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Maxim Gorky: a playwright bitter about the state of society

This article is over 17 years, 9 months old
A new production of the play Enemies leads Mike Haynes to look at the life of Russian writer Maxim Gorky
Issue 2002
Maxim Gorky
Maxim Gorky

In 1907 when Maxim Gorky’s play Enemies was sent to the Russian censor it was banned. The censor said that it was “nothing but a diatribe against the possessing classes”.

This decision confirmed Gorky’s reputation as one of the great radical writers of the early 20th century. It also helped to keep him in exile, for fear of arrest, until 1913.

Gorky was swept up in the changes in Russia that led to the revolution of 1917. This helped him to gain a huge international following.

But he was eventually pulled down as the revolution degenerated. In 1936 he died in circumstances that are still disputed, perhaps one of Josef Stalin’s many victims.

Gorky was a pen name. In Russian it means bitter. He chose it to reflect his upbringing and the thrust of his criticisms of Russian society.

Unlike most Russian writers Gorky was born into the worst poverty imaginable. As a boy he worked in Russia’s declining craft industry before deciding to run away. He lived on the margins of society, surviving as a migrant worker. The conditions he experienced led him to attempt suicide.

But his basic education enabled him to read voraciously and then start to write. This was his salvation. Journalism, short stories, novels and plays flowed from his pen, and his reputation quickly grew.

But Gorky refused to be the establishment’s pet. Some of his writings explored Russia’s “lower depths”. Others dealt with the changes in Russia’s upper classes. Still others focused on the rise of the working class and their struggles.

Gorky was a politically committed writer. This made him the enemy of the Tsarist regime and, after the defeated revolution of 1905, he fell out of favour with sections of the intelligentsia. But to those wanting change he remained a hero.

Gorky was more complex than is often thought. He certainly disliked Russia’s rulers. His play Enemies, currently being performed in London, is about how events were pulling Russia’s better off families in different directions.

A small minority of progressive individuals continued to support radical struggle but most were turning to the forces of order, even if these were under the control of the Tsar.

Yet Gorky also had doubts about Russia’s workers. He believed that workers were capable of great sacrifices and heroism but also the most brutal callousness to each other.

He was marked by the drunkenness, swearing, wife beating and anti-Semitism that he had seen in his childhood, and which had revolted him. This was a contradiction which he could never resolve.

It marks his writing. Gorky’s worker heroes are a little bit too heroic and separated from the mass of the workers that he half despised.

He could never solve this problem in his politics either. Gorky was inspired by the revolution of 1905 but dismayed by the divisions that followed it.

He was inspired again by elements of 1917 but repelled by what he saw as mob rule on the streets and the irresponsibility of the Bolsheviks in not restraining it.

This tension remained to the end of his life and perhaps helps to explain his ambiguous relationship to Stalin. Gorky spent much of the 1920s in Europe, but in 1928 returned to Russia for a time.

Able to come and go with relative freedom he was inspired by the idea that in Russia a new society and new kind of human was being created.

But by then this was a top down process, as the new leader Stalin destroyed the gains of the revolution to try to catch up economically with the West.

Gorky did not see that the poverty forced on Russia’s masses by Stalin undercut any real possibility of change. In 1932 Stalin invited him back again. He returned to Russia for the last time.

Now the regime was able to use him as a propaganda weapon. In private Gorky’s doubts began to grow, but by then it was too late. He was trapped intellectually and politically.

Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000 (£8) by Mike Haynes is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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