Hostage of the Revolution
Kolesnikova, Valentina, Russian Life
After Lenin and Stalin, no personality was as venerated in the USSR as the writer Maxim Gorky, founder of socialist realism, who died 60 years ago this June. The list of landmarks and locations named for him is lengthy: a famous park, theater and street in Moscow (in his lifetime, no less), Russia's third largest city, and a film studio.
But far from a 'pet' of the Communist regime, Gorky, the 'stormy petrel of the revolution,' also condemned the revolution early on as a 'cruel experiment' with the Russian people 'doomed to failure.' Valentina Kolesnikova here traces the fascinating, often controversial, story of his life.
Alexei Maximovich Peshkov had the most modest beginnings imaginable. He was born to a petty bourgeois family in Nizhny Novgorod on March 28, 1868. Orphaned in his early years, he was earning his living by the age of eleven, working as errand-boy, dishwasher, artist's apprentice and at other odd jobs. He experienced abuse, hunger, poverty, injustice and social inequality, and his revolutionary views were firmly shaped from this early age. His hard life prompted him to adopt the pen-name Gorky, from the Russian word for 'bitter.'
He educated himself, making only one attempt to receive formal education at Kazan University in 1884. He was turned down for being a vagrant and not of aristocratic stock. Instead he worked as a hired laborer, and in despair attempted suicide in 1887. He shot himself through the lung, which was to trouble him for the rest of his life.
In 1889 Gorky settled in Nizhny Novgorod, the city later named after him, and befriended political exiles. For the next three years he wandered through Russia, and in 1892 his first short story Makar Chudra was printed. His 1899 Sketches and Stories brought him fame abroad. The freshness and popularity of his writing was due to the fact that he created fascinating characters drawn primarily from the lumpenproletariat, with which he sympathized greatly (vs. the peasantry, which he categorically despised). Behind the miserable exterior of tramps, gypsies, beggars and thieves, he found the qualities he cherished: love of freedom, generosity and morality.
His contemporaries, Lev Tolstoi and Anton Chekhov, both praised his talents highly (indeed, Chekhov, among others, resigned from the Russian Academy when Gorky's election to the same  was declared invalid by the Russian government).
Gorky was always in search of ultimate values, which in his early life he identified with revolutionary goals. In his poem, Song of the Stormy Petrel (1901) the bird-hero keeps announcing: "The storm! The storm is coming!" Later, the tag burevestnik (stormy petrel) of the revolution would be applied to Gorky himself.
In his search, Gorky first aligned himself with the Social Democrats, signing petitions, speaking for the left wing of the Russian intelligentsia, and even getting involved with a secret printing press, which got him a short Siberian exile in 1901. In the next few years, he meanwhile established himself as a dramatist, with plays such as The Lower Depths (1902) and Summer Folk (1904). He actively and openly supported the abortive 1905 revolution, and in the summer of 1905 joined the Bolshevik Party.
Gorky left Russia in 1906 to avoid the post-revolution crackdown and traveled to the US, supported by Mark Twain, giving talks on the goals and importance of the Russian revolution, with the aim of raising funds for the Party and preventing the tsarist government getting a US loan to suppress the revolution.
While in the US (of which his impressions were highly negative), he wrote what became his most famous work, Mother. This was to be the first example of socialist realist literature and politically one of the most important pieces of Russian literature of this century. In Mother, Gorky predicts the bloodshed that the revolution would bring and focused greatly on the trouble that the Russian peasantry would cause the revolution - a reflection of his lifelong scorn for the Russian peasant.
Still, the novel reflects Gorky's great hope in the revolution. In this respect, Mother was a product made to order for the revolutionary movement (all 'comrades' were chaste, fearless, wise and courageous; 'enemies' were cruel and unscrupulous cowards) yet of questionable artistic value. In 1907, Lenin called Mother "a useful, very pertinent [book] that many workers will profit from immensely by reading." The main character is Pavel Vlasov, based on Gorky's jailed acquaintance Pyotr Zalomov, whom he supported and supplied with money to arrange for his escape. Gorky also knew Zalomov's mother, who became the book's heroine.
From 1906 to 1913, until the Russian government declared a general amnesty that allowed him to return safely, Gorky lived on Capri. During that period he wrote what are widely consider his best literary works, the trilogy Childhood, In the World and My University Years and the stories All Over Russia. The author showed himself to be strongest when relating details of his own life, when he was seeking less to make a point, as with Mother, but instead to relate impressions and experiences, and focus on characters and dialogue.
