John Ellison sketches out the life of Maxim Gorky, the righteous, relentless witness of the revolution who evoked the wretchedness and terror of living under Tsarist violence.
The life of Maxim Gorky, author of three unforgettable volumes of autobiography covering his first two decades (‘Childhood’, ‘My Apprenticeship’, and ‘My Universities’), of an unforgettable play (‘The Lower Depths’) and of much else, reached the age of 49 less than a fortnight after Tsarist rule crashed out of history in March 1917.
His life and work cannot be separated from the revolutionary movement in Russia, before, during and after the events of 1917. He grew up detesting the inhuman conditions of life for most people (gross poverty, mass illiteracy, ignorance and superstition, the crudest of criminal justice arrangements, all blessed by a near-medieval system of government) and the correspondingly inhuman social behaviour these conditions spawned. He hated war. He came to live and breathe socialist convictions which stayed with him.
Gorky’s writing had made him famous in Russia before the end of the 1890s, and just as his name cannot be divorced from his role in the cause of revolution, so his life is in his works, fact and fiction alike. His work reveals his gift for close observation, his large repertoire of rich language (derived at least as much from life as from libraries), his astonishing memory, his hatred of cruel and abusive behaviour, and his passion for truth and social justice.
‘The first thing that struck one about him,’ wrote French biographer Henri Troyat, ‘was an air of unsophisticated goodness.’
Gorky was initially hostile to Bolshevik rule. On November 20 1917 he wrote in his own newspaper ‘New Life’, with reference to the Lenin-Trotsky government now in power: ‘Sensible democratic elements must decide if they want to go on travelling along this road with plotters and anarchists.’ In the same article, and in others in the months to follow he fulminated against the suppression of freedom of speech, and (also associating these with the Bolshevik regime), terror and pogroms. Yet ‘New Life’ survived until its suppression in July 1918, and within months after that Gorky re-associated himself with the Bolsheviks for good.
He had been born with the surname of ‘Peshkov’, which in Russian means ‘pawn’ and only became ‘Gorky’ (which means ‘bitter’ – he aimed to tell ‘the bitter truth’) with his first published story in 1892. His birth on March 28 (new style) 1868 had been in Nizhny Novgorod. His first arrest was in 1889 and was on suspicion of participation in illegal printing. He was arrested again, two years later, as a result of attendance in the Crimea at a funeral service for hanged rebels. In 1898 he was detained for two weeks in Tiflis but, prosecution evidence being water-weak, the upshot was constant police surveillance. Arrested once more in 1901 (over his financial support for student radicals in Kiev), he was ordered into exile, finding a home in the Crimea. In early 1905 he was detained again (for his public appeal for struggle against the regime). By then he was closely associated with Lenin’s Bolshevik party.
Three years earlier, in 1902, Gorky’s great play, ‘The Lower Depths’, had been first staged in Moscow, and was accompanied by directions from the authorities that it must not be performed in working class theatres, and must anyway be performed only with the censor’s deletions. It was staged in London to critical admiration as recently as this year – uncensored.
Before the end of 1905 – the year of uprising and the defeat of revolutionary hopes – he was on his way to Europe, escaping arrest, having distributed weapons during the rising. He then made his home in Capri, returning to live in Russia in late 1913, with Tsarist censorship somewhat relaxed, and his first memoir volume ‘Childhood’ about to be published.
‘Childhood’ is unique for its recreation, in terrifying detail, of an upbringing in the author’s maternal grandparents’ household, following the death of his father, when the young Maxim was just four years old. The narrative steers away from dates and ages, but not from the horrors from which he carried scarring memories.
It opens, so it seems to the reader, with hammer-blows. He is in a room with his mother, while his mother combs the long hair of his father, who is lying dead on the floor with copper coins on his eyes and his kind face livid. The maternal grandmother is holding Maxim’s little hand. More swiftly happens – severe labour pains for his mother, followed by the birth, death and burial of his new brother.
