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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Maxim Gorky b. March 28, 1868

Gorky and Lenin in conversation, sketch USSR 1947

The great Maxim Gorky was born March 28, 1868.

According to USSR Magazine in March, 1963:

March 28 is the anniversary of the birth of Maxim Gorky, one of the founders of socialist realism in literature. He depicted with great realism and profound insight Russian life and character on the different social levels at the turn of the century. He was the first Russian writer to portray the revolutionary struggle of the working class. Gorky, who died in 1936, was friend and teacher to several generations of Soviet writers and exerted a marked influence on many foreign writers as well.

(See below for a more comprehensive short biography from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia 1979.)

Maxim Gorky with a group of Soviet schoolchildren, early 1930s

From a History of the Soviet Union, 1968: "Maxim Gorky had a very difficult youth in tsarist Russia. He began working at the age of eleven, first as a messenger boy, then as a stevedore, gardener and baker. His great talent and thirst for knowledge helped him to become a writer. Gorky was a great friend of all Soviet children. At his suggestion a Children's Publishing House was established in the Soviet Union. It has printed millions of children's books."

Maxim Gorky Speaks at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers, painting Mikhail Arkadievich Suzdaltsev, 1955 USSR

The first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers was held in 1934. Suzdaltsev was an Honored artist of the RSFSR. He died in 1998 in Moscow.

Maxim Gorky Portrait, 1929 Oil On Canvas, Isaak Brodsky, USSR

Maxim Gorky

Wheat grows tall in the earth, and a man dies,

But the long grain is gathered and the bread

Absorbed into the toughness of our bone,

Into our living flesh the kernels creeping.

A thousand years, and they will say of our sons,

Here is the wheat that grew in Gorky's time.

A man is other, he is burned or buried,

The body lost forever to the world.

And yet if he has plowed the ancient mind

With a bright edge of words, with a tongue talking,

The polished loam turned over, the fat furrow

Driven deep out of that fertile earth,

His angry ghost will haunt the broken field

And stride the world's hills with the tread of speaking.

A thousand years, and they will say of our books,

Here is the voice of Gorky, this is the man.

- Paul Engle, American poet writing of Gorky's death.

Poem first published in The New Masses, December 29, 1936

Maxim Gorky on the Volga, painting Vladimir Serov , 1951

From the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979):

Gorky, Maxim:

(pseudonym of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov). Born Mar. 16 (28), 1868, in Nizhny Novgorod (since renamed Gorky); died June 18, 1936, in Gorki, near Moscow. Soviet Russian writer; the father of Soviet literature and the founder of the school of socialist realism.

Gorky’s father, M. S. Peshkov, was a joiner and cabinetmaker; his mother, V. V. Kashirina, was a daughter of the owner of a dye works. Having lost his father in his early childhood, Gorky began a difficult life “out in the world.” He worked as a stevedore, as a baker, and at other trades, managing to educate himself. He participated in the outlawed Narodnik (Populist) circles and helped to distribute propaganda among the workers and peasants. After being arrested in 1889 he was kept under police surveillance. In the years 1888–89 and 1891–92 he wandered about Russia.

Gorky’s first story, “Makar Chudra,” was published on Sept. 12, 1892. V. G. Korolenko was helpful in starting him in his career in literature. In his essays and topical satires of the 1890’s, Gorky castigated the “masters of our life,” the petite bourgeoisie, and defended the interests of the poor and the workers; his Essays and Stories (vols. 1–3, 1898–99) were received with unprecedented enthusiasm both in Russia and abroad.

Expressing the revolutionary rise of the working class, Gorky was, even in the 1890’s, developing the best traditions of 19th-century realism and romanticism. In his realistic stories of the people, such as “Konovalov,” “Chelkash,” “The Orlov Couple,” and “Kirilka,” he depicted the early beginnings of the new social and political consciousness and the longing for justice, as well as the immaturity of protest and of isolated, individual rebellion. The young Gorky’s legendary and allegorical romantic figures, such as in “Old Izergil” (1895), “Song of the Falcon” (1899), and “Song of the Stormy Petrel” (1901), with their theme of the “madness of the brave,” were a summons to revolutionary action.

