Maxim Gorky, also spelled Maksim Gorky, pseudonym of Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov, (born March 16 [March 28, New Style], 1868, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia—died June 14, 1936), Russian short-story writer and novelist who first attracted attention with his naturalistic and sympathetic stories of tramps and social outcasts and later wrote other stories, novels, and plays, including his famous The Lower Depths.
Gorky’s earliest years were spent in Astrakhan, where his father, a former upholsterer, became a shipping agent. When the boy was five his father died; Gorky returned to Nizhny Novgorod to live with his maternal grandparents, who brought him up after his mother remarried. The grandfather was a dyer whose business deteriorated and who treated Gorky harshly. From his grandmother he received most of what little kindness he experienced as a child.
Gorky knew the Russian working-class background intimately, for his grandfather afforded him only a few months of formal schooling, sending him out into the world to earn his living at the age of eight. His jobs included, among many others, work as assistant in a shoemaker’s shop, as errand boy for an icon painter, and as dishwasher on a Volga steamer, where the cook introduced him to reading—soon to become his main passion in life. Frequently beaten by his employers, nearly always hungry and ill clothed, he came to know the seamy side of Russian life as few other Russian authors before or since. The bitterness of these early experiences later led him to choose the word gorky (“bitter”) as his pseudonym.
His late adolescence and early manhood were spent in Kazan, where he worked as a baker, docker, and night watchman. There he first learned about Russian revolutionary ideas from representatives of the Populist movement, whose tendency to idealize the Russian peasant he later rejected. Oppressed by the misery of his surroundings, he attempted suicide by shooting himself. Leaving Kazan at the age of 21, he became a tramp, doing odd jobs of all kinds during extensive wanderings through southern Russia.
In Tbilisi (Tiflis) Gorky began to publish stories in the provincial press, of which the first was “Makar Chudra” (1892), followed by a series of similar wild Romanticlegends and allegories of only documentary interest. But with the publication of “Chelkash” (1895) in a leading St. Petersburg journal, he began a success story as spectacular as any in the history of Russian literature. “Chelkash,” one of his outstanding works, is the story of a colourful harbour thief in which elements of Romanticism and realism are mingled. It began Gorky’s celebrated “tramp period,” during which he described the social dregs of Russia. He expressed sympathy and self-identification with the strength and determination of the individual hobo or criminal, characters previously described more objectively. “Dvadtsat shest i odna” (1899; “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl”), describing the sweated labour conditions in a bakery, is often regarded as his best short story. So great was the success of these works that Gorky’s reputation quickly soared, and he began to be spoken of almost as an equal of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.
Plays and novels
Next Gorky wrote a series of plays and novels, all less excellent than his best earlier stories. The first novel, Foma Gordeyev (1899), illustrates his admiration for strength of body and will in the masterful barge owner and rising capitalist Ignat Gordeyev, who is contrasted with his relatively feeble and intellectual son Foma, a “seeker after the meaning of life,” as are many of Gorky’s other characters. From this point, the rise of Russian capitalism became one of Gorky’s main fictional interests. Other novels of the period are Troye (1900; Three of Them), Ispoved (1908; A Confession), Gorodok Okurov (1909; “Okurov City”), and Zhizn Matveya Kozhemyakina (1910; “The Life of Matvey Kozhemyakin”). These are all to some extent failures because of Gorky’s inability to sustain a powerful narrative, and also because of a tendency to overload his work with irrelevant discussions about the meaning of life. Mat (1906; Mother) is probably the least successful of the novels, yet it has considerable interest as Gorky’s only long work devoted to the Russian revolutionary movement. It was made into a notable silent film by Vsevolod Pudovkin (1926) and dramatized by Bertolt Brecht in Die Mutter (1930–31). Gorky also wrote a series of plays, the most famous of which is Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths). A dramatic rendering of the kind of flophouse character that Gorky had already used so extensively in his stories, it still enjoys great success abroad and in Russia. He also wrote Meshchane (1902; The Petty Bourgeois, or The Smug Citizen), a play that glorifies the hero-intellectual who has revolutionary tendencies but also that explores the disruptions revolutionaries can wreak on everyday life.