Returning to Russia, Gorky was thrust into the events leading up to the revolution. Very quickly, however, he came to understand that the projected Russian revolution was infinitely remote from his vision of fairness and human freedom. And while condemning the dull, tedious and idiotic ways of pre-revolutionary Russia, he had an at best ambivalent relationship with Lenin's revolution.
In 1917 and 1918, Gorky published a series of articles in the Menshevik newspaper, New Life, Untimely Reflections. In them he voiced concerns that revolution would only unleash anarchic, individualistic and petty-bourgeois elements. He further called the October coup and subsequent Bolshevik policies a 'cruel experiment' with the Russian people. It was, he said, 'doomed to failure.' He condemned the Red Terror and according to Eduard Radzinsky in his book, Stalin, Gorky branded his former friend Lenin "an adventurer, prepared to betray the interests of the proletariat in the most shameful fashion."
Curiously, however, Lenin was able to persuade Gorky to collaborate with the revolution and Bolshevik rhetoric. In the years 1918-1921, various critics claim Gorky was deeply involved in building socialist culture. In fact, he resisted the destructive revolutionary onslaught quite actively and sought to save what he could of the old way of life, including the lives of many prominent writers and artists.
Yet Gorky's conflict with the regime continued to grow. When he wrote a play critical of the regime, Radzinsky says, "then Petrograd Party boss Zinoviev repaid him by accusing him of 'accursed tsarism,' banning the play and searching his apartment. Zinoviev even threatened to arrest people close to Gorky but he wouldn't be put off." Instead, Gorky wrote in New Life, "This is just what we can expect from a regime which fears the light of publicity, is anti-democratic, tramples on basic human rights ... and sends punitive expeditionary forces against the peasants."
Apparently that was the last straw. Zinoviev closed down New Life and Lenin 'advised' Gorky to leave Russia. He left in 1921, ostensibly to seek medical treatment for TB. For three years he lived in Germany and Czechoslovakia, then in 1924 settled in Sorrento, Italy.
A timely return
After Lenin's death, Stalin needed the blessing of an internationally-known figure, one who could help him win the hearts and minds of Russian intellectuals and do away with modernist art and literature - Gorky and his socialist realism fit the bill perfectly. According to Radzinsky, Secret Police Chief Genrikh Yagoda was given the task of persuading Gorky to come back.
From 1928 onwards, Gorky was inundated with telegrams and letters from his homeland from groups of 'workers,' prompted by Yagoda, saying they missed their great writer. In the same year Stalin organized unprecedented celebrations for Gorky's 60th birthday. His portraits and articles about him filled all the newspapers. Says Radzinsky: "Through Yagoda's emissaries, Stalin offered Gorky the position of spiritual leader, of second man in the state." Stalin knew better than anyone how to play on human weakness - living abroad, Gorky missed his former fame.
Stalin's calculations soon paid off - that same year Gorky agreed to visit the USSR to see what had been accomplished by the Bolsheviks.
"Collectivization interested him," writes Radzinsky. "He had always hated the 'half-savage, stupid, awkward people in Russian villages' (i.e. the peasantry). His hopes were raised by the fact that they would now be converted into a rural branch of the proletariat he so loved, as workers in state and collective farms."
Yagoda, whom Gorky affectionately called Yagodka (little berry) took the writer on a tour around the GPU (secret police) camps. He was so touched by the successes of reeducation, Radzinsky avers, that he actually sang the organization's praises. He returned for good in 1931, just as the show-trials of intellectuals were beginning. This was the time when 'socialism triumphed' - the cream of Russian culture had left the country, and collectivization had almost destroyed the peasantry and civilized manager class.
In an article for Pravda, Gorky supplied a formula which became a motto for the Stalin era: "If the enemy doesn't surrender, he must be destroyed." Compare with Gorky the humanist, who praised the common man in The Lower Depths: "Man and dignity go together. Man needs to be respected, not pitied."
A 'new' type of literature
After Gorky's return, Stalin set up the Union of Writers, an organization, writes Radzinsky, "modeled closely on Stalin's Party: it had secretaries, plenums, congresses - all just the same."
Stalin needed Gorky to lead the Union, knowing his aversion to the avant-garde, which Stalin wanted to eradicate. Gorky's name became a front to deceive the European left. The first Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 proclaimed the creation of a 'new' style in literature, Socialist Realism, with Gorky as its founder. He never protested or rejected this title.
Most important, the Congress proclaimed a firm bond between Party and writers, thus creating the perfect mechanism for thought control. Thereby, any deviation from the basic principle of socialist realism was proclaimed 'ideological immaturity,' making the deviator eligible for expulsion from the Union and subsequent political persecution (as with Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and many other talented writers).