Later days for the young Maxim were not especially joyful. In the home of his grandparents he received from his grandmother much love, many folk tales and religious precepts. But she – and Maxim’s mother – felt powerless to protect him from his grandfather’s ferocious revenge discipline.
The grandfather, having risen in the world from pulling barges in his youth, owned a thriving dye-shop which was to decline in the years to come. Lacking much respect for education or for adherence to humane standards of behaviour, he could be described as a self-made, rough-edged, middle class man. From him Maxim received many floggings for minor infractions. The first of these was savage enough to produce unconsciousness and several days’ convalescence. There was much quarrelling between Maxim’s grandfather and his two resident sons, Maxim’s uncles, and between these uncles themselves – one of whom had, the year before Maxim’s arrival in the household, beaten his wife to death.
The young Gorky witnessed his grandfather beating his grandmother, while his mother first withdrew from his own care and from the household, and then remarried. The remarriage introduced a new step-grandmother visitor to the home, a woman addicted to wearing green outfits. Gorky remarks: ‘Often the green woman would join us for dinner or tea or supper, sitting like a rotten post in an old fence.’
His mother died when Maxim was eleven, by which time the dye-shop – suffering from severe competition from rivals using more advanced technology – was on its knees. Put out into the working world, beginning in a shoe shop and taking one wretchedly paid job after another, Maxim witnessed endemic theft and violence, and, especially distressing, violence towards, and humiliation of, women. He never had toys, and was jealous of boys who did. Though he had formal schooling only until aged ten, interrupted by exclusions for mischief-making, he still managed to learn to read and write, and at the age of thirteen he read Balzac’s ‘Eugenie Grandet’, which was a revelation to him. Novels by Turgenev and Dickens were also to enchant him in his mid-teens.
‘Childhood’, as a memoir, is distinctive in the way the young Gorky’s savage experiences are offset by his irrepressible humanity and his desire to learn. Far into the narrative he muses:
I might liken myself as a child to a beehive to which various simple, ordinary people brought the honey of their knowledge and views of life, each of them making his own rich contribution to the development of my character. Often the honey was dirty and bitter, but it was knowledge, and so honey for all that.
The second volume, ‘My Apprenticeship’, in scene after scene puts on show ‘the hard, half-starved life that people had to lead and the crippling work they had to do’. Gorky wrote elsewhere in this volume of his childhood dream of how things could be changed:
…I thought how marvellous it would be to…steal from the greedy and the rich and to hand the money over to the poor; if only everyone were well-fed, cheerful and not envious of one another – perhaps they might stop howling at each other like wild dogs.
He was also drawn into sharing in the anger and violence around him. Yet, however grim his situation, Maxim had a child’s sensitivity to the world around him. ‘Black frying pans on the shelves reminded me of faces without eyes.’
His grandmother’s charitable disposition was a major influence. Hardly prosperous herself by this time, she took Maxim out at night, ‘creeping up to some small houses, very cautiously, cross herself three times, leave a five-kopeck piece and three biscuits on the window-sill and cross herself again…’ He also remembered ‘her squatting in front of the stove and muttering: “Kind house-goblin, please get rid of the cockroaches…” ’
During one summer Maxim became a freelance catcher and vendor of songbirds, trapping finches, tits and other birds, then caging and selling them profitably. Recalling this episode – in much circumstantial detail – he wrote of how as a boy he had loved the sun and its rays which ‘I tried to catch…when they jumped like a ball through a hole in the fence or among the branches.’
Through reading popular French novelists translated into Russian, Gorky was able to see, early in his teens, that things in France were different from things in Russia.
'It was clear to me that the Parisian cabdrivers, workmen and soldiers and all the ‘common rabble’ were not the same as in Nizhny, Kazan and Perm. They spoke more boldly to their masters and their relationships with them were much more easy-going…I particularly noticed that when they were describing wicked, greedy or loathsome people those authors did not portray the inexplicable cruelty which was so familiar to me and which I had seen so often.'
