Maxim Gorky’s Great Man

The New Republic has a very interesting book review of a new translation of Maxim Gorky’s biographical writings and other materials, which provides a fresh perspective on the Russian Revolution through the eyes of a literary titan. gorky_inside.jpg

Gorky may have been his own greatest character, but the story of the character Gorky is one of the most disappointing and upsetting in modern literature. It is, in fact, the sort of story against which Gorky himself protested all his life: a story of disillusionment and “low truths,” of a revolution wildly off its course. (…) Whereas Tolstoy’s work, especially War and Peace, is shot through with protest against the idea of the “great man,” Gorky’s life and work record an ongoing search for just such a figure–a “Man with a capital M,” as he called Lenin. “I think that such men are possible only in Russia,” Gorky wrote, “whose history and way of life always remind me of Sodom and Gomorrah.” In his literary portraits, Gorky is so drawn to his subjects that his admiration at times verges on chameleonic impersonation. In one uncanny photograph from 1920, Lenin stands in front while the much taller Gorky, in an identical suit and with his head shaved, leans diffidently to one side behind his idol, like an uncertain, elongated mirror image. The scene is right out of Zelig–Gorky the remora, the parrot, the perpetual acolyte. (…)

Where was the revolution, with its elemental image of man in search of meaning? One source records that, in Italy, Gorky received thirteen thousand letters from Russia. But what sorts of letters was he getting? According to the KGB archives, many of them were from Soviet citizens detailing the injustices and the absurdities of Russian life. Convincing himself that Russia was nonetheless on the right track, Gorky chose not to focus on their warnings.Like Tolstoy, Gorky appears to have experienced during his exile a spiritual turning point that impelled him to take a false position. But whereas Tolstoy’s crisis demanded that he disown his past life as harmfully misdirected, Gorky’s crisis forced him to act as though his past actions, and the revolution as a whole, had been right. What was at stake was Gorky’s place in the narrative that he had spent his life constructing: if the revolution had been a failure, his role as its prophet and its bard would be meaningless, or worse.Gorky’s return to Russia was marked by a fury of re-naming in his honor, at the suggestion of Stalin. The main street, the central park, and the Literary Institute in Moscow as well as the Art Theater; the city and region of Nizhni Novgorod; hundreds of collective farms, factories, and schools–all took Gorky’s name. He was given an Art Deco mansion and estates outside Moscow and in the Crimea. In 1932, an airplane named Maxim Gorky, which boasted the widest wingspan in the world, flew over Moscow in a tribute to him. (The plane crashed the following year.) By the end of his life, Gorky’s remarkable talent for remembering the names of places was no longer necessary: every place he went was named “Gorky.”And so Gorky became the single most prominent apologist for Stalin’s regime. During the drive toward collectivization, which resulted in the deaths of millions of peasants, he provided a slogan for the authorities’ struggle against the kulaks: “If the enemy does not surrender, he must be exterminated.” Perhaps most notoriously, he led an expedition of writers to the site of the White Sea Canal, the first grand-scale construction project completed by the labor of convicts in the Gulag, during which more than ten thousand prisoners died. Gorky edited and contributed to an anthology praising the work for its ambition and its successful rehabilitation of criminals. The scholar John Freccero has pointed out that Dante’s Inferno resembles a prison camp. Returning from Hell, Gorky told the world that it was only Purgatory.And yet, at the same time, Gorky continued to write letters to the secret police for “the release of prisoners or leniency in punishments.” He appears to have been kept under a stultifying house arrest in “the country of the pharaohs. ” Observers noted that he barely touched the food at the banquets in his mansion. At the end of his life, Gorky, the great believer in positive literature, was given specially printed newspapers with “the necessary cuts and alterations.” Just before he died, he proposed that one hundred writers should be mobilized for a new project:

All world literature and history, the history of the church and philosophy must be rewritten: Gibbon and Goldoni, Bishop Irenaeus and Corneille, Professor Anfilonov and Julian the Apostate, Hesiod and Ivan Volnov, Lucretius and Zola, Gilgamesh and Hiawatha, Swift and Plutarch. The entire series must end with oral legends about Lenin.

The project was typical of Gorky–the variety of reading, the love of collective work, the certainty that the answer can be found in books, the fanaticism for correction. The taste was bitter.