Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

In 1901, Maxim Gorky began to think about writing a novel tracing several generations of a Russian bourgeois family. It was more than twenty years before he actually published this work. In 1916, the publication of the novel was announced, only for Gorky to postpone writing it until after the October Revolution. Not until 1925, while living in Italy, did Gorky actually complete the novel, which depicts the beginning of industrial development in Russia, its brief fluorescence, and its downfall under the blows of the Bolshevik Revolution.

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A former serf, Ilya Artamonov, the founder of the dynasty, is a typical representative of the newly born Russian merchant class. He builds a linen factory in a small provincial town of Dromov despite the hostility and apprehension of the townspeople. Energetic and self-confident, he neither looks back nor wastes his time. He goes forward, destroying all obstacles to his goal, and becomes the richest factory owner in his district. When Ilya dies, his sons take over and expand the business. Ultimately, however, the pattern is one of decline. Partly this is because of his sons’ lack of vision, but mainly it is because of the impending revolution. Pyotr, as the oldest son, heads the factory, but he lacks Ilya’s enthusiasm or passion for work. He carries on the business as a heavy duty but does not really understand the purpose of his hard work. Although the factory prospers, Pyotr’s alienation from his wife, children, and brothers grows. Trapped by the routines of life, unable to comprehend the political changes around him, he finds consolation in drinking and debauchery. His brother Nikita spends most of his life in the monastery, telling beautiful lies to pilgrims who seek his advice. When he discovers that there is nothing spiritual or sacred even in the monastery, he returns home to die.

Unlike his brothers, Alexey is full of energy and new ideas. He is interested in art and education, in the political and social life of the country. Always on the run, he is a real capitalist, a proprietor who believes in the power of millions of Russian men and in the possibility of creating a new Russian capitalist economy. His son Miron is also totally absorbed in the political and social issues of the day. He plans not only to become head of the business but to play an important political role in the renewed bourgeois Russia. Like other Russian bourgeois liberals, he tries to turn Russian history in a new direction, toward industrialization, progress, and culture. Father and son symbolize the new Russian intelligentsia. They hold the future of Russia in their hands but are too weak and selfish to protect the country from the coming socialist revolution. The factory business born at the beginning of the novel dies with the arrival of the new era. The last pages of the book sound like an apocalypse—the end of the Artamonovs and their business, the end of all progressive beginnings. The finale is shocking. Pyotr is dying, hungry, in his garden house, and the Red Army soldiers are patrolling his house. Only because his oldest son Ilya is a Bolshevik is Pyotr still alive. Gorky ends his novel with a revolution that brings neither triumph nor happiness, only bitterness and sadness.

Extraordinarily laconic yet amazingly full of depth, this novel imbues each detail with significance. Gorky describes with love and care the old Russian wedding ceremony, with its traditions and rituals, brilliantly depicts several holiday celebrations and sprees at yearly merchant fairs, and sprinkles throughout Russian proverbs, sayings, and folk poetry. The action of the novel develops at different speeds. The first half of the book describes seven years of Ilya’s activities, which lay the foundation of his family business. The second half depicts the following forty-seven years in which not only the Artamonov dynasty but also the whole country flourishes and then collapses. Gorky masterfully uses real historical events of the first Russian Revolution of 1905, World War I, and the Revolution of 1917 as a background for portraying individual characters. He distances himself from the passing events and his heroes. Instead, it is the yardkeeper Tikhon Vyalov who survives all three generations of the Artamonovs as an independent witness and a secret judge. Ilya’s grandchildren are born and then, like his sons, leave the stage; new characters appear, but Tikhon is still there. He watches everything, remembers everything, evaluating life and giving philosophical comments on the passing events. He is a symbol of the Russian people, a folk sage never precise about anything, who speaks in riddles and is an enigma himself.

Soviet critics praised The Artamonov Business for its truthful depiction of the growth of political activity of Russian working people and their fight against the bourgeoisie. They placed the novel among the best works in the traditions of Socialist Realism. With the collapse of Communism and the Soviet empire, new Russian critics have rejected Gorky, blaming him for his direct call for terror and violence and for his justification of repression. The critical extremes of exaggerated praise and then equally exaggerated attacks are based on changing philosophical loyalties. Such criticism ignores the truly complex and contradictory personality of a great writer who was against any form of oppression and violence, who was for democracy and progress, who tried to depict life as it was and to understand what was going on in his beloved Russia. The Artamonov Business is a great proof of Gorky’s quest to find the truth and to depict life as it was, with all its turmoil and injustice. The reader only has to look with open eyes devoid of political prejudice to see Gorky’s honest attempt to capture social, political, and human complexities.

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