Maxim Gorki

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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 death—remain clouded by a paucity of factual records and obfuscation caused by efforts to make him a sacred figure within the Soviet literary establishment.

Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov (Gorky, his nom de plume, means “bitter”) was born in 1868 in Nizhny-Novgorod, a major trading and manufacturing center on the Volga River, famous for its annual fair. When he was three years old, the Peshkovs moved to Astrakhan, another town on the Volga. The young Aleksey contracted cholera during an epidemic. Although he recovered, his father caught the disease and died. The mother and son returned to Nizhny-Novgorod and moved in with her parents, the Kashirins. Vasily Kashirin owned a dye-works in the town and was stern with both his workers and his family. Aleksey, however, became extremely close to his grandmother, Akulina, who instilled in him a fondness for folktales that remained with him all his life and had a great influence on his work. After his mother’s death in 1879, the eleven-year-old Aleksey worked as an apprentice in various shops and began his education, which consisted largely of reading works of fiction. In 1884, he went to Kazan, where he hoped to enter the university. Lacking sufficient knowledge or funds, however, he worked instead at a number of different jobs and, in 1887, underwent a crisis that led to an attempt at suicide. He first came into contact with revolutionary movements during his Kazan period, and his growing political awareness was to determine many of his future interests. Over the next several years, he wandered about much of southern Russia, in between periods of work back in Nizhny-Novgorod. His adventures as a boy and his youthful travels provided him with much of the impetus for his fiction.

Gorky’s first story, “Makar Chudra,” was published in 1892. His stories began to appear regularly in various newspapers from cities along the Volga. Soon his works were also coming out in the more important literary journals, and when a two-volume collection of his short pieces appeared in 1898, his fame was instantaneous. From then on, he became an increasingly prominent literary figure as well as a spokesperson for revolutionary politics. His stories, plays, and novels all received both critical and popular acclaim; Gorky soon achieved an international reputation. His election as an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences in 1902 was annulled by the czar as a result of Gorky’s political activities. Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Korolenko both resigned their honorary memberships in protest. Gorky was caught up in the revolutionary activities of 1905, was briefly arrested, and the...

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following year left Russia. After a not entirely successful trip to the United States to raise funds for the revolutionary cause, he settled in Capri, where he had one of his most productive periods as a writer. His most intensive work as a playwright came during the years 1902-1910, when he completed nine full-length plays, including nearly all those that are best known in the West:The Lower Depths, Summer Folk, and Enemies. A measure of Gorky’s fame was the appearance of his plays in foreign translations (and performances) virtually simultaneously with their production in Russia.

The period of upheaval that came with World War I and the October Revolution caused Gorky to turn most of his energies to publicistic writings and, after the revolution, to tireless efforts to help his fellow writers. Although a strong supporter of the Bolsheviks during the years leading up to the revolution, Gorky had many differences with Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership over the next few years. A combination of those differences and his own poor health caused him to leave the Soviet Union in 1921 and settle once again in Italy. He did not return before 1928, and from then on, he made lengthy visits before settling permanently in the Soviet Union in 1933. From about 1915 until 1930, he did very little work in the dramatic form, but over the last few years of his life, he published two new plays and a total reworking of of Vassa Zheleznova. In addition, he revised other works and wrote another full-length play that remained unpublished. During this last period, he was venerated within Russia as the “Father of Soviet Literature” and received numerous rewards and honors, including the renaming of his hometown as Gorki. In his public pronouncements, Gorky was a vehement supporter of the government, though it has been suggested that he was growing uncomfortable with the increasingly oppressive atmosphere. His sole surviving child, Maxim, died in an accident in 1934. Gorky’s death in 1936 when he was sixty-eight was at first described as the result of pneumonia and then blamed on a Trotskyite conspiracy to murder him. Within the former Soviet Union his death is again considered to have come from natural causes, though the story of a conspiracy has left many with a suspicion that Joseph Stalin somehow had a hand in Gorky’s demise.