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Nabokov’s lecture about Maxim Gorki (1868-1936)


The grandfather was a tyrannical brute; his two sons — Gorki’s uncles—though terrified of their father, in turn terrorized and maltreated their wives and children. The atmosphere was that of never-ending abuse, senseless reproaches, brutal floggings, money-grabbing, and dreary supplications to God.

“Between the barracks and the gaol,” says Gorki’s biographer, Alexander Roskin, “amidst a sea of mud, stood rows of houses—dun-colored, green, white. And in every one of them, just as in the Kashirin household, people fought and squabbled because the pudding was burnt or the milk had curdled, in every one of them the same petty interests prevailed —about pots and pans and samovars and pancakes—and in every one of them people just as religiously celebrated birthdays and commemorations days, guzzling until they were ready to burst and swilling like hogs.”*

This was in Nizhni-Novgorod, and in the social milieu of the worst description—that of the meshchane, in status just above the peasants and on the lowest step of the middle class—a social milieu which had already lost the wholesome relation to the soil but had acquired nothing to fill the vacuum thus created, and therefore one that became a prey to the worst vices of the middle classes without their redeeming qualities.

Gorki’s father had also had a dismal childhood but afterwards had grown into a fine kind man. He died when Gorki was four, and this was why his widowed mother had gone back to live with her dreadful family. The only happy memory of those days for Gorki was that of his grandmother, who in spite of her terrible surroundings carried in her a kind of happy optimism and a great kindness; only owing to her did the boy ever come to know that there could be happiness, indeed that life was happiness in spite of anything.

At the age of ten Gorki started working for a living. He was in turn an errand-boy in a shoe-store, a dishwasher on a steamboat, an apprentice draftsman, an icon-painter’s apprentice, a rag-and-bone man, and a bird-catcher. Then he discovered books and began to read everything he could get hold of. At first he read indiscriminately, but very early he developed fine and sensitive feeling for real literature. He felt a passionate desire to study, but soon realized that he had no chance to be admitted to the university, for which he had gone to Kazan. In his complete destitution he was thrown upon the company of the bosyaki—Russian for bums—and made there invaluable observations which he later exploded like a bomb-shell in the face of the dumbfounded reading public of the capitals.

He had eventually to go to work again and served as assistant baker in a basement bakery, where the working day lasted fourteen hours. Soon he became associated with the revolutionary underground where he met more congenial people than the bakery workers. And he continued to read all he could—literature and science and books on social and medical subjects, anything he could get.

At the age of nineteen he attempted to kill himself. The wound was dangerous, but he recovered. The note found in his pocket began thus: “I lay the blame of my death on the German poet Heine, who invented toothache of the heart. . . .”

He tramped on foot all over Russia, to Moscow, and once there made straight for Tolstoy’s house. Tolstoy was not at home, but the Countess invited him into the kitchen and treated him to coffee and rolls. She observed that a great number of bums kept coming to see her husband, to which Gorki politely agreed. Back in Nizhni he roomed with a couple of revolutionaries who had been exiled from Kazan because they had participated in student rioting. When the police received an order to arrest one of these and found that he had given them the slip, they arrested Gorki for questioning.

“What odd kind of a revolutionary are you?” said the Gendarme-general during the interrogation. “You write poems and the like. . . . When I let you out, you had better show that stuff of yours to Korolenko.” After a month in prison, Gorki was released and, taking the policeman’s advice, went to see Vladimir Korolenko. Korolenko was a very popular but quite second-rate writer, loved by the intelligentsia, suspected of revolutionary sympathies by the police—and a very kind man.


* From the Banks of the Volga, trans. D. L. Fromberg (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 11.


His criticism, however, was so severe that it frightened Gorki, who gave up writing for a long time and went to Rostov where he worked for a while as a longshoreman. And it was not Korolenko, but a revolutionary named Alexander Kaluzhny, a chance acquaintance in Tiflis in the Caucasus, who helped Gorki to find his way in literature. Charmed by Gorki’s vivid narrations of all he had witnessed on his endless tramps, Kaluzhny insisted that Gorki write it down in simple words, the same in which he used to tell it. And when a tale was written, the same man took it to the local newspaper and had it printed. They year was 1892, and Gorki was twenty-four.

Later, however, Korolenko proved a great help—not only with valuable advice, but also by finding Gorki a job at the office of a newspaper with which Korolenko was connected. During this year of journalism in Samara, Gorki devoted himself to work. He studied, he tried to perfect his style, poor man, and he regularly wrote stories which appeared in the paper. By the end of this year he became a well-known writer and received many offers from Volga region newspapers. He accepted an offer from Nizhni and returned to his native town. In his writings he stressed savagely the bitter truth of contemporary Russian life. And yet every line he wrote was permeated with his unconquerable faith in man. Strange though it sounds, this painter of the darkest sides of life, of the cruelest brutalities, was also the greatest optimist Russian literature produced.