Between 1899 and 1906 Gorky lived mainly in St. Petersburg, where he became a Marxist, supporting the Social Democratic Party. After the split in that party in 1903, Gorky went with its Bolshevik wing. But he was often at odds with the Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin. Nor did Gorky ever, formally, become a member of Lenin’s party, though his enormous earnings, which he largely gave to party funds, were one of that organization’s main sources of income. In 1901 the Marxist review Zhizn (“Life”) was suppressed for publishing a short revolutionary poem by Gorky, “Pesnya o burevestnike” (“Song of the Stormy Petrel”). Gorky was arrested but released shortly afterward and went to Crimea, having developed tuberculosis. In 1902 he was elected a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, but his election was soon withdrawn for political reasons, an event that led to the resignations of Chekhov and the writer V.G. Korolenko from the academy. Gorky took a prominent part in the Russian Revolution of 1905, was arrested in the following year, and was again quickly released, partly as the result of protests from abroad. He toured America in the company of his mistress, an event that led to his partial ostracism there and to a consequent reaction on his part against the United States as expressed in stories about New York City, Gorod zhyoltogo dyavola (1906; “The City of the Yellow Devil”).
Exile and revolution
On leaving Russia in 1906, Gorky spent seven years as a political exile, living mainly in his villa on Capri in Italy. Politically, Gorky was a nuisance to his fellow Marxists because of his insistence on remaining independent, but his great influence was a powerful asset, which from their point of view outweighed such minor defects. He returned to Russia in 1913, and during World War I he agreed with the Bolsheviks in opposing Russia’s participation in the war. He opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and went on to attack the victorious Lenin’s dictatorial methods in his newspaper Novaya zhizn (“New Life”) until July 1918, when his protests were silenced by censorship on Lenin’s orders. Living in Petrograd, Gorky tried to help those who were not outright enemies of the Soviet government. Gorky often assisted imprisoned scholars and writers, helping them survive hunger and cold. His efforts, however, were thwarted by figures such as Lenin and Grigory Zinovyev, a close ally of Lenin’s who was the head of the Petrograd Bolsheviks. In 1921 Lenin sent Gorky into exile under the pretext of Gorky’s needing specialized medical treatment abroad.
In the decade ending in 1923 Gorky’s greatest masterpiece appeared. This is the autobiographical trilogy Detstvo (1913–14; My Childhood), V lyudyakh (1915–16; In the World), and Moi universitety (1923; My Universities). The title of the last volume is sardonic because Gorky’s only university had been that of life, and his wish to study at Kazan University had been frustrated. This trilogy is one of the finest autobiographies in Russian. It describes Gorky’s childhood and early manhood and reveals him as an acute observer of detail, with a flair for describing his own family, his numerous employers, and a panorama of minor but memorable figures. The trilogy contains many messages, which Gorky now tended to imply rather than preach openly: protests against motiveless cruelty, continued emphasis on the importance of toughness and self-reliance, and musings on the value of hard work.
Gorky finished his trilogy abroad, where he also wrote the stories published in Rasskazy 1922–1924 (1925; “Stories 1922–24”), which are among his best work. From 1924 he lived at a villa in Sorrento, Italy, to which he invited many Russian artists and writers who stayed for lengthy periods. Gorky’s health was poor, and he was disillusioned by postrevolutionary life in Russia, but in 1928 he yielded to pressures to return, and the lavish official celebration there of his 60th birthday was beyond anything he could have expected. In the following year he returned to the U.S.S.R. permanently and lived there until his death. His return coincided with the establishment of Stalin’s ascendancy, and Gorky became a prop of Stalinist political orthodoxy. Correspondence published in the 1990s between Gorky and Stalin and between Gorky and Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the Soviet secret police, shows that Gorky gradually lost all illusions that freedom would prevail in the U.S.S.R., and he consequently adjusted to the rules of the new way of life. He was now more than ever the undisputed leader of Soviet writers, and, when the Soviet Writers’ Union was founded in 1934, he became its first president. At the same time, he helped to found the literary method of Socialist Realism, which was imposed on all Soviet writers and which obliged them—in effect—to become outright political propagandists.
