"Let me tell you my life; it won’t take much of your time—you ought to know it.
I am a weed, a foundling, an illegitimate being.”
—Maxim Gorky, 1908
“As a writer, I am not ‘great’; I am simply a good worker.”
—Maxim Gorky, 1928
Attempting a friendship with one of your heroes is always a risky undertaking. Some cherished illusions have to be sacrificed to reality, some disenchantment unavoidable. Maxim Gorky was thirty-two when he befriended Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who was seventy-two and well into his heretical-prophet phase after a prolonged spiritual crisis decades earlier. The first night they met in 1900, Tolstoy took him into his study, criticized his stories in a torrent of expletives (while arguing that fifteen was the age of consent), and then gave him a hug and kiss, declaring: “You’re a real muzhik! You’ll have a hard time rubbing elbows with our writers, but don’t let anything intimidate you. Always say what you feel—if it comes out crudely, don’t worry.” Gorky left the encounter with mixed feelings. “It was as if I had met not the author of The Cossacks, ‘Strider,’ and War and Peace, but rather a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’ and this tended to upset my idea of him.”
Gorky had recently become famous after the publication of his first fiction collection, Stories of the Steppe, which depicted the hobos and tramps, itinerant populists, and lumpenprole dregs he had encountered during his youth. He had tried to meet Tolstoy years before, when he was just a vagrant with a distinctive face that one commentator noted stuck out among intellectuals but blended in with a group of workers. Back then he had made a pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polanya to ask the prophet for a small plot of land—any foundation upon which to build the stable foundations of a life. Leo Tolstoy was not around, but Sonya Tolstoy fed him tea and buns, complaining that all kinds of sketchy individuals had been asking for favors from her husband, before sending him on his way.
Gorky was acutely aware that his fame was less a result of what he had written than what he represented. Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, his parents died young, leaving him in the care of his newly declassed maternal grandfather, a ruthless and abusive disciplinarian. When he won a book prize at age nine, he sold it to buy food for his ailing grandmother. His grandfather forced him out of school at eleven, and kicked him out of the house soon after. He wandered and worked all kinds of jobs—shoe clerk, icon-maker’s apprentice, cook’s assistant—eventually falling in with revolutionary populists and becoming a writer. The orphan autodidact, the populist revolutionary with an arrest record, the bard of the underworld, became a token for Russia’s highborn literary elite. They could believe they had discovered a new type of Russian writer, that the sphere of cultural production was diversifying. “Here was a writer who actually emerged from ‘the people’ who wrote of and for them with none of that pious sympathy for suffering traditional among the intelligentsia,” the scholar Donald Fanger noted in a brilliant introduction to his fine translations of Gorky’s literary sketches and ephemera, Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences.
Gorky and Tolstoy were at crosscurrents, representing separate and opposed phases of Russian political radicalism. The aristocrat Tolstoy was a great romanticizer of peasant and country life, along with the late nineteenth-century populists and Narodniks who moved to rural villages to organize and agitate. After his well-documented spiritual crisis, he fled the salons and renounced his class, reinventing himself as an ascetic peasant and heretic. Gorky grew up bathed in the populist and Socialist Revolutionary milieu but became disenchanted with the dogmatic, peasant-fetishizing populists who tokenized him as a “man of the people.” He drifted from job to job, eventually becoming a Marxist not from reading Marx but from actually working, as a baker’s assistant in Kazan. There he met locals who “spoke with hatred about life in the countryside, thus contradicting his mentors, the populists,” Tovah Yeldin wrote in Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. After despair over the death of his beloved grandmother led him to attempt suicide, he gave small-town agitation one last try, moving to the tiny village of Krasnovidovo to work at a radical store where proto-Maoist populists were organizing around issues of police brutality. The experiment was an unmitigated disaster. The local authorities and kulaks burned the store to the ground. Gorky was driven out of town and nearly killed, according to Yeldin. For the rest of his life, he loathed the peasantry and the countryside. He spent the next five years writing short stories and wandering, surveilled and periodically arrested for propagandizing among students, before landing a job at the Samara Gazette in 1895. The position allowed him to write commentary and polemics—often against the populists—from within the populist fold. Gorky’s stories and commentary garnered him cult status among the young Marxists and the attention of important editors, critics, and writers. In 1902 the thirty-four-year-old iconoclast was nominated to the Imperial Academy of Sciences, to stand alongside Gogol and Pushkin. It was a cultural coup on par with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tsar Nicholas II personally annulled the nomination, writing, “He is under police surveillance. And the academy is allowing, in our troubled times, such a person to be elected!”
