy; after his return to the Soviet Union he accepted the cultural policies of the time, although he was not permitted to leave the country.
Gorky became an orphan at the age of eleven and was brought up by his grandmother, an excellent storyteller. Her death deeply affected him, and after an attempt at suicide in December 1887, he travelled on foot across the Russian Empire for five years, changing jobs and accumulating impressions used later in his writing.
As a journalist working in provincial newspapers, he wrote under the Ukrainian pseudonym Иегудиил Хламида (Jehudiel Khlamida—the latter suggestive of a cloak-and-dagger aspect by way of Greek chlamys, "cloak"). He began using the pseudonym Gorky (literally "bitter") in 1892, while working in Tiflis newspaper Кавказ (The Caucasus). The name reflected his simmering anger about life in Russia and a determination to speak the bitter truth. Gorky's first book Очерки и рассказы (Essays and Stories) in 1898 enjoyed a sensational success and his career as a famous writer set off. Gorky wrote incessantly, viewing literature less as an aesthetic practice (though he worked hard on style and form) than as a moral and political act that could change the world. He described the lives of people in the lowest strata and on the margins of society, revealing their hardships, humiliations, and brutalization, but also their inward spark of humanity.
Gorky’s reputation as a unique literary voice from the lower depths of society and as a fervent advocate of Russia’s social, political, and cultural transformation (by 1899, he was openly associating with the emerging Marxist social-democratic movement) helped make him a celebrity among both the intelligentsia and the growing numbers of “conscious” workers. At the heart of all his work was a belief in the inherent worth and potential of the human person (lichnost’). He counterposed vital individuals, aware of their natural dignity, and inspired by energy and will, to people who succumb to the degrading conditions of life around them. Still, both his writings and his letters reveal a “restless man” (a frequent self-description) struggling to resolve contradictory feelings of faith and skepticism, love of life and disgust at the vulgarity and pettiness of the human world.
He publicly opposed the Tsarist regime and was arrested numerous times. Gorky befriended many professional revolutionaries he encountered and became Lenin's personal friend after they met in 1902. He exposed governmental control of the press (see Matvei Golovinski affair). In 1902, Gorky was elected the honorary Academician of Literature, but Nicholas II ordered to annul this election. In protest, Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Korolenko left the Academy.
The years 1900 to 1905 saw growing optimism in Gorky’s writings and growing participation in the opposition movement, for which he was again briefly imprisoned in 1901. Now a financially successful author, editor, and playwright, he gave needed financial support to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, though he also supported liberal appeals to the government for civil rights and social reform. The brutal shooting of workers marching to the tsar with a petition for reform on January 9, 1905 (“Bloody Sunday”), which set in motion the Revolution of 1905, seems to have pushed Gorky more decisively toward radical solutions. He now became closely associated with Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik wing of the party—though it is not clear whether he ever formally joined and his relations with Lenin and the Bolsheviks would always be rocky. His most influential writings in these years were a series of political plays, most famously The Lower Depths (1902). In 1906, the Bolshevik party organized a fund-raising trip to the United States, where Gorky wrote his famous novel of revolutionary conversion and struggle, Mat’ (The Mother). His experiences there—which included a scandal over his traveling with his lover rather than his wife—deepened his contempt for the “bourgeois soul” but also his admiration for the boldness of the American spirit. While briefly imprisoned in Peter and Paul Fortress during the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution, Gorky wrote the play Children of the Sun, nominally set during an 1862 cholera epidemic, but universally understood to relate to present-day events.
From 1906 to 1913, Gorky lived on the island of Capri, partly for health reasons and partly to escape the increasingly repressive atmosphere in Russia. He continued to support the work of Russian social-democracy, especially the Bolsheviks, and to write fiction and cultural essays. Most controversially, he articulated, along with a few other maverick Bolsheviks, a philosophy he called “God-Building,” which sought to recapture the power of myth for the revolution and to create a religious atheism that placed collective humanity where God had been and was imbued with passion, wonderment, moral certainty, and the promise of deliverance from evil, suffering, and even death. Though God-Building was suppressed by Lenin, Gorky retained his belief that “culture”—the moral and spiritual awareness of the value and potential of the human self—would be more critical to the revolution’s success than political or economic arrangements.
