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A portrait of Russian writer Maxim Gorky

Stefan Dege ad
March 28, 2018

Was he a literary genius or simply Stalin's stooge? Public opinion on Russian author Maxim Gorky continues to be divided, even on what would have been his 150th birthday.

Maxim Gorki Schriftsteller Russland
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Best-known for plays such as "The Lower Depths" and "Summerfolk," his autobiography "My Childhood," and the novel  "Life of Klim Samgin," Russian writer Maxim Gorky was idealized under Stalin and subsequently shunned in the west. But plays like "Children of the Sun," which Gorky wrote while in prison during the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, have been returning to European stages in recent years, while his literary works are also being republished.

But the controversial Soviet wordsmith who grew up in an impoverished family and taught himself how to write, still divides opinions so many years after his birth in Nizhny Novgorod on March 28, 1868.

An illustrated article on the city of Nizhny Novgorod (Gorki), in the western Soviet Union.
An illustrated article on the city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, which from 1932 to 1990 was named after the Soviet Union's favorite literary sonImage: picture alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

"Gorky is full of contradictions and clichés," says Armin Knigge, emeritus professor in Slavic philology at the University of Kiel and author of "Maxim Gorky: The Literary Works," which also describes a reputation damaged by involvement in the totalitarian spirit of Stalinism.

Read moreThe Russian Revolution 100 years on: 'Russia hasn't dealt with the past'

"He not a classical writer like Fyodor Dostoevsky, but a representative of world literature," says Knigge, who is not only an expert on Gorky, but also a passionate fan of the five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature whose novels, stories and theater plays have been translated into more than 100 languages.

Knigge considers Gorky's work a "portrait gallery of Russian people," and sees the author as a humanist, a wise and rigorous observer on a level comparable to German writer Thomas Mann.

Poet of the Russian Revolution?

Gorky's 150th birthday and the latest presidential elections in Russia almost coincide. But that fact is not coincidental in Knigge's view: "The predictable result of 77 percent of the votes in favor of Putin, as well as the celebration of the event in the style of a folk festival, have triggered old questions," Knigge blogged.

Read more: Opinion: Vladimir Putin's great deceit

"Why do Russians continue to think and feel in such a monarchical and patriarchal fashion, even an entire century after the tsar was overthrown? Why have 'freedom' and 'democracy' become almost swear words in present-day Russia?"

This contradictions are played out through Gorky's own legacy. Can the man who penned the subversive poem "The Song of the Stormy Petrel," inspired after a student demonstration in Saint Petersburg was brutally put down, and yet who was canonized under the most brutal Soviet dictatorship headed by Joseph Stalin, really be regarded as the poet of the revolution?

Read moreRussia bans 'The Death of Stalin' from movie theaters

Maxim Gorky never found it hard to find powerfully political contexts for his work. His novel "The Mother" (1907) became a Soviet literature classic because its protagonist, a factory worker, was seen as a true proletarian. Gorky was equally outspoken about his friendship with Lenin, the hero of the Russian Revolution, whom he said he loved more than anyone else.

In the former Soviet Union, the state tended to recognize writers if they could be used for political purposes. After the Communist Academy decided in 1927 to recognize Gorky as a "proletarian author," he became a willing accomplice in the dictatorship. In 1932, Gorky returned from living in Italy for most of the last decade and was welcomed as a hero. He received the Order of Lenin, the highest award of the Soviet Union, and became a member of the central committee of the communist party — even his birthplace was renamed Gorky in 1932.

Russland Josef Stalin und Maxim Gorki
Joseph Stalin and Maxim Gorki: the writer's close relationship with the dictator has sullied his legacy Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A compromised legacy

While Gorky's work fitted well into the canon of socialist realism that was promoted by Stalin's regime, Knigge is convinced that "his treatment as a state poet greatly damaged his reputation."

"The Soviet state reduced him to a soldier of the communist party," says Knigge. But while Knigge is adamant that Gorky "was never a Stalinist," the persecuted Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsy later denounced Gorky as "an apologist for executioners."

It's true that Gorky's relationship with those who came into power after the revolution was full of contradictions. In an essay that he published in 1917-1918 in the Bolshevik daily, Novaya Zhizn, Gorky distanced himself from atrocities committed during the October Revolution and even criticized Lenin before later embracing Bolshevik ideology.

Read moreThe Real October - Artists in Times of Revolution

Indeed, Gorky lived abroad for the most of the 1920s, including in Sorrento in Italy. It was a time when Stalin was banning the works of great Soviet poets like Sergei Yesenin, who, having became critical of the Russian leadership, died after an apparent suicide in 1925.

Italien Maxim Gorki auf Capri
Maxim Gorki in 1910 in Capri, Italy, the country he later spent a decade in self-imposed exile Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

But while Gorky returned to Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and was promptly canonized, his death in 1936 gave rise to all kinds of rumors and speculations. Was he assassinated by the NKVD secret police on Stalin's order at the start of the infamous Great Purge  — even if Stalin helped carry his coffin during Gorky's state funeral?

Either way, Gorky wasn't alive to witness the terror that unfolded under Stalin, with an estimated 1.5 million people having been killed during the 1936-38 purges alone.

On the occasion of Gorky's 150th birthday, a Berlin publishing house has released a new collection of the writer's early short stories that describe the life of simple people in pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia, including those who suffered from a devastating famine in 1891-92.

They are highly authentic stories that are based on personal experiences, and not political ideas.