His revolutionary bias was quite clear. It added to his popularity among the radical intelligentsia but it also made the police redouble their vigilance in respect to a person who had already for a long time figured on the lists of the suspect. He was soon arrested because a photograph of his with a line of dedication had been found in the lodgings of another man arrested for revolutionary activity, however he was shortly released in the absence of incriminating evidence. He returned to Nizhni again. The police kept an eye on him. Strange individuals were always hovering around the two-storied wooden house in which he lived. One of them would be sitting on a bench, making believe that he was idly surveying the sky. Another would be leaning against a lamp post, ostensibly engrossed in the contents of a newspaper. The coachman of the cab drawn up near the front door also behaved strangely; he would readily agree to take Gorki, or any of his visitors, wherever they pleased, free of charge if need be. But he would never take another fare. All these men were merely police observers.

Gorki became engaged in philanthropic work. He organized a Christmas party for hundreds of the poorest children; opened a comfortable daytime shelter for the unemployed and homeless, with library and piano; started a movement for sending scrapbooks with pictures cut out of magazines to the village children. And also he began to take an active part in revolutionary work. Thus he smuggled a mimeograph for a secret press from St. Petersburg to the Nizhni-Novgorod revolutionary group. This was a serious offence. He was arrested and put in jail. He was a very sick man at the time.

Public opinion, which was a force not to be easily discarded in pre-revolutionary Russia, came out for Gorki in full strength. Tolstoy came out to his defence, and a wave of protest swept through Russia. The Government was forced to yield to public opinion: Gorki was released from prison and confined in his own home instead. “Policemen were posted in his hall and in the kitchen. One of them would constantly intrude into his study,” gushes the biographer. Yet a little further we find out that Gorki “settled down to his work, often writing until late at night” and also that he “happened to meet” a friend in the street and, undisturbed, to hold with him a talk about the imminence of revolution. Not such a terrible treatment, I would say. “The police and secret police were powerless to restrain him.” (The Soviet police would have restrained him in a twinkle.) Alarmed, the Government ordered him to go and live at Arzamas, a sleepy little town in Southern Russia. “The reprisals against Gorki evoked a wrathful protest from Lenin,” Mr. Roskin goes on. ” ‘One of Europe’s foremost writers,’ wrote Lenin, ‘whose only weapon is freedom of speech, is being banished by the autocratic government without trial.’

His sickness—consumption, as in Chekhov’s case—had become worse during his imprisonment, and his friends, Tolstoy included, brought pressure to bear on the authorities. Gorki was allowed to go to the Crimea.

Earlier back in Arzamas, Gorki, under the very noses of the secret police, had participated actively in revolutionary activities. He also wrote a play, The Philistines, which pictures the drab and stuffy milieu in which his own childhood had passed. It never became as famous as his next play, The Lower Depths. “While still in the Crimea, sitting one evening on the porch in the gathering dusk, Gorki had mused aloud about his new play: the hero is a former butler to a wealthy family whom the vicissitudes of life have brought to the poorhouse, from which he has never been able to extricate himself. The man’s most treasured possession is the collar of a dress shirt—the one object that links him with his former life. The poorhouse is crowded, everybody there hates everyone else. But in the last act spring comes, the stage is flooded with sunlight and the inmates of the poorhouse leave their squalid dwelling and forget the hatred they bear for each other. . .” (Roskin, From the Banks of the Volga).

When The Lower Depths was finished, it amounted to more than this sketch suggests. Every character depicted is alive and offers an advantageous part to a good actor. It was the Moscow Art Theatre that gave it theatrizal realization and, scoring with it a tremendous success, made the play familiar to everybody.

Perhaps it is appropriate at this juncture to say a few words about this amazing Theatre. Before it came into existence, the best theatrical food the Russian theatre-goer could obtain was largely confined to the Imperial companies of Petersburg and Moscow. These had at their disposal considerable means, sufficient to engage the best available talent, but the administration of these theatres was very conservative, which, in art, may often mean very stuffy, and the productions, at best, were on extremely conventional lines. For a really talented actor, however, there was no higher achievement than to “make” the Imperial scene, for the private theatres were very poor and could not compete in any way with the Imperial ones.

When Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko founded their little Moscow Theatre, everything soon began to change. From the rather hackneyed affair that the theatre had become, it began to pick its way again to what it should be: a temple of careful and genuine art. The Moscow Theatre was backed only by the private fortune of its founders and of a few of their friends, but it did not need elaborate funds. The basic idea that it embodied was to serve the Art, not for the purpose of gain or fame, but for the high purpose of artistic achievement. No part was considered more important than another, every detail was considered to be as worthy of attention as the very choice of the play. The best actors never declined the smallest parts which happened to be allotted them because their talents were best suited to make the greatest success of these parts. No play was performed until the stage-manager was sure that the very best results obtainable had been obtained in regard to artistic realization and perfection of every detail of the production—no matter how many rehearsals had taken place. Time was no object. The enthusiastic spirit of this high service animated every single member of the troupe; and if any other consideration became to him or her of greater importance than the search for artistic perfection, then he or she had no place in this theatrical community. Carried away by the profound artistic enthusiasm of its founders, living like one big family, the actors worked away at every one of the productions as if this were to be the one and only production in their lives. There was religious awe in their approach; there was moving self-sacrifice. And there also was amazing teamwork. For no actor was supposed to care more for his personal performance or success than for the general performance of the troupe, for the general success of the performance. No one was allowed to enter after the curtain went up. No applause was tolerated between acts.