Later in the book he remarks on the shortness of many lives: ‘…nowhere else did people wear out so terribly quickly, for no reason at all, as in Russia.’
The third volume of memoirs, ‘My Universities’, begins with Gorky as a seventeen-year-old and with a new life begun, away from his grandparents, in and around university city Kazan. He realizes that in his situation entering the university is unrealistic, and finds he can earn a few kopecks humping things around on the wharves of the Volga river, and he gets acquainted with ‘stevedores, tramps and thieves’. The cellar of a house long ruined by fire, and the refuge of stray dogs and cats, becomes ‘one of my universities’. He is searching for a purpose in his life.
Before very long a cousin’s letter tells him of his grandmother’s death. She had been begging alms in the church porch, had fallen and broken her leg which, untreated, had become gangrenous and led to her death.
He is mostly the observer, not the subject of observation. But his feelings are embedded in his descriptions. He observes of a river locality: ‘A plaintive song floated over the water – somebody’s soul, gently smouldering.’ He is invited to join a small study circle, where discussion of the work of John Stuart Mill does not especially engage him, and at another time he is introduced to a ‘library’ in a room at the back of a grocer’s shop, where handwritten copies of books such as Chernychevsky’s ‘What is to be done’ are stored. Here, furious arguments between students from the University and others from the Theological Academy can be witnessed.
Meanwhile, in the bakery where Gorky is working, the men regularly visit brothels on pay day, ‘spitting disgustedly’ when they speak of the prostitutes. This behaviour attracted hatred from Gorky, while he behaved with circumspection when questioned by a police officer, hovering around ‘like a hungry bird of prey’, and demanding to know if he had read the dangerous author Tolstoy.
Gorky’s search for a purpose in life abruptly became confused, for at the age of nineteen he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. This caused lung damage which was to trouble him increasingly in later life, and Gorky felt ashamed, even to be alive. The need to have a purpose was confirmed.
He moved to a village some thirty miles from Kazan, invited there to help in a shop by a returned political exile, but before long the shop was burned down by agents of hostile better-off peasants. Both the exile, whom Gorky admired, and Gorky himself, had to move on.
His recollections as a whole were painted, as it were, in primary colours. Gorky was not a writer famous for the subtle, delicate touches characteristic of Chekhov’s work, or for the complex meditations or insights notable in both Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov told him ‘that in my opinion you have no restraint’, and some readers may consider some lengthy passages in, especially, ‘My Apprenticeship’, could have benefited from more succinct presentation.
The three volumes as a whole are ‘extreme’ biography in the sense that they go far beyond ordinary recall. They are imaginative reconstructions, carrying vast amounts of dialogue and often moment-by-moment descriptions. Still, the memoirs are formidable, both as a collection of revelations about Gorky’s early life and about pre-revolutionary Mother Russia. They end with the beginning of his adult life, when he travels south, reaching the shores of the Caspian.
His first arrest in 1889 was followed by his first entry into the professional world, as a lawyer’s clerk. He returned to this work after travel to the Crimea and his second arrest. But large demand for the stories he had begun to publish led to well-paid work for newspapers and then to his marriage in 1896 and to the birth of a son, another Maxim, the following year.
In 1898 two volumes of Gorky’s short stories appeared, and his first novel soon after, which was in essence an attack on the greed of capitalists. He was becoming wealthy and famous, and got to know Tolstoy well in the early years of the new century when living near to each other in the Crimea, to which Gorky was then exiled. He failed to convert Tolstoy to Marxism, just as Tolstoy failed to convert him to Christianity.
