2016 marks the 8oth anniversary of the death of Soviet writer Maxim Gorky.
Alexei Maximovich Peshkov (Russian: Алексе́й Макси́мович Пешко́в or Пе́шков; 28 March 1868 – 18 June 1936), known as Maxim Gorky was a Soviet writer and political activist.
Gorky was active with the emerging Marxist social-democratic movement. He publicly opposed the Tsarist regime, and closely associated himself with Vladimir Lenin.
Born as Alexei Maximovich Peshkov on 28 March 1868, in Nizhny Novgorod, Gorky became an orphan at the age of eleven. He was brought up by his grandmother.In December 1887, he travelled on foot across the Russian Empire for five years, changing jobs and accumulating impressions used later in his writing.
As a journalist working for provincial newspapers, he wrote under the pseudonym Иегудиил Хламида (Jehudiel Khlamida). He began using the pseudonym “Gorky” (from горький; literally “bitter”) in 1892, while working in Tiflis for the newspaper Кавказ (The Caucasus). The name reflected his simmering anger about life in Russia and a determination to speak the bitter truth.
Gorky’s first book, Essays and Stories in 1898, enjoyed a sensational success, and his career as a writer began. Gorky wrote incessantly, viewing literature less as an aesthetic practice (though he worked hard on style and form) than as a moral and political act that could change the world. He described the lives of people in the lowest strata and on the margins of society, revealing their hardships, humiliations, and brutalisation, but also their inward spark of humanity.
Political and literary development
Gorky’s reputation grew as a unique literary voice from the bottom strata of society and as a fervent advocate of Russia’s social, political, and cultural transformation. By 1899, he was openly associating with the emerging Marxist social-democratic movement, which helped make him a celebrity among both the intelligentsia and the growing numbers of “conscious” workers. At the heart of all his work was a belief in the inherent worth and potential of the human person. In his writing, he counterposed individuals, aware of their natural dignity, and inspired by energy and will, with people who succumb to the degrading conditions of life around them. Both his writings and his letters reveal a “restless man” (a frequent self-description) struggling to resolve contradictory feelings of faith and scepticism, love of life and disgust at the vulgarity and pettiness of the human world.
In 1916, Gorky said that the teachings of the ancient Jewish sage Hillel the Elder deeply influenced his life: “In my early youth I read…the words of…Hillel, if I remember rightly: ‘If thou art not for thyself, who will be for thee? But if thou art for thyself alone, wherefore art thou’? The inner meaning of these words impressed me with its profound wisdom…The thought ate its way deep into my soul, and I say now with conviction: Hillel’s wisdom served as a strong staff on my road, which was neither even nor easy. I believe that Jewish wisdom is more all-human and universal than any other; and this not only because of its immemorial age…but because of the powerful humaneness that saturates it, because of its high estimate of man.”
He publicly opposed the Tsarist regime and was arrested many times. Gorky befriended many revolutionaries and became a personal friend of Vladimir Lenin after they met in 1902. He exposed governmental control of the press (see Matvei Golovinski affair). In 1902, Gorky was elected an honorary Academician of Literature, but Tsar Nicholas II ordered this annulled. In protest, Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Korolenko left the Academy.
From 1900 to 1905, Gorky’s writings became more optimistic. He became more involved in the opposition movement, for which he was again briefly imprisoned in 1901. In 1904, having severed his relationship with the Moscow Art Theatre in the wake of conflict with Vladimir
Nemirovich-Danchenko, Gorky returned to Nizhny Novgorod to establish a theatre of his own.
As a financially successful author, editor, and playwright, Gorky gave financial support to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Part (RSDLP), as well as supporting liberal appeals to the government for civil rights and social reform.
The brutal shooting of workers marching to the Tsar with a petition for reform on 9 January 1905 (known as the “Bloody Sunday”), which set in motion the Revolution of 1905, seems to have pushed Gorky more decisively toward radical solutions.
In 1906, the Bolsheviks sent him on a fund-raising trip to the United States with Ivan Norodny. When visiting the Adirondack Mountains,
Gorky wrote Мать (Mat’, The Mother), his notable novel of revolutionary conversion and struggle.
From 1906 to 1913, Gorky lived on the island of Capri, partly for health reasons and partly to escape the increasingly repressive atmosphere in Russia. He continued to support the work of the Bolsheviks.
An amnesty granted for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty allowed Gorky to return to Russia in 1913, where he continued his social criticism, mentored other writers from the common people, and wrote a series of important cultural memoirs, including the first part of his autobiography. On returning to Russia, he wrote that his main impression was that “everyone is so crushed and devoid of God’s image.” The only solution, he repeatedly declared, was”culture”.
During World War I, his apartment in Petrograd was turned into a Bolshevik staff room, and his politics remained close to the Bolsheviks throughout the revolutionary period of 1917.
Maxim Gorky received the Ryabushinsky Mansion, designed in 1900 by Fyodor Schechtel for the Ryabushinsky family. The mansion today houses a museum about Gorky.
One of the central Moscow streets, Tverskaya, was renamed in his honour, as was the city of his birth. The largest fixed-wing aircraft in the world in the mid-1930s, the Tupolev ANT-20 was named Maxim Gorky in his honour.
On 11 October 1931 Gorky read his fairy tale “A Girl and Death” to his visitors Joseph Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov and Vyacheslav Molotov, an event that was later depicted by Viktor Govorov in his painting. On that same day Stalin left his autograph on the last page of this work by Gorky: “Эта штука сильнее чем “Фауст” Гёте (любовь побеждает смерть)” [“This piece is stronger than Goethe’s Faust (love defeats death)]”.
The sudden death of Gorky’s son Maxim Peshkov in May 1934 was followed by the death of Maxim Gorky himself in June 1936.Stalin and Molotov were among those who carried Gorky’s coffin during the funeral. During the Bukharin trial in 1938 (one of the three Moscow Trials), one of the charges was that Gorky was killed by Yagoda’s NKVD agents.
Gorky was a great Soviet writer who emerged from the common people, a loyal friend of the Bolsheviks, and the founder of the increasingly canonical “socialist realism”.
The Gorky Trilogy is a series of three feature films: The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities, directed by Mark Donskoy, filmed in the Soviet Union, released 1938–1940. The trilogy was adapted from Gorky’s autobiography.
The German dramatist Bertolt Brecht based his epic play, The Mother (1932) on Gorky’s novel of the same name. Gorky’s novel was also adapted for an opera by Valery Zhelobinsky in 1938. In 1912, the Italian composer Giacomo Orefice based his opera, Radda, on the character of Radda from Makar Chudra. Our Father is the title given to Gorky’s, The Last Ones in its English translation by William Stancil. The play made its New York debut in 1975 at the Manhattan Theater Club, directed by Keith Fowler.
Enemies by Gorky was performed in London, 1984 with a multi-national cast in a co-production between Internationalist Theatre and director Ann Elizabeth Pennington, designed by Paul Brown. The BBC Russian language service gave the production glowing reviews. SA Greek actress Angelique Rockas and Bulgarian Madlena Nedeva played the parts of Tatiana, and Kleopatra respectively.