His social and ideological searchings brought Gorky, at the turn of the century, to Marxism; he identified himself with the philosophy of Lenin’s Iskra and participated in the revolutionary movement. In 1901, Gorky called for the overthrow of tsarism in a proclamation on the breaking up of a student demonstration, and in the same year, in connection with a court case involving an underground printing press, he was banished to Arzamas. Lenin, in Iskra, protested the persecution of a “writer known throughout Europe” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 5, p. 369).

Socialist realism began to take form in Gorky’s novels and plays at the turn of the century. In the novel Foma Gordeev (1899), Gorky presented typical characters of the Russian bourgeoisie and its ideologists, such as Iakov Maiakin, as well as of its renegades, such as Foma, and for the first time he singled out the proletariat from the mass of the people. In the novel Three (1900) the tragic lot of the poor Lunev, who had become a property owner, is contrasted to the path taken by the worker Grachev, who finds the truth in a socialist circle. In 1899 and 1900, Gorky met L. N. Tolstoy and A. P. Chekhov, both of whom had a high regard for his talents. He also established close connections with the Moscow Art Theater, which staged his plays Smug Citizens and The Lower Depths, and founded the publishing house Znanie (Knowledge), around which he gathered such democratic-realist writers as A. Serafimovich, A. Kuprin, S. Skitalets, I. Bunin, and V. Veresaev.

During the years of revolutionary upsurge the staging of Gorky’s plays became public events encouraging demonstrations against tsarism. In Smug Citizens (1901) the Russian worker was presented for the first time as the new hero of history. In The Lower Depths (1902), Gorky portrayed the suffering of the rejects of capitalism, people thrown down to life’s “depths” by the system; he showed the harm done by Christian humanism and the comforting lie. In a monologue by Satin in The Lower Depths and in the philosophical and rhapsodic poem “Man” (1903), Gorky celebrated the grandeur of man and the creative intellect. His plays The Summer People (1904), Children of the Sun (1905), and The Barbarians (1905) condemned the intelligentsia, who had either become bourgeois philistines or closed themselves off within the sphere of “pure” scholarship; he called upon the leaders of culture to create their work in the interests of the people.

Gorky took an active part in the revolutionary events of 1905. As the result of his proclamation of Jan. 9, 1905, calling for the overthrow of the autocracy, he was jailed in the Peter and Paul Fortress. (He was freed subsequently thanks to the pressure of worldwide public opinion.) In the summer of 1905 he joined the Bolshevik party, and he took part in organizing the first legal Bolshevik newspaper Novaia zhizn’ (under Lenin’s direction). Gorky and Lenin met for the first time on Nov. 27, 1905, in St. Petersburg. During the December armed uprising of 1905 in Moscow, Gorky supplied workers’ combat groups with arms and money. In early 1906, on behalf of the party, he left Russia illegally for America where, in spite of a smear campaign against him, he conducted an agitational tour to win support for the Russian revolution. His essays and pamphlets of 1906, In America and My Interviews, exposed the sham of bourgeois democracy.

In the revolutionary years 1905–07, Gorky produced outstanding works of socialist realism. His play Enemies (1906) shows how the strike movement of the proletariat rose to the level of political struggle and how the influence of the Bolsheviks was growing among the masses. His novel The Mother (1906), for the first time in the history of literature, portrayed the struggle of the revolutionary proletariat for socialism under the guidance of the party and showed the birth of a new human being out of the midst of that struggle. In 1907 he attended the Fifth Party Congress in London. In a conversation with Gorky at the congress, Lenin, who had read the novel in manuscript, commented on its timeliness (M. Gorky, Sobr. soch., vol. 17, 1952, p. 7). Translated into many languages, The Mother has become a handbook for millions of people.

