When Maxim Gorki was writing his novel Mother (also known as The Mother), Russia was undergoing unprecedented social upheaval. The revolutionary fervor that was ruthlessly put down by the Czar’s secret police in the event known as Bloody Sunday (not to be confused with Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday), in which around 100 protestors were killed and hundreds more wounded. It was the culmination of the violent activities perpetrated by loyalists and rebels alike. Nicholas II was known to be an anemic leader whose capacity for governing was suspect. While he would begin to implement political reforms following that January 1905 day, it was too little too late for the increasingly militant and radical revolutionaries, especially the Socialist-Revolutionary party. For millions of workers and peasants, the situation remained exceedingly bleak. Gorki’s novel was an effort on his part to sanctify the revolutionary movement that would later come to power.
The motivating factors in Mother involve the desperate conditions under which ordinary Russians were forced to exist. More a political tract than a well-told story, Gorki’s protagonists are noble revolutionaries dedicated to social justice. Early in Part I, the author describes the dismal conditions of the factories in which the down-trodden workers slaved away for the benefit of the moneyed classes. Ruling on the history of czarism and the exploitation of workers and peasants, and the effects of generations of oppression and disregard for the working conditions of those in the factories, Gorky wrote:
“This lurking malice steadily increased, inveterate as the incurable weariness in their muscles. They were born with this disease of the soul inherited from their fathers. Like a black shadow it accompanied them to their graves, spurring on their lives to crime, hideous in its aimless cruelty and brutality.”
Gorki’s characters, chief among them Pavel and his friends, have committed their young lives to correcting these historical wrongs, much to the initial amusement, mixed with a certain justified trepidation, of Pavel’s mother, Pelagueya, who becomes an integral part of the group’s political activities. Commenting on her son’s unusual mixture of friends, Pelagueya tells Pavel:
”What queer people you are!” said the mother to the Little Russian one day. ”All are your comrades–the Armenians and the Jews and the Austrians. You speak about all as of your friends; you grieve for all, and you rejoice for all!”
Pavel’s excited response: ”For all, mother dear, for all! The world is ours! The world is for the workers!”
Gorki repeatedly emphasizes his characters’ motivations in risking their lives for the betterment of others. In Chapter 7, he describes Pavel’s growing reputation for knowledge and integrity despite the continuous air of suspicion that surrounds him among the inherently conservative peasantry:
“The little old gray house of the Vlasovs attracted the attention of the village more and more; and although there was much suspicious chariness and unconscious hostility in this notice, yet at the same time a confiding curiosity grew up also. Now and then someone would come over, and looking carefully about him would say to Pavel: ‘Well, brother, you are reading books here, and you know the laws. Explain to me, then—-‘ And he would tell Pavel about some injustice of the police or the factory administration. In complicated cases Pavel would give the man a note to a lawyer friend in the city, and when he could, he would explain the case himself.”
Pavel, his mother, and their friends are motivated by the most noble of ambitions. They reject the injustices that permeate Russian society and, at great personal risk, continuously strive to improve the world. Gorki’s novel is more than a little naïve, but that naivete is understandable given Russia’s history and the context in which this story was written. The motives of these young revolutionaries are pure; that their efforts will all be naught courtesy of Lenin, Stalin, and the rest, was beyond Gorki’s vision.