There is a romantic idea that certain editors or literary people have of the “true” self-contained genius who spends all his or her time alone writing one brilliant novel after another, floating like a snowflake above the vulgar world of politics, petty journalism, and reviews. But Gorky was immersed in the battles of his time, too contrarian and idiosyncratic to be fully contained by a party and periodically lashing out at all factions to remind them that intellectual vanguards were worthless compared to the will of the people. First a partisan for the populists, he eventually fell in with the Marxists, and soon thereafter the nascent Bolshevik faction. Perhaps more than with any other writer, Gorky’s life paralleled the rise and spread of Marxism in Russia, his fate intertwined with those of his contemporaries who would eventually come to power in 1917. Yeldin wrote that Gorky was referred to as “the herald of the coming storm,” adding that “it was as if Gorky and the Russian proletariat had been born at the same time.”
While Tolstoy fled to the countryside, away from the world of culture that was his birthright, Gorky, an outsider and a poor kid, crashed the literary party uninvited, charmed everyone, and became the guest of honor. He cherished culture with a zeal that only someone not born into it can possess, perhaps accurately sensing that it was all he had. In the late 1920s he wrote in a half-finished draft letter to an unknown correspondent, “For me, culture is something dearer and more intimate than it is for you. For you it’s a habit of yours, something into which you were born and as necessary as trousers.”
Gorky avoided both introspection and narcissistic self-disclosure in his writing. In all of his memoirs and sketches, he appears as a roving eye, a distant first-person voice without internality. He viewed literature as a vocation and himself as an industrious, if not particularly talented, worker. This sense of himself as a laborer fit in with his later Bolshevism and his professed belief that art was not only for the elect and that all people had talent. Yet there was a harder side of his personality that could write off whole groups in defense of the regime, calling for the “enemy to be exterminated ruthlessly and without pity, paying no attention to the gasps and groans of the professional humanists.” (He also was responsible for the literary whitewashing of the White Sea Canal, Stalin’s notorious Great Pyramids–like forced-labor project.) His life and work were eaten through with still-unresolved contradictions—hating and resenting the intelligentsia while wanting to be part of it, he was both the humanist Bolshevik and the anti-Bolshevik Bolshevik. He was also the writer who ignored his own genius to support and even save the lives of other writers, the gulag lover who was always the first to weep at poetry readings. Fanger quotes Anna Akhmatova’s comment from the 1960s: “It is customary these days to curse Gorky. But without his help at that time we would all have died of hunger.” In his work, he occasionally could be masterful in depicting moral gray areas. But the constant suppression of his own internality and soul led to accusations that he was a shrewd operator and opportunist. He was ultimately more interested in communication in service of an ideal than in individualistic self-expression, a primary tenet of the socialist realist literary tradition he helped found. At one point, the poet Alexander Blok confronted him for sacrificing his idiosyncratic artistic vision in order to build socialist realism: “You hide yourself. You hide your ideas about the spirit and about truth. What for?” Gorky had no good answer. Fanger quotes the scholar Shentalinsky, who concluded: “Gorky’s constant waverings between the desire to preserve his spiritual independence and the fear of falling behind the locomotive of revolution…these are the contradictions that run through his whole life and constitute his tragedy.” Late in life, when Gorky gave in to the decadent act of scribbling down a few fragments explicitly about himself, he wrote, “Sometimes I feel an urge to write a critical article about Gorky as artist. I am convinced that it would be the most malicious and the most instructive article ever written about him.”
Read the rest of the essay at Lapham's Quarterly.