From 1906 to 1913, Gorky lived in Italy on the island of Capri. During the years of reaction he developed close ties with the Vpered group. His mistaken attraction to bogo-stroitel’stvo (god-building) is apparent in the novella Confession (1908). In letters to Gorky, Lenin sharply criticized this “god-building” and helped the writer to find his way back to solid Marxist positions. Gorky’s exposure of the autocratic police system and the decay of the bourgeois-philistine world (in such works as The Last Ones (1908), Vassa Zheleznova (first edition, 1910), and The Town of Okurov (1909) was combined with an affirmation of the revolutionary ideas that had penetrated into peasant and petit-bourgeois circles; examples of this are to be found in Summer (1909) and The Life of Matvei Kozhemiakin (1910–11). Lenin had high praise for Gorky’s Tales of Italy (1911–13) (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 48, p. 47), in which Gorky demonstrated the socialist sentiments of the Italian proletariat and praised the workingman. The stories in the collection Through Russia (1912–16) are suffused with a faith in the future of the oppressed masses. In his satirical Russian Tales (1912 and 1917), Gorky ridiculed the Black Hundreds, chauvinism, and the “graveyard literature” of the decadents. Gorky’s best works in the decade following 1910 are his autobiographical novels Childhood and In the World (published between 1913 and 1916), which with great artistic power describe the path of a man who rose from the depths to the heights of culture, creativity, and the struggle for freedom.

Gorky returned to Russia in 1913. He contributed to the Bolshevik newspapers Zvezda and Pravda and the journal Prosveshchenie. He condemned the world war, which had begun in 1914, and in 1915 he founded the antiwar journal Letopis’, also managing its literary section. The political line of the public affairs section of the journal was full of contradiction; this was pointed out by Lenin (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 49, pp. 299–300).

During the October Socialist Revolution and the period of preparation for it, Gorky underestimated the organizing power of the party and the revolutionary proletariat and the possibilities for an alliance with the peasantry. He feared the pressure of the anarchistic and individualistic chaotic mass of petty property owners, an attitude reflected in his series of topical essays Untimely Thoughts, published in 1917 and 1918 in the semi-Menshevik newspaper Novaia zhizn’ (which he edited). Gorky’s stand was criticized emphatically by Lenin, who helped Gorky find the way to overcome these errors in his appreciation of revolutionary reality, and Gorky subsequently acknowledged a number of times that Lenin had been correct (M. Gorky, Sobr. soch., vol. 17, 1952, pp. 24–27; vol. 24, 1953, p. 343; vol. 30, 1956, pp. 45, 301–302). In the years 1918–21, Gorky actively participated in the building of socialist culture (for example, in organizing the Vsemir-naia Literatura Publishing House). During the years of the Civil War and economic dislocation, Gorky helped in the struggle against famine and for aid to homeless children; he concerned himself too with the preservation of artistic and historical treasures and with the living conditions of scholars and scientists. In his topical articles of 1919 and 1920 he called upon the progressive forces throughout the world to defend the revolution. On Apr. 23, 1920, at a celebration in honor of Lenin’s 50th birthday, Gorky spoke on the significance for all of humanity of Lenin’s great work. In July 1920 he attended the second congress of the Communist International.

Because of the worsening of his tubercular condition, Gorky went abroad at Lenin’s insistence in the autumn of 1921 for health cures in Germany and Czechoslovakia. In April 1924 he took up residence in Sorrento, Italy. While abroad, at Lenin’s suggestion, Gorky helped to organize international famine relief for the stricken Volga Region. He also spoke in defense of the achievements of the October Revolution. However, some of Gorky’s mistaken ideas, such as his exaggeration of the danger of peasant anarchism and his abstract humanism, were expressed in his articles of 1922 (for example, in his statement against the sentence handed down in the trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries and in his article “On the Russian Peasantry”). Gorky wrote the third part of his literary autobiography, entitled My Universities, in 1922. His memoir “V. I. Lenin” (1924–31) recreated with great artistic power the image of the “Man with a capital M,” conveying the charm, the vitality, and the democratic nature of this leader of the masses, a man who was “plain as truth.” In addition, he drew the literary portraits of L. N. Tolstoy, A. P. Chekhov, V. G. Korolenko, and L. B. Krasin. In 1925 he published the novel The Artamonov Business, which presented the history of three generations of a bourgeois family against the background of Russian social life from the reforms of 1861 to the October Revolution. In 1928 and 1929 he traveled in the USSR, writing essays on his trips entitled Through the Soviet Union (1929). In 1931 he returned to his homeland to engage in vast literary and public activity. Of special importance were his statements in favor of peace, democracy, and socialism, and against fascism and war. Gorky was organizer and chairman of the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, and he energetically encouraged the development of the literatures of the peoples of the USSR. He founded and edited many journals and book series, such as Our Achievements, The USSR Under Construction, Abroad, History of the Civil War, History of Factories and Plants, Famous Lives, and Poet’s Library

