[Click on BLUE links for sources and more information]
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Mark 8:36
“The aim of literature is to help man to understand himself, to strengthen the trust in himself, and to develop in him the striving toward truth; it is to fight meanness in people, to learn how to find the good in them, to awake in their souls shame, anger, courage; to do all in order that man should become nobly strong.” Maxim Gorky in a letter to a friend
“Who was Maxim Gorky and why does he matter today?” you might ask. By some accounts Gorky was “the most famous Soviet writer” at the turn of the twentieth century. What’s more, Gorky the man had a fascinating personal story.
The obituary of Gorky in the New York Times is still available online: Maxim Gorky Dies at Moscow Villa.
Alexei Maximovich Peshkov took the pen name Maxim Gorky – literally “Maxim the Bitter” – early in his youth. Orphaned at the age of 11, he grew up in extreme poverty. The most important person in Gorky’s life in those years was his grandmother, whose fondness for literature and concern for the poor influenced him throughout his life. (She was the model for the beloved Aunt Anfisa in Gorky’s first novel Foma Gordeyev.) After multiple beatings by his stepfather, Gorky stabbed the man in a rage. He left home at the age of 12. At the age of 19 he attempted suicide but survived when the bullet missed his heart. In spite of or because of his difficult youth, by his mid-30s Gorky was a famous novelist and playwright and had met both Tolstoy and Chekhov.
Gorkey’s early education was life on the streets in cities along the Volga River where he traveled. Later, he set off across Russia’s south: along the Don River, the Caucasus and Crimea. He mostly walked by foot, encountering many different people, mostly strangers and beggars like himself. Just like Charles Dickens, Gorky represented a whole host of characters from lower social classes in his works, writing about tramps and other marginalized individuals for the first time in Russian literature. Gorky had lived on the bottom rung of society himself and so had firsthand experience of the suffering it brought. Tolstoy was shocked by the success of Gorky’s early play, The Lower Depths. “Why are you writing this”? asked Tolstoy. He just couldn’t imagine that a play about a night shelter for homeless people depicting prostitutes and alcoholics could be interesting to the public.
Last month (March 2008) marked 150 years since Gorky’s birth. It has been roughly 100 years since the Russian Revolution in which Gorky played an important role. In 1901 Gorky wrote a short poem, The Song of the Stormy Petrel. The poem became the battle anthem of the Revolution.
When I came across Roy Hoggard’s piece of napkin art referencing Gorky (see the Feature Art for this piece at the top), I was amused and intrigued. What was he thinking? When I asked him, I was taken aback by his response.
I was probably wasted, Most likely Russia, Arshile or Maxiem ?
maybe Potemkin Villages, could’ve been Gorbachev.
This cryptic answer made me curious to know more about Maxim Gorky. I only knew of him from a few of his most famous short stories (Chelkash, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl). I immediately went on a Gorky reading binge to my great delight. I listed the major sources consulted for this post in the blue links should you want to follow my footsteps.
So? Why does Gorky matter today? My first thought occurred when I saw the recent interview of James Comey, the former Director of the FBI, by Anderson Cooper on CNN. Comey succinctly outlines the moral consequences of abandoning one’s values for political or monetary gain.
“I’ve been embarassed and ashamed by the way the Republican Party has abandoned … the notion that character matters, and values matter most of all.” – James Comey says the GOP has made a “fools bargain” by trading core beliefs for political gain …
“What I hope they’ll do is ask themselves, Republicans: ‘So what will I tell my grandchildren when they ask me so what did you do? Did you trade a tax cut for the rule of law, for equal protection of the laws, for the truth? Really grandpa?’”
If you look at any hero closely, you will find they are flawed, all of them. They are human as we are all human. The question is, or should be, do the strengths outweigh the flaws? For our heroes we would hope the answer is in the affirmative. Sadly, it does not always turn out that way. To further complicate any analysis, the rules of society change over time (consider the recent trial verdict in the Bill Cosby case).
The case of Maxim Gorky is particularly difficult. The answer is still out after 150 years.
Was he a literary genius or simply Stalin’s stooge? Public opinion on Russian author Maxim Gorky continues to be divided, even on what would have been his 150th birthday.
Gorky’s early short stories and his first novel, Foma Gordeyev (or The Man Who Was Afraid), were strong portraits of the humble peasants he saw during his youth when he tramped around the waterways of Russia. His criticism of the growing capitalist class and the abuses of the tsarist authorities is vivid and upfront.