So much for the spirit of the Theatre. As for the basic ideas which revolutionized the Russian theatre and transformed it from a mildly imitative sort of institution always ready to adopt foreign methods after they had been soundly established in foreign theatres, into a great artistic institution which soon became a pattern and an inspiration to foreign stagemanagers, the main idea was this: the actor should dread above all the rigid techniques, the accepted methods, and should instead give all his attention and effort to an attempt at penetrating the soul of the theatrical type he was going to represent. In this attempt to give a convincing picture of dramatic type, the actor entrusted with the part would try for the period of training to live an imagined life which would be likely to suit the character in question; he would develop in real life mannerisms and intonations suitable for the occasion, so that when he was called upon to speak the words on the stage, these words would come to him as naturally as if he were the man himself and was speaking for himself by an entirely natural impulse.

Whatever may be said for or against the method, one thing is essential: whenever talented people approach art with the sole idea of serving it sincerely to the utmost measure of their ability, the result is always gratifying. Such was the case of the Moscow Theatre. Its success was tremendous. Lines formed days in advance to secure admission to the little hall; the most talented young people began to seek a chance to join the “Moscovites” in preference to the Imperial dramatic troupes. The Theatre soon developed several branches: the first, second, and third “workshops,” which remained tightly associated with the parent institution, although each pushed out its artistic investigations in different directions. It also developed a special workshop in Hebrew, the Habima, in which the best producer as well as several actors were non-Jews and which achieved some amazing artistic results of its own.

One of the best actors of the Moscow Theatre was incidentally its founder and stage-director, and, I would almost add, its dictatorial head, Stanislavski, while Nemirovich remained a co-dictator and alternating stage-director.

The Theatre’s outstanding successes were Chekhov’s plays, Gorki’s Lower Depths, and of course many other plays. But Chekhov’s plays and Gorki’s Lower Depths have never been removed from the lists and probably will forever be mainly connected with the name of the Theatre.

In the beginning of 1905—the year of the so-called First Revolution—the Government ordered soldiers to shoot at a large gathering of workmen who were marching with the peaceful object of presenting a petition to the Tsar. Later, it became known that the procession had in the first place been organized by a double agent, an agent provocateur, of the Government. There were a great number of people, including many children, deliberately killed in the shooting. Gorki wrote a vigorous appeal “To All Russian Citizens and to the Public Opinion of the Countries of Europe” denouncing the “deliberate murders” and implicating the Tsar. Naturally—he was arrested.

This time protests against his arrest poured from all over Europe, from famous scientists, politicians, artists, and again the Government yielded and released him (imagine the Soviet government yielding to-day), after which he went to Moscow and openly helped prepare the Revolution, collecting funds for the purchase of arms and turning his apartment into an arsenal. Revolutionary students set up a rifle range in his lodgings and actively practised shooting.

When the Revolution failed, Gorki quietly slipped over the frontier and went to Germany, then to France, and then America. In the United States he addressed meetings and continued to denounce the Russian government. He also wrote here his long novel, The Mother, a very second-rate production. From that time on, Gorki lived abroad, chiefly on Capri in Italy. He remained closely connected with the Russian revolutionary movement, attended revolutionary congresses abroad, and became a close friend of Lenin. In 1913 the Government proclaimed an amnesty and Gorki not only returned to Russia but published there, during the war, a big periodical of his own, Letopis’ (The Chronicle).

After the Bolshevik Revolution in the fall of 1917, Gorki enjoyed considerable esteem with Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders. He also became the chief authority in literary matters. He used this authority with modesty and moderation, realizing that in many literary matters his scanty education did not allow him to impose good judgment. He also used his connections repeatedly to intercede for people who were persecuted by the new government. From 1921 to 1928 he lived again abroad, chiefly in Sorrento—partly on account of his failing health, partly because of political differences with the Soviets. In 1928 he was more or less ordered back. From 1928 to his death in 1936 he lived in Russia, edited several magazines, wrote several plays and stories, and continued to drink heavily as he had done most of his life. In June 1936 he became very ill and died in the comfortable dacha put to his use by the Soviet government. A good deal of evidence points to the fact that he died of poison administered to him by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police.

As a creative artist, Gorki is of little importance. But as a colorful phenomenon in the social structure of Russia he is not devoid of interest.

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