The 1930’s saw the flowering again of Gorky as a playwright. His plays Egor Bulychov and the Others (1932), Do-stigaev and the Others (1933), and Vassa Zheleznova (1935, 2nd ed.) reaffirmed the inevitability of the destruction of capitalism and the victory of the socialist revolution.

Gorky’s final work—the monumental epic novel The Life of Klim Samgin (1925–36; the fourth part was never completed)—was a major achievement of socialist realism. In this “moving panorama of decades” (A. V. Lunacharskii, Sobr. soch., vol. 2, 1964, p. 197) the historical events of the 40 years preceding the October Revolution were reflected along with the fierce ideological and social struggle of that epoch. The main theme of the novel was the unmasking of “Samginism,” or bourgeois individualism. Samginism typified the behavior of that section of the bourgeois intelligentsia who “joined” the revolution at its height but who in fact were traitors to it. In the course of ideological struggle the Bolshevik Stepan Kutuzov and other revolutionaries defeat Samgin and those like him. In a profound manner, the novel exposed the contradictions of reality as they appear in revolutionary development.

A great literary artist, Gorky was also an outstanding literary critic and publicist. His thoughts on the role of labor, the significance of folklore for a national culture, the sense of national character (narodnost’) as the source of the strength of Russian literature, and the active humanism of Soviet literature joined the common search for a Soviet aesthetics in the 1920’s and early 1930’s that culminated in the elaboration of the theoretical foundations for socialist realism. Gorky defined socialist realism as the “realism of people who are rebuilding the world,” and considered its main feature the ability to reflect reality from a revolutionary perspective, to look at the past “from the heights of the future’s goals” (from his 1933 articles “On Deeds and Weeds” and “On Socialist Realism,” Sobr. soch., vol. 27, 1953, pp. 44, 12). Gorky tirelessly defended the rights of romantic principles in Soviet art. He considered the main task of Soviet writers to be the upbringing of a new socialist man.

The great value and world significance of Gorky’s work consist in the fact that he expressed the ideas and aspirations of the Russian revolutionary proletariat and contributed to the building of a socialist society and a new Soviet culture. His work had a great influence upon multinational Soviet literature and upon all of world literature as well. Progressive writers such as Romain Rolland, Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw, Jack London, and Lu Hsün placed great value in Gorky’s contribution to this art of a new world.

Lenin’s comments on Gorky are fundamental. He saw Gorky as a proletarian writer who “linked himself firmly with the workers’ movement in Russia and throughout the world” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 19, p. 153). Marxist critics such as V. V. Vorovskii, A. V. Lunacharskii, and S. G. Shaumian carried on a struggle for the proper understanding of Gorky’s work even before the October Revolution; in the Soviet period were laid the foundations for the study of his work by such writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s as Lunacharskii, S. D. Balukhatyi, I. A. Gruzdev, V. A. Desnitskii, and N. K. Piksanov. The study of Gorky in the postwar period has become a special and separate field in the study of the history of Soviet literature.

Gorky was buried on June 20, 1936, near the Kremlin wall on Red Square in Moscow. The city of Nizhny Novgorod was renamed for him, and his name has been attached to the Moscow Art Theater and the Leningrad Bol’shoi Theater. Gorky museums have been established in Moscow, the cities of Gorky, Kazan, and Kuibyshev, and the village of Ma-nuilovka, Poltava Oblast, Ukrainian SSR.



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