The Congress also gave its blessing to 'Lenin's heir.' Gorky made a eulogistic address saluting the political regime and Stalin personally. And in an article called The Truth about Socialism, published in 1934, he wrote: "Of all the world's great figures, Lenin is the first ever revolutionary whose prominence has been on the rise and will continue to grow. The prestige of Josef Stalin has been growing as steadily and increasingly worldwide, he is the man who has most comprehensively assimilated the drive and intrepidness of his teacher and comrade and who for ten years now has quite fittingly filled the great teacher's shoes in this most demanding position of Party leader."
A timely death?
Was this laudatory passage meant just to pay Stalin back for what he did for him? After all not many Soviet writers were given luxury mansions to live in like Gorky's in central Moscow. Yet, to portray Gorky as just a venal Soviet intellectual would be too simplistic.
Having a truly artistic and creative nature, Gorky was not surprisingly a very emotional person, quick to be moved to tears by anyone who could strike the right cord with him. According to Maria Andreyeva (his common law wife and an actress in the Moscow Arts Theater), Gorky sincerely loved both Lenin and Stalin, and was under the spell of their personalities, hence his distorted perceptions.
But Gorky the author was always wiser and more perceptive than Gorky the human being, and this remained with him to the end. It would explain why in his last (unfinished) epic novel The Life of Klim Samgin, an encyclopedia of Russian life at the turn of the century, the hero is constantly locked in heated arguments about Lenin with the Bolshevik Kutuzov. The writer was not at peace with himself in post-revolutionary Russia, though he tried to talk himself into believing that hardships were transient and the future bright.
His long period of emigration, in a period when totalitarian rule was tightening, was another reason for his illusions. Outside observers could not see the distortions of the great socialist idea within Russia, only a rosy facade skillfully painted by the Bolsheviks.
A final mystery
There are many versions of Gorky's death, among them deliberate poisoning on Stalin's orders. This is by no means certain, but it would seem characteristic of Stalin's methods. Indeed, historian Robert Conquest finds there to be compelling evidence that Yagoda brought about Gorky's death on Stalin's orders. Stalin, Conquest argues, could not afford to risk having 'the stormy petrel' around to muck up the Bukharin show trial that would take place in August 1936, much less the purges that would follow.
In point of fact, Yagoda admitted to organizing Gorky's murder at the August show trial, in a manner, Conquest argues, which credibly incriminated him - even in the warped reality that was these show trials. Interestingly, Vyshinsky, with the intent of accusing the 'Trotskyist-Bukharinite assassins' at the trial offered the most cogent assessment: "How in our country, in the conditions that exist in the Soviet State, could it be made impossible for Gorky to display political activity except by taking his life?"
Gorky's unyielding nature was well-known. He had repeatedly entreated Lenin to spare the lives of aristocrats and artists. Nikita Khrushchev notes in his memoirs that Gorky wasn't the sort of person you could boss around. And Anna Larina, Nikolai Bukharin's widow, tells the story of an incident at Gorky's dacha in 1935 where an old palm reader, an acquaintance of Gorky's, scanned the palm of Secret Police Chief Genrikh Yagoda and said, "You know, Genrikh Grigoriyevich, you have the hand of a criminal." Yagoda blustered that palmistry was not science, but a worthless occupation and shortly left. Interestingly, Larina writes, "Gorky did not reprimand the old man for his tactlessness, either in Yagoda's presence or after his departure."
Since 1928, Gorky, with his uncommon gift of the written word, his popularity with the people, had been a loyal advocate for Stalin's regime. But if his uncompleted, final novel, The Life of Klim Samgin, was any indication, his disillusionment was resurfacing. Perhaps Stalin decided he did not need to take the chance of relying on the 'petrel's' loyalty any further. But unless direct proof to the effect is found in the archives, all these versions remain suppositions.
What we do know for a fact is that Stalin stuck to his official policy of eulogizing Gorky till the very end. When the writer died on June 18, 1936, the dictator honored him with a huge and extravagant funeral. Gorky's ashes were buried in the Kremlin wall where so many other hostages of the revolution found their last refuge.
Yet, while it may be easy to denigrate the work or bemoan the wasted talent of such people, it's worth remembering something that Gorky himself said - that a person deserves respect, not pity. A talent of this caliber is surely more deserving than most.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Hostage of the Revolution. Contributors: Kolesnikova, Valentina - Author. Magazine title: Russian Life. Volume: 39. Issue: 6 Publication date: June 1996. Page number: 14+. © 2002 Russian Life. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.