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Maxim Gorky

Maxim Gorky

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.

First Works

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.

Revolutionary Activities

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.

Later Career

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

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 Sources

Troyat, Henri, Gorki, Paris: Flammarion, 1986; New York: Crown, 1989. □

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Gorky, Maxim


(18681936), renowned writer and playwright.

Maxim Gorky (Maxim the Bitter) was born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov in Nizhny Novgorod during the reign of Tsar Alexander II and died in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Gorky was orphaned at an early age, and his formal education ended when he was ten because his impoverished grandparents could not support him. He was self-taught in many areas, including literature, philosophy, and history, both Russian and Western.

Gorky rose to prominence early in life and made his mark as a writer, playwright, publicist, and publisher in Russia and abroad. His literary career began in 1892 with the publication of the story "Makar Chudra." His articles and stories were soon appearing in provincial newspapers and journals. His ideas of the writer's involvement in the social, political, and economic problems facing Russia were close to those of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir G. Korolenko, who became his mentor and friend. Some of his literary works had important political significance,

such as the poem Burevestnik (The Stormy Petrel ), which in 1901 prophesied the oncoming storm of revolution. While visiting the United States in 1906 on a mission to win friends for the revolution and raise funds for the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP), he wrote the novel Mat (Mother ). Gorky's revolutionary ideology lay in his insistence on the inevitability of radical change in Russian society.

Disillusioned with the passivity and ignorance of the peasant, Gorky gradually abandoned narodnik (populist) ideology in favor of social democracy. He financed Vladimir Lenin's Iskra (The Spark ). At the same time he supported other parties, such as the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Liberals.

The events of Bloody Sunday and the Revolution of 1905 induced Gorky to become involved, for the only time in his life, in revolutionary work. He wrote articles for the first legal Bolshevik newspaper, Novaia zhizn (New Life ), gave financial assistance, and criticized the tsar's October Manifesto for its conservatism. Warned of his imminent arrest, Gorky left Russia for the Italian island of Capri and did not return until 1913. Alienated by the Lenin and the RSDWP, Gorky joined a group led by Alexander A. Bogdanov, who shared his belief in mass education. With Bogdanov and Anatoly V. Lunacharsky, he organized a school for under-ground party workers. This was also the time of the emergence of a new religion called Bogostroitelstvo (God-building ), best defined as a theory of the divinity of the masses. Gorky's Ispoved (Confession ), written in 1908, served as an exposition of this belief and led to a break with Lenin.

On his return to Russia in 1913, Gorky devoted his time, ability, and resources to advancing Russian education and culture, projects brought to an end by World War I and the revolutions of 1917. Gorky was enthusiastic about the February Revolution, hoping that Russia would become a liberal democratic state. Soon after Lenin's return to Russia in April 1917, Gorky, writing in Novaia zhizn (New Life ), criticized the Bolshevik propaganda for a socialist revolution. These views appeared in articles called Nesvoevremennye mysli (Untimely Thoughts ). Russia, wrote Gorky, was not ready for the socialist revolution envisioned by the Bolsheviks.

Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Gorky saw it as his task to save Russia's cultural treasures and intellectual elite. In 1921, horrified by the cruelty and bloodshed of the civil war, he decided to leave Soviet Russia but not before he succeeded in obtaining American aid for the country's famine victims.

His second exile was spent mostly in Sorrento, Italy. Among his political writings of this period is the essay O russkom krestianstve (On the Russian Peasantry ), which appeared in 1922 in Berlin and during the 1980s in the Soviet Union. A bitter indictment of the Russian peasantry, it was resented by both the Russian émigré community and Soviet leaders. In 1928, under pressure from Josef Stalin, Gorky returned to the Soviet Union. The years from 1928 to 1936 were trying for him, for he could see but not speak of the realities of Stalinist Russia. He became an icon and cooperated with the regime, apparently believing that socialism would modernize Russia.

The cause of Gorky's death in 1936 is still debated, some maintaining that he died of natural causes, others that he was a victim of a Stalinist purge. Similarly, opinion in today's Russia is divided on the question of Gorky as a political activist. Gorky was a great political activist and writer of short stories, plays, memoirs, and novels such as Foma Gordeev, The Artamonovs, the trilogy My Childhood, In the World, and My Universities, and The Life of Klim Samgin.