Gorky remained active as a writer, but almost all his later fiction is concerned with the period before 1917. In Delo Artamonovykh (1925; The Artamonov Business), one of his best novels, he showed his continued interest in the rise and fall of prerevolutionary Russian capitalism. From 1925 until the end of his life, Gorky worked on the novel Zhizn Klima Samgina (“The Life of Klim Samgin”). Though he completed four volumes that appeared between 1927 and 1937 (translated into English as Bystander, The Magnet, Other Fires, and The Specter), the novel was to remain unfinished. It depicts in detail 40 years of Russian life as seen through the eyes of a man inwardly destroyed by the events of the decades preceding and following the turn of the 20th century. There were also more plays—Yegor Bulychov i drugiye (1932; “Yegor Bulychov and Others”) and Dostigayev i drugiye (1933; “Dostigayev and Others”)—but the most generally admired work is a set of reminiscences of Russian writers—Vospominaniya o Tolstom (1919; Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy) and O pisatelyakh (1928; “About Writers”). The memoir of Tolstoy is so lively and free from the hagiographic approach traditional in Russian studies of their leading authors that it has sometimes been acclaimed as Gorky’s masterpiece. Almost equally impressive is Gorky’s study of Chekhov. He also wrote pamphlets on topical events and problems in which he glorified some of the most brutal aspects of Stalinism.
Some mystery attaches to Gorky’s death, which occurred suddenly in 1936 while he was under medical treatment. Whether his death was natural or not is unknown, but it came to figure in the trial of Nikolay I. Bukharin and others in 1938, at which it was claimed that Gorky had been the victim of an anti-Soviet plot by the “Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites.” The former police chief Genrikh Yagoda, who was among the defendants, confessed to having ordered his death. Some Western authorities have suggested that Gorky was done to death on Stalin’s orders, having finally become sickened by the excesses of Stalinist Russia, but there is little evidence of this except that it was characteristic of Stalin to frame others on the charge of accomplishing his own misdeeds.
After his death Gorky was canonized as the patron saint of Soviet letters. His reputation abroad has also remained high, but it is doubtful whether posterity will deal with him so kindly. His success was partly due, both in the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent abroad, to political accident. Though technically of lower-middle-class origin, he lived in such poverty as a child and young man that he is often considered the greatest “proletarian” in Russian literature. This circumstance, coinciding with the rise of working-class movements all over the world, helped to give Gorky an immense literary reputation, which his works do not wholly merit.
Gorky’s literary style, though gradually improving through the years, retained its original defects of excessive striving for effect, of working on the reader’s nerves by the piling up of emotive adjectives, and of tending to overstate. Among Gorky’s other defects, in addition to his weakness for philosophical digressions, is a certain coarseness of emotional grain. But his eye for physical detail, his talent for making his characters live, and his unrivaled knowledge of the Russian “lower depths” are weighty items on the credit side. Gorky was the only Soviet writer whose work embraced the prerevolutionary and postrevolutionary period so exhaustively, and, though he by no means stands with Chekhov, Tolstoy, and others in the front rank of Russian writers, he remains one of the more important literary figures of his age.Ronald Francis HingleyThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
The cultural and political activities of the Russian author Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) made him known in the Soviet Union as the greatest Russian literary figure of the 20th century.
Maxim Gorky whose real name was Aleksei Maximovich Peshkov, was born on March 16, 1868, in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod, which in 1932 was renamed Gorky in his honor. His father, a cabinetmaker, died when Gorky was 4 years old, and the boy was raised in harsh circumstances by his maternal grandparents, the proprietors of a dye works. From the age of 10 Gorky was virtually on his own, and he worked at a great variety of occupations, among them shopkeeper's errand boy, dishwasher on a Volga steamer, and apprentice to an icon maker. At a very tender age he saw a great deal of the brutal, seamy side of life and stored up impressions and details for the earthy and starkly realistic stories, novels, plays, and memoirs which he later wrote.
Almost completely self-educated, at the age of 16 Gorky tried without success to enter the University of Kazan. For the next 6 years he wandered widely about Russia, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus. In 1888 he worked in fisheries on the Caspian Sea. Gradually he developed revolutionary sympathies; he was arrested for antigovernmental activities for the first time in 1889 and from then on was closely watched by the police. In 1891-1892 he spent a year in Tiflis, where he worked in railroad workshops, and where his first published short story, "Makar Chudra," appeared in a newspaper in 1892.
