Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500
Growing up in poverty, Aleksey Peshkov was forced to work from an early age. His interest in writing fortunately caught the eye of writers and publishers, who encouraged him during the 1890’s. Leading literary figures of the period, including Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, praised his talent. Under the pseudonym of “Gorky,” he wrote short stories, plays (notably The Lower Depths, 1902), and novels. By the early twentieth century his work was translated and became known in the West.
Gorky’s reputation in literature was matched by his social activism and his criticisms of Russia’s society and imperial political system. Czarist bureaucrats periodically kept him under surveillance, and he was briefly imprisoned on several occasions. Tolstoy’s personal intercession with the authorities gained Gorky’s release in one instance. Gorky was elected to the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences in 1902, but academy officers overruled his selection because of his objectionable political reputation. Chekhov resigned from the academy in protest.
Gorky briefly participated in Russia’s 1905 revolution, and once again was imprisoned. Widespread public support from the West helped gain his release. Admired as a champion of freedom and democracy, he traveled through Europe and the United States. A controversy occurred in New York in 1906, however, when it became known his female traveling companion was not his wife—from whom he had long been separated, but not divorced. This wounding of American moral sensibilities undercut the success of his visit, as Gorky had to cancel several public lectures and meetings with prominent figures, including President Theodore Roosevelt. American support for Russian reform suffered as a consequence. Gorky left the United States, angered by the public intrusion into his private life.
Later years saw Gorky participate in the revolutionary movement in Russia, including membership in the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democratic Party. The party took full advantage of having a literary figure of national reputation as one of its leading advocates. Gorky’s hopes for the creation of a just society sustained his support of the Bolshevik movement, but he occasionally questioned V. I. Lenin’s ruthless leadership during and after the 1917 revolution.
After the revolution Gorky sponsored and directed numerous social and cultural projects. He wished to protect and encourage Russia’s vibrant and valuable culture. But he observed the pressures and restrictions imposed on both ordinary citizens and intellectuals under the new Soviet regime, as Bolshevism proved to be oppressive and destructive, even as it was taking Russia out of the czarist era. Gorky left the Soviet Union in 1921, but returned home in 1928.
Gorky spent his final years in the repressive cultural atmosphere of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. He supported the theory of Socialist Realism in literature in the 1930’s, with its sympathetic proletarian emphasis, and he directed the national writers’ association. This organization, shaped by communist ideology, became notorious for its repression of literary independence. Gorky’s death in 1936 raised suspicions of foul play at the hands of the secret police, but available evidence has not supported them.