March 05, 2000

Maxim Gorky


Maxim Gorky

Maksim Gorky {Максим Горкий} was born in Nizhy Novgorod, Russia, on March 16, 1868 {old calendar}. He was a Russian naturalist writer who first gained notice for his vivid stories about the less fortunate; namely vagrants and those cast aside by society. Gorky's father died when he was five and he was raised by his grandfather. Both of the elder men were common laborers, struggling to make a living. Gorky's grandfather fell on hard times and, as a result, treated the young boy harshly. An orphan and somewhat of an outcast himself, Gorky became very familiar with cruelty and rejection. What little kindness he received, as a child, came from his grandmother.

Gorky had little, if any, formal education. His grandfather forced him to begin making his own way at the age of eight. The boy took whatever odd jobs he could find including errand boy for an iconographer, dishwasher on a steamer ship, assistant to a shoemaker and so on. He was often beaten by his employers and half starved. To escape the misery of his own life, Gorky became an avid reader. Unlike most other prominent authors, Maskim Gorky was not an educated man and was much more attune to the condition of the lower levels of current society. His birth name is not known. Gorky means bitter and is the pseudonym he adopted in his early teens. This name described both his young life and the way he often felt.

Gorky spent his early adult years in Kazan where he worked as a night guard, baker and dock hand. As always, he associated with all types of people and heard much about early Russian revolutionary ideas. Repulsed by the idealistic attitudes towards peasants and overcome by the miseries of his own life, Gorky attempted to kill himself at age 21. Instead of succeeding, he left Kazan, wandered from town to town across southern Russia and picking up odd jobs along the way.

In 1892, Gorky's first piece was published. Years of hardship and travel had given the writer a passionate and determined style. His first major work, Chelkash {1895}, marked the beginning of his breathtaking rise to fame and recognition. In 1899, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl was published. This moving story addresses the contemptible working conditions in a city bakery. So eloquent and poignant was Gorky's writing that he began to be compared with and on the same level as Tolstoy and Chekhov.

Gorky entered the twentieth century writing novels and plays. Few of them received favorable criticism as the author tended to leave his plot and wander off to explore the deeper meaning of human existence. Mat {1906}; Mother; was probably the least well received of any of Gorky's work during this period. This is not too surprising as it is Gorky's single longest and most in-depth work on the Russian revolutionary movement. It has since been considered of great value, not only for its literary style, but for the unique insight it offers into the ideals and lives of the Russian lower working class. Gorky's single most important dramatic work was The Lower Depths {1902}. This is a play dealing with the typical characters and themes of suffering, bitterness and desperation that were common to Gorky's work.

During this period {1899-1906}, Gorky lived in St. Petersburg and became fascinated with Marxism. He favored Lenin's Bolshevik party, yet there is no evidence of him formally joining. Curiously, Gorky gave much of his earnings to the Bolsheviks and soon became one of their primary sources of financial support. Gorky was elected to the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences in 1902. But, this honor didn't last long as his election was rescinded for political reasons. This action angered Gorky's contemporary, Anton Chekhov, to the point that he resigned his membership in protest. By this time, Gorky had developed tuberculosis; the disease which killed Chekhov in 1910. He moved, for a time, to Crimea.

Gorky participated in the 1905 revolution, was arrested and promptly released. His release was due, in part, to foreign protests. Sensing support for the plight of the down trodden, Gorky set out for America. The year was 1906. Hosted by the infamous American writer, Mark Twain, Gorky was, initially well received. However, this hospitable welcome soon turned cold when it was discovered that Gorky's traveling companion, Maria Andreyeva, was not his wife; indeed, she was his mistress! Gorky's reaction to all of this was certainly not complacent. He expressed his disgust in a series of stories, such as Gorod zholtogo dyavola {The City of the Yellow Devil}, about America and, in particular, New York City.

Gorky spent the next seven years in exile, mostly at his villa on Capri. His works continued to be popular with the common people, but lost favor in the eyes of the educated class. Lenin and his party were not pleased with Gorky during this time, either. During his time in exile, Gorky delved into religion and philosophy. The wrote the novel, Ispoved {A Confession}, in 1908. This outraged the more orthodox Marxists. On the whole, the Marxists tolerated Gorky and his writing in favor of the powerful influence he had with the people.

During WWI, Gorky agreed with the Bolshevik stand against Russian involvement in the war. However, he was against their overthrow of the government, in 1917, and the assassination of the Romanov family. Lenin suppressed and heavily censored Gorky's publications in which the author boldly spoke out against the new regime's heavy-handed tactics. During the early post-revolutionary years, Gorky complied with Lenin's demands so as to be able to relieve the suffering of his fellow authors and work to preserve valuable writings and works of art.

During this period of conformity, Gorky was busy working on his greatest masterpiece. In fact, this work is considered to be the finest Russian autobiography. From 1913-1923, Gorky wrote his autobiographical trilogy; Detstvo {My Childhood}, V lyudyakh {In the World} and Mao universitety {My Universities}. Even though these books are autobiographical, they deal mostly with the many characters and people who where a part of Gorky's childhood and early adult years. Specific references to himself are brief, at best. He tells the story of his life and the people in it with little attempt to analyze or explain it. Gorky continued to stress the importance of personal fortitude and contemptible nature of human cruelty.

Gorky did not return to Russia, then the Soviet Union, until his 60th birthday {1928}. He was surprised by a lavish state party and welcome. It was during this time that Stalin came into power. Gorky was courted and used as a political puppet. His position as Russia's foremost living writer was used to promote the Soviet views. In 1934, Gorky became the first president of the newly created Soviet Writers' Union which endorsed writers who produced, what amounted to, political propaganda for the Soviet. Gorky continued to write on his own, dealing almost totally with the time before the revolution. The best work ,of Gorky's last years, was Vospominaniya o Tolstom {Reminiscences of Leo Tolstoy} and O pisatelyzkh {About Writers}. At the same time, Gorky wrote pamphlets promoting even the cruelest activities of the Stalin regime. All of this is simply called staying alive!

Maksim Gorky died on June 14, 1936. His death was sudden, even though he had suffered from tuberculosis for over thirty years. The cause of Gorky's death is not certain. During a trial, in 1938, of a group of right-wing activists, a former police chief named Yagoda, confessed to ordering Gorky's assassination for his pro-Stalin "crimes."

In hindsight, it is clear that Maksim Gorky was a common man, elevated to uncommon fame. He never stopped opposing the oppression and cruelty doled out to the masses of Russia's peasant population. He felt deeply and this is shown in his works. The fact that his literary style is less polished than other, more educated writers, is of little consequence. In fact it lends more realism to his subject matter. Historically, Gorky's works are extremely important as they offer the single most comprehensive account of the lives of the common folk during the period of turmoil, revolution and early Soviet control in Russia.

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