From then on Gorky devoted himself mainly to literature, and in the next 5 years his stories appeared chiefly in newspapers along the Volga. His first collection of stories, published in 1898, made him famous throughout Russia, and his fame spread rapidly to the outside world. These early stories featured tramps, vagabonds, derelicts, and social outcasts. Gorky portrayed the bitterness of the oppressed and exploited people of Russia and demonstrated a proud defiance against organized, respectable society. He often found strong elements of humanity and individual dignity in even the most brutalized and demoralized of these "down-and-outers." His sympathy for the underdog made him known as a powerful spokesman for the illiterate masses—their sufferings and their dreams of a better life.
Foma Gordeyev (1899) established Gorky as a major novelist. It is the story of a well-intentioned but weak man who feels disgust, boredom, and guilt as the inheritor of a profitable family business. He rebels against his family and his class, but he is lacking in moral fiber, and in the end the forces of tradition defeat and destroy him. In this novel and all his later works, Gorky identified himself as being a bitter enemy of capitalism and depicted the society of prerevolutionary Russia as drab and dreary.
During this same period Gorky began writing plays and formed close connections with the Moscow Art Theater, which in 1902 produced his most famous play, The Lower Depths. It shows the misery and utter hopelessness of the lives of people at the bottom of Russian society and at the same time examines the illusions by means of which many of the unfortunate people of this earth sustain themselves.
Tall and rawboned, Gorky affected coarse dress and often crude manners at this stage of his life, but his personality was colorful and attractive. Even as a young man, he made many influential friends, including the two most famous writers of the day, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. His memoirs of these two men, written many years later, are among his finest works.
Gorky became increasingly active in the revolutionary movement. He was arrested briefly in 1898, and in 1901 he was exiled to the provinces for having helped organize an underground press. When he was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1902, the Czar vetoed the appointment because of the author's subversive activities. During the 1905 Revolution, Gorky was again imprisoned for writing proclamations calling for the overthrow of the Czar's government.
In 1906 Gorky left Russia illegally and went to America to raise funds for his fellow revolutionists and spent most of the year there, where he wrote the novel Mother. This is a propaganda novel which tells of how a simple working-class woman, inspired by the example of her son, who is a militant revolutionist, herself becomes an activist in the class struggle. Mother was regarded in the Soviet Union as a classic of "socialist realism."
From 1906 to 1913 Gorky lived in Italy on the island of Capri, where his home became a center of literary and political activity among Russians abroad. In 1913 he received an amnesty from the Czar's government and returned to Russia. In the next 3 years he completed the first two volumes of his autobiography, Childhood (1913) and My Apprenticeship (1915). (The third volume, My Universities, was published in 1922.) Gorky's autobiography is his finest work, describing dramatically and colorfully the people he knew and the adventures he had from boyhood to young manhood. It paints a fascinating picture of the Russia of his times. In many respects Gorky's nonfictional works are superior to his fiction.
In the years immediately following the October Revolution of 1917, Gorky worked tirelessly to help preserve the Russian cultural heritage. He organized homes for writers and artists, founded publishing houses and theaters, and used his influence with the new Soviet regime to encourage the development of the arts. He spent most of the period from 1921 to 1933, however, in Germany and Italy, partly for treatment of a lung ailment and partly because of disagreement with policies of the Soviet government. During this period he wrote the large novels The Artamonov Business (1925) and The Life of Klim Samgin (an epic novel translated into English as four separate novels—The Bystander, The Magnet, Other Fires, and The Specter), all of them severely critical of life in prerevolutionary Russia. These novels are long and slow-moving, and many readers find them dull and ponderous.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Gorky made several trips to the Soviet Union, and he returned to stay in 1933. Once again he was very active on the cultural scene, chiefly in book and magazine publishing and literary criticism.
Gorky died near Moscow in 1936. Even in his lifetime he had been enormously celebrated in his native land. Since his death he has been officially hallowed as the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, and numerous theaters, museums, streets, universities, and even factories and collective farms were named after him.
Further Reading on Maxim Gorky
The best study of Gorky's works and of his place in Russian literature is Irwin Weil, Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life (1966). An interesting account of Gorky's life and works up to 1930 is Alexander Kaun, Maxim Gorky and His Russia (1931). Helen Muchnic, From Gorky to Pasternak: Six Writers in Soviet Russia (1961), contains a stimulating critical analysis of his works.
Additional Biography Sources
Troyat, Henri, Gorki, Paris: Flammarion, 1986; New York: Crown, 1989.