The 1902 play, ‘The Lower Depths’ features more than a dozen characters living cheek by jowl in a doss house run by a landlord and his wife who are also thieves, who have the protection of the wife’s uncle, who is a police officer. The wife has been having an affair with a jailbird lodger, who rejects her in favour of the wife’s sister. Meanwhile a female lodger is dying, but before she dies blames her illness on beatings from her unfeeling husband, who also lives in the house. Another lodger, a widow, says about marriage that ‘it’s like jumping through a hole in the ice for us poor women’. Yet another character is an educated man who has come down in the world, but was once privileged enough ‘to have drunk coffee in bed with cream in it’, while another is an alcoholic actor.
Dark and depressing as the plot is – including three deaths – the play has enormous vitality, and there is a low-key but crucial upside, mainly because of one character. A man of sixty, a Tolstoyan Christian humanist and teacher, declares: ‘Prison doesn’t teach a man to be good, no more than does Siberia. Only another poor soul can do that. It’s true. One soul can teach good to another soul.’ He also speaks of an ideal country, ‘a virtuous land’, believed in as real by somebody he had met, but which he himself seems to acknowledge did not actually exist. It seems to be a metaphor for a socialism of the future. Before the play ends this moral figure has travelled on, but a lodger with fewer ethical credentials says: ‘Man is born – for something better.’
Later, after his participation in the 1905 rising, and having settled in Capri, came Gorky’s ‘class struggle novel’. This was ‘Mother’, completed in 1906, and banned in Russia after heavily censored publication of the first part. But it was published in Russian and in translation abroad. Lenin called it ‘an instrument of revolution’, which it was. Its worker heroes are sentenced to exile for what would in democratic conditions be regarded as legal anti-government activity, such as distributing leaflets and marching. The mother of one of them is then herself caught in a railway station waiting room with a cache of leaflets, and speaks out loudly at the point of arrest:
‘Poverty, hunger and disease – that’s what people get for their work! Everything is against us – all of our lives, day after day, we give our last ounce of strength to our work, always dirty, always fooled, while others reap all the joy and benefits, holding us in ignorance like dogs on a chain – we don’t know anything, holding us in fear – we’re afraid of everything! Our lives are just one long, dark night!’
The book ends with the mother being savagely beaten and choked by a policeman. Propaganda? Yes, but it is propaganda accompanied by passion and a powerful connection with the real world in which Russian factory workers lived and laboured.
From 1906 Gorky lived in Capri, until his return to Russia in late 1913. When the 1914 war arrived, he quickly decided to oppose it. In 1915 he wrote in his newly founded magazine ‘The Chronicle’:
The press must keep repeating to people that any war – except the war against stupidity is a disaster comparable to cholera.
In 1919, after his rapprochement with the Bolsheviks the previous autumn, he made a strong impression on the much younger fellow-writer and socialist Victor Serge:
His whole being expressed hunger for knowledge and human understanding, determination to probe all human beings to their depths, never stopping at mere appearances, never tolerating any lies told to him, and never lying to himself. I saw him immediately as the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution…
Gorky was to return to live in Europe in 1921. He became concerned at the increasing censorship of literature in the Soviet Union, though in 1925 declared he could see no other possible regime for the Russian people. He returned to his homeland in 1928, identifying himself closely with the Stalin-led government, becoming, his biographer Henri Troyat wrote: ‘a kind of literary functionary’. Increasingly ill and lonely (his son died in 1934), his creative days were in the past. He had summarized his own limitations as a writer in a letter to anti-war French author Romain Rolland of November 1923. He wrote:
I am overloaded with real impressions. I am afflicted with an overdeveloped need to become acquainted with things, I am easily fascinated by their external characteristics. That makes me more of a story-teller than an investigator of the human soul and the enigmas of life.
Gorky’s great achievement lay in evoking in depth, with astonishing realist particularity, the wretchedness and violence inherent in the conditions of living in Tsarist times, and in doing so never to overlook the capacity of humankind for showing compassion and support for others, or the belief that another world was possible.
John Ellison is a writer and a retired solicitor.