Maxim Gorky

(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111206323-Gorky.jpg Maxim Gorky (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Gorky is recognized as the founding father of Soviet literature, influencing the development of the Soviet short story and the proletarian novel and drama. His reminiscences of both Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy give valuable, insightful observations about two older contemporaries. Equally important is his contribution to the Bolshevik revolutionary movement as one of its chief supporters and journalists. Because of his close associations with Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin, he became the official cultural spokesman for the new government.

Early Life

Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov was born on March 28, 1868, in Nizhni Novgorod, a city which once expelled him but which Stalin later renamed Gorki in honor of its most famous son. Gorky’s father, an upholsterer, died of cholera when Gorky was only four, and his mother took him with her to live with her parents, the Kashirins. From his earliest days, young Gorky suffered the harshest and most brutal experiences. The Kashirins were cantankerous, depraved, and mercenary. His life with them was a miserable nightmare. Except for his grandmother, the household radiated hostility. At times his grandfather beat him until he was unconscious. This youthful suffering implanted in him a lasting empathy for the pain and misfortunes of others.

When he was nine, his mother died, and his grandfather drove him from the household, telling him that he must go out into the world and make his own way. For fifteen years he wandered through Russia supporting himself by working in a boot shop and as an office boy, a railway porter, dishwasher on barges along the Volga, longshoreman, janitor, and laborer in a basement bakery.

While with the Kashirins, he had received his only formal education. He sought to continue to educate himself by reading voraciously and experimenting with writing. During those years, mixing with outcasts who were seeking to eke out their existence through the most degrading work, he became disillusioned with the whole social structure. Life was unfolding before him as an unending chain of hostility and cruelty. He was distressed at the sordid, unceasing struggle by so many for worthless objects. Yet through these observations, his personal experiences, and his reading he was growing mentally and gaining a greater self-assurance.

At one point, however, when only nineteen, he became so despondent that he unsuccessfully attempted suicide. For weeks he was in the hospital recuperating from a wounded lung, perforated by the bullet. This experience was the turning point in his life. He left the hospital consumed by a radical rebellion against the social order. The next year he joined a subversive Marxist group and was arrested while involved in their activities. From that point on, he was under police surveillance. In 1892, he published his first short story, “Makar Chudra,” in a local newspaper, using his pseudonym, Maxim Gorky, which means “Maxim the Bitter One.” In 1895, another story, “Chelkash,” was published by a prominent journal in St. Petersburg. Three years later an anthology of his stories appeared. Immediately the two foremost living Russian authors, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, recognized that a new young literary talent had joined their company.

Life’s Work

The publication in 1898 of the first volume of his stories, Ocherki i rasskazy (partial translation, Selected Short Stories, 1970), was a tremendous success. He had depicted characters even lower on the social scale than Fyodor Dostoevski’s city dwellers: the peasant, the workingman, downtrodden tramps, factory workers, and social outcasts, living in terrible squalor and dwelling on the fringe of society. His stories concerned the most elemental passions and the struggle for survival. They were written in the language of the proletariat. The public received them with rapture, and it was natural that he should become the spokesman for the rising proletariat.

Gorky was also interested in the theater. In 1898, he had established a rustic theater in the Ukraine. He had also developed a warm relationship with Chekhov and through him was introduced to Konstantin Stanislavsky of the Moscow Art Theatre, who urged him to write a drama concerning the proletariat, something completely new for his theater. The result was Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths, 1906). After radical cuts, the czarist government permitted its production, thinking it would fail. Rather, it was received with enthusiastic applause, an enthusiasm that spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic.

Shortly after his attempted suicide in 1888, Gorky came under the influence of Mikhail Antonovich Romas, the Populist revolutionary who influenced his social and political views. Because of his involvement in subversive Marxist activities, he was arrested and imprisoned a number of times. In 1899, he became the literary editor of the Marxist newspaper Zhizn (life), in which he expressed his concerns about social injustice. After the success of The Lower Depths, he had become a national hero and was elected to the Imperial Academy of Sciences. At the request of Czar Nicholas II, the appointment was withdrawn. In objection to this insult to Gorky, both Vladimir Korolenko and Chekhov resigned from the academy. In 1905, Gorky assisted Father George Gapon in the abortive revolution for which he was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. During that year, he first met and began a lifelong friendship with Lenin. In December, he was the moving spirit behind the barricade fighters in their armed rising in Moscow.

Gorky’s growing fame led to a triumphal tour through Europe and an enthusiastic reception in New York City, where he had been sent to raise funds for the Bolshevik cause and to undermine the czar’s efforts to procure a loan. The United States turned on him, however, when his enemies revealed that his companion, the actress Maria Fyodorovna Andreyevna, was not his wife. He retaliated by denouncing New York as...

(The entire section is 2506 words.)