“Where is the merchant to spend his energy? He cannot spend much of it on the Exchange, so he squanders the excess of his muscular capital in drinking-bouts in kabaky; for he has no conception of other applications of his strength, which are more productive, more valuable to life. He is still a beast, and life has already become to him a cage, and it is too narrow for him with his splendid health and predilection for licentiousness. Hampered by culture he at once starts to lead a dissolute life. The debauch of a merchant is always the revolt of a captive beast. Of course this is bad. But, ah! it will be worse yet, when this beast, in addition to his strength, shall have gathered some sense and shall have disciplined it. Believe me, even then he will not cease to create scandals, but they will be historical events. Heaven deliver us from such events! For they will emanate from the merchant’s thirst for power; their aim will be the omnipotence of one class, and the merchant will not be particular about the means toward the attainment of this aim.” Yazhov in Foma Gordeyev by Maxim Gorky
Maxim Gorky championed the first Russian revolution in 1905. He was in Russia when the Bloody Sunday Massacre occurred and the tsarist troops fired on demonstrating civilians. He was still guided at this time by the same emotions that infiltrated his early work. However, he criticized the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, even though he was a friend of Vladimir Lenin. He did not feel the Russian people were ready.
When in March 1917, as a result of continuous reversals at the front, Nicholas II abdicated, Gorky became a supporter of the nascent provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky. Gorky wrote: “We won not because we are strong, but because the government was weak. We have made a political revolution and have to reinforce our conquest. I am a social democrat, but I am saying and will continue to say, that the time has not come for socialist-style reforms.”
Because of his support of the 1905 Revolution, it became unsafe for Gorky to remain in Russia. He first went to the United States on a fundraising mission supported by such notables as Jack London, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Charles Beard, William Dean Howells, and Ernest Poole. He was even invited to the White House to meet President Theodore Roosevelt. But, the trip fell apart when it was discovered he was travelling with his mistress, the actress Maria Fyodorovna Andreyeva. At the time he was not officially divorced from his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna Peshkova, whom he could not divorce because of difficulties with the Russian Orthodox Church. The “scandal” was too much for the prudish Americans. Roosevelt withdrew his invitation and many of Gorky’s American supporters turned on him. [Note: Jack London wrote a very favorable review of Gorky’s first novel, Foma Gordeyev.]
While Gorky’s visit to America did not succeed in raising much in the way of funds for the Russian Revolution, he was productive as a writer. He wrote one of his most famous novels, Mother. This novel is considered to be the first example of a controversial literary style known as Socialist Realism (see On Socialist Realism by Abram Tertz aka Andrei Sinyavsky). Socialist Realism became anathema to the progressive artists still struggling in Russia. Gorky wrote a book of short stories, The City of the Yellow Devil, depicting capitalists as greedy and narrow-minded. Later, he admitted that America did abound in opportunity for those willing to put in the effort.
Really, you must make an effort and get yourself moving. America! Not everyone gets a chance to see such a place. It’s amazingly interesting here. And devilishly beautiful, which I didn’t expect. About three days ago we took an automobile ride around New York—I tell you, what a sweet, powerful beauty thee is on the banks of the Hudson! It’s simply touching.
Really, it’s a marvelous country for a man who can work and wants to work!
Oh, what an interesting country! What they accomplish, these devils, how they work, how much energy, ignorance, self-satisfaction, barbarism is in them! I delight and I curse, it’s both sickening and enjoyable, and—it’s a hell of a lot of fun! Do you want to be a socialist? Come here. Here the necessity of being a socialist is elucidated with fatal obviousness.
Do you want to become an anarchist? In a month you can, I assure you.
But in general, when people come here they turn into stupid and greedy animals. As soon as they see the masses of wealth, they bare their teeth and go around like that until they either become millionaires or croak from hunger. America Through Russian Eyes, 1874-1926 (Edited by Olga Peters Hasty, Susanne Fusso)
After leaving America, Gorky went to Italy and lived on the island of Capri until 1913. Gorky returned to Russia in early 1914 and was in Russia for the 1917 Revolution although he did not feel the time was right as previously expressed above. He opposed World War I and was criticized for his opinions on the war. In spite of this at 46 years of age he enlisted and served for a while because he felt a German/Austro-Hungarian victory would be a disaster for Europe.
Gorky worked to raise funds to assist with the Russian famine of 1920-21. One who responded, future President Herbert Hoover, was head of the American Relief Administration. About 5 million people died in this famine. Gorky had quarrels with Lenin and as a result of restrictions on his right to speak and write he moved first to Germany and later to Italy where he lived until 1928. Gorky returned to Russia bowing to constant requests by Stalin who recognized the political advantages of having Gorky on his side. This was the beginning of the “collusion” between Stalin and Gorky that led to the great tragedy in the last years of Gorky’s life. All of these events are well documented in an excellent online post: The Night Train for Naples: Gorky in Italy by Luciano Mangiafico.
Sadly Gorky became a pawn in the hands of Stalin, willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly, the truth remains to be discovered. In any case, the association with Stalin ruined Gorky’s reputation amongst the intelligentsia that continued to resist at the threat of imprisonment, torture, and death. It was likely the reason Gorki never received the Nobel Prize for which he was five times nominated.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke very harshly of Gorky. He conceded the author had “talent” but pointed out that “after his return to the Soviet Union in the 1920’s, he became a very sinister figure, a collaborator with the hangmen.” Gorky, he said, “shares responsibility for the destruction of Russian literature in the late 1920’s and early 30’s–he contributed to the suppression of the really valuable part of Soviet literature.”
