Maxim Gorky was born Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov on March 28, 1868, in a central Russian town, Nizhniy-Novgorod, into a small-merchant family. The family became impoverished in his childhood, and when Gorky was three, his father died and his mother remarried. After she died, he went to live with his grandparents but left home at fifteen, looking for work. He wandered through Russia for several years. At one time, he attempted suicide because of his hard life. Then, he met one of the leading Russian writers, Vladimir Korolenko, and his life was changed forever, as he discovered an ability and urge to write. He published his first story, “Makar Chudra,” in 1892, under the pseudonym of Maxim Gorky (“Maxim the Bitter”), a name that he kept throughout his career. He continued to write at a steady pace for the rest of his life.
He was arrested as a political activist in 1898, an event that foreshadowed a lifetime of revolutionary activity. The publication in 1899 of his first novel, Foma Gordeyev, established him as a leading younger writer and brought him the friendship of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and other well-known writers. He was arrested again but released at Tolstoy’s intervention. He fled to Finland, visited the United States in 1906, and settled on the Italian island of Capri, where he met Vladimir Ilich Lenin and other Russian luminaries, who flocked to him as on a pilgrimage. He returned to Russian in 1913, continued the revolutionary struggle, and was arrested several more times before the Revolution of 1917. During the revolution, he lent total support to the Bolshevik cause. At the same time, he was appalled by the excesses and brutality of the civil war, and he tried to save what he could of Russian culture threatened by the revolution. He also helped established writers to survive by organizing, translating, and publishing activities, and he also encouraged the younger ones to write.
By then, he was a world-famous figure, his works having been published in many countries. In 1921, he left Russia for Capri, where he stayed for seven years, ostensibly for his health but more likely because of his disagreement with the developments in postrevolutionary Russia. In 1928, he made peace with the country’s leaders and returned to Russia. He spent the rest of his life being revered as the patriarch of Soviet letters, yet, strangely enough, he never wrote anything with the Soviet reality as a subject matter. His health, which was poor throughout his life, deteriorated severely, and he died in 1936 from tuberculosis, although rumors about foul play persist to this day. He was buried in the Kremlin as a national figure, and his hometown was renamed for him.
Maxim Gorky presents the would-be biographer with a paradox. On one hand, vast amounts of information exist about certain periods in his life. Gorky himself composed, in addition to his autobiographical trilogy, numerous memoirs as well as sketches and stories that are directly based on his life. In 1930, replying to a questionnaire that had been sent to a group of prominent writers, he noted that autobiographical material served as the basis for most of his works. Further, from the late 1890’s on, he lived an extremely public life. As a literary celebrity his every pronouncement was recorded, his letters saved by his correspondents, his deeds recalled and described by countless memoirists. On the other hand, not all the material is reliable. Memoirists can be self-serving. Gorky himself treated his autobiographical writings as literary rather than purely factual works, and even the correspondence sometimes reveals contradictory information. Also, several aspects of Gorky’s biography—his activities just after the 1917 revolution, his life in the Soviet Union following his return, and the circumstances of his...
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