An amnesty granted for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty allowed Gorky to return to Russia in 1913, where he continued his social criticism, mentored other writers from the common people, and wrote a series of important cultural memoirs, including the first part of his autobiography. On returning to Russia, he wrote that his main impression was that “everyone is so crushed and devoid of God’s image.” The only solution, he repeatedly declared, was “culture.”
During World War I, his apartment in Petrograd was turned into a Bolshevik staff room, but his relations with the Communists turned sour. Two weeks after the October Revolution of 1917 he wrote: "Lenin and Trotsky don't have any idea about freedom or human rights. They are already corrupted by the dirty poison of power, this is visible by their shameful disrespect of freedom of speech and all other civil liberties for which the democracy was fighting." After his newspaper Novaya Zhizn (Новая Жизнь, "New Life") fell prey to Bolshevik censorship, Gorky published a collection of essays critical of the Bolsheviks called Untimely Thoughts in 1918. (It would not be published in Russia again until the end of the Soviet Union.) The essays call Lenin a tyrant for his senseless arrests and repression of free discourse, and an anarchist for his conspiratorial tactics; Gorky compares Lenin to both the Tsar and Nechayev. Lenin's 1919 letters to Gorky contain threats: "My advice to you: change your surroundings, your views, your actions, otherwise life may turn away from you."
In August 1921, Nikolai Gumilyov, his friend, fellow writer and Anna Akhmatova's husband, was arrested by Petrograd Cheka for his monarchist views. Gorky hurried to Moscow, obtained the order to release Gumilyov from Lenin personally, but upon his return to Petrograd he found out that Gumilyov had already been shot. In October Gorky emigrated to Italy on bad health grounds: he had tuberculosis.
According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gorky's return was motivated by material interests. In Sorrento Gorky found himself without money and without glory. He visited the USSR several times after 1929, and in 1932 Joseph Stalin personally invited him to return from the emigration for good, an offer he accepted. In June, 1929 Gorky visited Solovki (cleaned up for this occasion) and wrote a positive article about that Gulag camp, which had already gained ill fame in the West.
Gorky's return from fascist Italy was a major propaganda victory for the Soviets. He was decorated by the Order of Lenin and given a mansion (formerly belonged to millionaire Ryabushinsky, currently Gorky Museum) in Moscow and a dacha in the suburbs. One of the central Moscow streets, Tverskaya, was renamed in his honor, as well as the city of his birth. The largest fixed-wing aircraft in the world in the mid-1930s, the Tupolev ANT-20 (photo), was also named Maxim Gorky. It was used for propaganda purposes and often demonstratively flew over the Soviet capital.
In 1933 Gorky edited an infamous book about the Belomorkanal, presented as an example of "successful rehabilitation of the former enemies of proletariat."
With the step-up of Stalinist repressions and especially after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, Gorky was placed under unannounced house arrest in his Moscow house. He was supplied daily with a special edition of the newspaper Pravda containing no news about arrests or purges.
The sudden death of his son Maxim Peshkov in May 1935 was followed by the death of Maxim Gorky in June 1936. Both died under suspicious circumstances, but speculations that they were poisoned have never been proven. Stalin and Molotov were among those who hand-carried Gorky's coffin during the funerals.
During the Bukharin trials in 1938, one of the charges brought up was that Gorky was killed by Yagoda's NKVD agents.
In Soviet times, before and after his death, all the complexities in Gorky's life and outlook were reduced to an iconic image (echoed in heroic pictures and statues dotting the countryside): Gorky as a great Russian writer who emerged from the common people, a loyal friend of the Bolsheviks, and the founder of the increasingly canonical "socialist realism." In turn, dissident intellectuals dismissed Gorky as a tendentious ideological writer, though some Western writers noted Gorky's doubts and criticisms. Today, greater balance is to be found in work on Gorky, where we see a growing appreciation of the complex moral perspective on modern Russian life expressed in his writings. Some historians have begun to view Gorky as one of the most insightful observers of both the promises and moral dangers of revolution in Russia.
Gorky's city of birth was renamed back into Nizhny Novgorod in 1990.