Maxim Gorky and the Russian Revolution

By Figes, Orlando | History Today, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Maxim Gorky and the Russian Revolution


Figes, Orlando, History Today


Among the portraits of Soviet heroes that used to hang in every Russian school and library the one of Maxim Gorky was nearly always given pride of place with Lenin. Gorky was an icon of the Soviet cultural establishment. He was hailed as the first great Russian writer to emerge from the proletariat, as a lifelong friend of the Bolsheviks, and as the founder of Socialist Realism, the artistic doctrine of the Stalinist regime which said that the artist should depict Soviet life, not as it was, but as it should be in the socialist utopia. The Soviet cult of Gorky took off in his own lifetime: there was a trilogy of films about his youth; the main street in Moscow was named after him; and his native city of Nizhoyi Novgorod was renamed Gorky.

Yet there was another Gorky, the man behind the icon, whom the Soviet public was not allowed to know. In his native land Gorky was a writer with a hagiography but no biography. The opening up of the Soviet archives has revealed a much more complex and tragic figure than the one that appeared in the censored collections of his works in Russia. From his journalism (long known in the West) and his voluminous correspondence (most of which was buried in the archives) it is clear that Gorky was no devout Bolshevik, that he harboured doubts about the revolution and the course it took after 1917 which drove him into exile in 1921, and that when he returned in 1928, far from supporting the Stalinist regime, he became its prisoner and, it may yet emerge, its murdervictim too.

Gorky first met Lenin in 1902. The thirty-four-year-old writer, whose real name was Alexei Peshkov, had achieved celebrity status in the Marxist-oriented circles of the Petersburg intelligentsia during the mid-1890s. He was the first writer of real quality to emerge from the urban underworld of casual labourers, beggars, thieves and vagabonds, which his stories and his play The Lower Depths represented with such vividness and compassion. The working class could easily identify themselves with Gorky's stories, because they were concerned with their own daily lives and, like the writer's pseudonym, captured their own spirit of defiance and revolt (gor'kii means bitter in Russian). Gorky used the handsome profits of his early writing to help finance the Social Democrats. But his relations with the Bolshevik wing of the SD Party, and especially with its leader, were never easy or straightforward.

As with many intellectuals, Gorky's commitment to the revolution was romantic and idealist. He saw it as a vast struggle of the human spirit for freedom, brotherhood and spiritual improvement. His was essentially a humanist view, one which placed the individual at its heart, and he could never quite bring himself to accept the iron discipline or the narrow dogmatism of the Bolsheviks. He never joined them. `I belong to no party, and am glad of it', he once told the painter Repin, `for this is freedom, and humanity is in need of that'. The gypsies, gamblers and swindlers who filled the pages of his stories were all struggling in their own small way for individual freedom and dignity; they were not an organised `proletariat'.

Although Gorky loved Lenin for his intellect, his charismatic leadership and personal charm, he also despised the way he tried to compress life's diversity into his own abstract theories. Along with Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, the two leading cultural theorists in the Social Democratic Party, he clashed with Lenin in 1909-10 by educating workers at his villa on the island of Capri. Lenin was dismissive of the workers' potential as an independent cultural force and stressed their role as disciplined cadres for the Party. But Gorky and his co-educationalists argued that the cultural and spiritual advance of the working class should become the moving force of the revolution. They saw Marxism as a form of religion - only with humanity as the Divine Being and collectivism as the Holy Spirit. …

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