See also: korolenko, vladimir galaktionovich; social democratic workers party; socialist realism; tolstoy, leo nikolayevich


Scherr, Barry P. (1988). Maxim Gorky. Boston: Twayne.

Weil, Irwin. (1966). Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life. New York: Random House.

Yedlin, Tovah. (1999). Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Tovah Yedlin

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"Gorky, Maxim." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Gorky, Maxim

Maxim Gorky (both: məksyēm gôr´kē) [Rus.,=Maxim the Bitter], pseud. of Aleksey Maximovich Pyeshkov, 1868–1936, Russian writer, b. Nizhny Novgorod (named Gorky, 1932–91). Gorky is considered the father of Soviet literature and the founder of the doctrine of socialist realism.

Instilled by his grandmother with a love of romantic tales and great sympathy for mankind, Gorky began a nomadic life at 12, wandering the Volga area. Since the czar's schools were closed to peasants, he educated himself, an experience he describes in My Universities (1923). He held dozens of menial jobs, publishing his first story in 1892. Gorky then became a journalist and married a colleague on the Samarskaya Gazeta. His articles exposed local corruption and he soon lost his job.

In 1898 Gorky's collection Sketches and Stories was published by a radical press and the author was an immediate sensation. These romantic tales concern the vigor and nobility of the Russian peasants and workers. About 1900 he turned to writing novels of social realism. Of these, Mother (1906) had the greatest impact on Soviet literature. Describing the awakening of revolutionary feeling in an ill-treated peasant woman, it became the prototype of the revolutionary novel. At this time Gorky became close friends with Leo Tolstoy and Chekhov, about both of whom he later wrote superb Reminiscences (tr. 1946).

Gorky donated most of his income to the revolutionary movement. He was arrested frequently but treated carefully because of his tremendous popularity. The czar rescinded his election to the Academy of Sciences in 1902, whereupon Chekhov and Korolenko resigned in protest. Gorky wrote 15 plays, two of which, heavily censored, were enormously successful at the Moscow Art Theatre. One of them, The Lower Depths (1902), a study of the wretched lives of derelicts, remains a classic. His plays, at first modeled on Chekhov's, emphasized characterization over plot.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution, in which he took part, Gorky sought to raise funds for the movement abroad. Following an initial triumphant reception in the United States (1906), he was insulted and mistreated there because his traveling companion was a woman who was not his wife. Settling in Capri (1906–13), he set up a Bolshevik propaganda school before he returned to Russia in 1914.

Although philosophically at odds with Lenin, Gorky was able to extract from him aid for many intellectuals and artists in an era of intellectual restriction. Exhausted from his work as head of the State Publishing House and by bouts with tuberculosis, he sought rest abroad (1921) and returned in 1928. His final, unfinished work, often considered his masterpiece, is The Life of Klim Samgin (1927–36), a panoramic four-volume novel of Russian social conditions from 1880 to 1917. Gorky's death at 68 has been ascribed to assassination by poison, perpetrated according to one view by an anti-Soviet group.

Gorky's work was remarkable for its vitality and optimism. It revealed, within its devotion to realism, a strong poetic strain and an eternal passion for justice. By the example of his work and life and by his literary criticism Gorky exerted a profound influence on Soviet thought. Most of his works have been translated.


See his autobiography (tr. 1949); his letters to Andreev, ed. by P. Yershov (1958); biographies by D. Levin (1965) and I. Weil (1966); studies by A. Kaun (1931, repr. 1960) and B. D. Wolfe (1967).

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Gorky, Maxim

Gorky, Maxim (1868–1936) Russian writer, b. Aleksei Madsimovich Peshkov. He championed the worker in Sketches and Stories (1898), the play The Lower Depths (1902), and the novel Mother (1907). Gorky was imprisoned for his role in the Russian Revolution of 1905, and lived much of his life in exile. He is best known for an autobiographical trilogy (1913–23).

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