Hostage of the Revolution

By Kolesnikova, Valentina | Russian Life, June 1996 | Go to article overview

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 [1902] 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. …

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