Writer Maxim Gorky was born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, on March 28, 1868. He worked in many jobs during an impoverished and abusive childhood before finding fame and fortune as a writer. Initially a Bolshevik supporter, Gorky became a critic when Vladimir Lenin seized power. However, Gorky later served as a Soviet advocate and headed the Union of Soviet Writers. He died in Moscow on June 18, 1936.
Difficult Early Life
Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov was born on March 28, 1868, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. His father died from cholera when he was 5 years old. His mother soon remarried and left him to be raised by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a strict taskmaster and abusive, but his grandmother shared her knowledge of folktales with young Peshkov.
Declining family income from his grandfather's dye shop meant that Peshkov had to begin working when he was just 8. His jobs included working as an apprentice, a ship's dishwasher and a factory worker. He learned to read and write along the way, but by the time he was 21 the misery of his life prompted Peshkov to become a hobo, and he spent the next couple years wandering about Russia.
In the 1890s, Peshkov began writing. He adopted the pseudonym Maxim Gorky (choosing the name Gorky because it meant "bitter"). In 1892 his first short story "Makar Chudra," was published in various journals and became very popular with readers. Then, in 1895, the short story "Chelkash"—about a thief and a peasant boy—was published. In these and other pieces, Gorky wrote using knowledge gained from living in poverty and on the margins of society. His perspective won him great acclaim around the country, and he was soon viewed as one of its leading writers.
In 1898 a Gorky collection, Sketches and Stories, was published. Gorky also produced full-length books and plays, beginning with the novel Foma Gordeyev (1899). His play The Lower Depths was performed in 1902; it became widely popular in Russia and throughout Europe. Gorky also penned the novel Mother (1906), a three-volume autobiography and literary portraits of fellow Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.
Marxist Supporter Turned Critic
Gorky was a devoted Marxist and gave much of his writing income to the cause. He followed the Bolshevik wing following a party split in 1903, though he was never an official party member. Gorky was imprisoned for his actions during the Russian Revolution of 1905. He left Russia in 1906, visiting the United States with his mistress before moving to a villa on the Italian island of Capri, where he spent most of the next seven years.
Gorky eventually returned to Russia in 1913, and was living there when the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin seized control of the country in 1917. Gorky objected to the undemocratic tactics that were used in this takeover and frequently wrote in his newspaper, New Life, about the violence and repression that Russia experienced under Lenin's rule. Gorky was silenced in 1918 when the newspaper was shut down.
For his criticism of the Bolsheviks, Gorky was forced to leave Russia in 1921. For the next few years, he traveled through Europe before settling into life in exile in Sorrento, Italy, in 1924. He continued to write during this time, completing his autobiographical trilogy and publishing a new collection of stories. It was not until 1928—when his 60th birthday was extensively celebrated—that Gorky returned to Russia.
Joseph Stalin, who had taken control of the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death, decided that it would be better to have Gorky return permanently. Not only was Gorky an acclaimed writer, but having him inside the country would also make it easier to keep an eye on his activities. In the early 1930s, a campaign was launched to convince Gorky to return—a Moscow street and his birth city were named after him, and he was promised a prominent role in the country's literary life.
By 1933, Gorky was ensconced in the Soviet Union and was restricted from foreign travel. He took on the leadership of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, echoing Stalin's viewpoint that writers should be "mechanics of culture" and "engineers of the soul." Gorky voiced no objections about forced labor and other Stalinist atrocities, a contrast to his stance in 1917.
On June 18, 1936 (some sources say July), Gorky died at his villa in Gorki Leninskiye, outside of Moscow. He was 68. Gorky had been unwell and undergoing medical treatment, but rumors circulated that Stalin had arranged for his death. However, Stalin made no outward sign of renouncing Gorky, whose ashes were placed in the Kremlin Wall.
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