Still, it’s not entirely clear if Gorky acted sincerely, and there were even rumors that Stalin threatened to send Gorky’s son to the camps. There is also evidence from prisoners themselves that they were made to dress all in white and take newspapers in their hands, welcoming the writer as if their life in the gulag was a resort. Some held newspapers upside down, and Gorky approached one and turned it right way up as a sign that he understood what was really going on.
Nevertheless, Gorky was severely criticized by non-conformist writers, who said that he had sold out to Stalin’s regime. Despite all of this, Gorky tried to help everyone who had a relative in prison, and it was always prestigious to have the proletarian writer as a friend.
“He not a classical writer like Fyodor Dostoevsky, but a representative of world literature,” says Armin Knigge (Maxim Gorky: The Literary Works), who is not only an expert on Gorky, but also a passionate fan of the five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature whose novels, stories and theater plays have been translated into more than 100 languages.
Knigge considers Gorky’s work a “portrait gallery of Russian people,” and sees the author as a humanist, a wise and rigorous observer on a level comparable to German writer Thomas Mann.
In the end, Gorky was used whether he approved or not, as an apologist for Stalin’s atrocities. In the bizarre atmosphere of the times, there was even a giant airplane named the Maxim Gorky that was used for propaganda purposes. Many today might learn from and take these failures in Gorky to heart (like James Comey quoted above).
One camp argues that Gorky betrayed his ideals and holds him responsible in great measure for the disasters that befell his country, blaming in turn Gorky’s love for fame and the good life that Stalin offered him in exchange for his services.
Writers of the other “camp” defend Gorky by asserting that, as some maintain, he did not know what was hidden behind “the Potemkin villages” lages” shown to him and that he believed, or wanted to believe, that the socialist system was and would always be forging ahead towards a better future for the people.
From this viewpoint, Gorky helped defend the USSR against the fascist tide.
In between the two camps we find those who explain the tragedy of Maxim Gorky by an analysis of Gorky’s humanism, which they believe led to contradictions in himself self and ultimately to his tragic end. Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography, Tovah Yedlin
So what lessons can Americans draw from the tragedy of Maxim Gorky? What about the grandkids? The best of us have fatal flaws and we must always be on our guard. We must speak up, carry on, and champion the values and ideals that make America great. It is not for great authors alone, for the scientists, for the politicians, for the press, or for any group or individual but for all of us to participate in this the most basic and necessary safeguard of freedom and democracy. I think of the words of Edward Kennedy in the eloquent eulogy of his brother Robert:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
Maxim Gorky may have failed to be consistent in the end. He was a complicated human being. Aren’t we all. To his credit, he knew his faults:
“We artists are in essence an irresponsible lot.”
The great critic and writer Andrei Sinyavsky (aka Abram Tertz) pointed out in his book on The Russian Intelligentsia that it was still even after perestroika all too easy to accommodate to power. It remains so today in the time of Putin (and Trump). He speaks of how the Russian intelligentsia was co-opted by Yeltsin and how “this reminded me of the beginning of the 1930s when the intelligentsia closed its eyes to the horrendous famines and disasters in the villages and maintained its silence.”
Sinyavsky does not exempt even himself (although he spent 7 years in prison): “I hold this against the intelligentsia and against myself. I had thought too much about the sufferings of the intelligentsia caused by official oppression and almost forgot how the intelligentsia had sold out. I realized that all of this had already happened in the past, that the intelligentsia had then believed that it held power, that it had in fact come close to the corridors of power, and that comrade Stalin himself had gone to have tea with the great writer Maxim Gorky.”
We must never forget this lesson. Gorky is not the only human being to accommodate authoritarian power nor will he be the last. Today, as James Comey laments it is the Republicans but the rest of us will have our chance. Speak truth to power or forever suffer the consequences. That is the lesson of the tragedy of Maxim Gorky’s life. He was a great writer but he could have been a greater human being. This is not to make light of difficult choices. I can’t be sure what I would do under similar circumstances.
All of these random thoughts arose from a few napkins produced on a Sunday afternoon at the Sea Gull Cellar Bar that once existed but does no more. Wasted? No Mr. Hoggard, you were quite sober and sane. When you had your Gorky moment you opened a can of worms and we will be eating them until the end of time.
Having risen from the what he called the “lower depths,” Gorky, whom a contemporary critic labelled “an emissary from the anonymous Russian masses,” believed in the ability of the common man to ultimately shape his destiny and be an agent of positive change. He proclaimed in a famous line: “Man – it has a proud ring! …He even invented God.” The Night Train for Naples: Gorky in Italy, Luciano Mangiafico
Great post, KD. Ever been to Gorky Park in Moscow? Named after Max. One of my favorite movies is Gorky Park.
The Russians are no longer coming, they’re here!
Thanks for sharing the Seagull Cellar Bar napkin art. I was there.
Good times not forgotten. (In fact, I remember when the Cellar Bar
was in the basement.)