Maksimovich Peshkov" on March 16, 1868, in Nizhny Novgorod,
Russia--later renamed in his honor--Maxim Gorky would learn early
the harsh lessons of life. He spent his early childhood in Astrakhan
where his father worked as a shipping agent, but when the boy
was only five years old, his father died, and he was sent to
live with his maternal grandparents. This was not a happy time
for the young Gorky as conditions were poor and often violent.
At the age of eight, the boy's grandfather forced him to quit
school and apprenticed him to several tradesmen including a shoemaker
and an icon painter. Fortunately, Gorky also worked as a dishwasher
on a Volga steamer where a friendly cook taught him to read,
and literature soon became his passion.
At the age of twelve, Gorky ran away from home and barely
survived, half starving, moving from one small job to the next.
He was often beaten by his employers and seldom had enough to
eat. The bitterness of these early experiences led him to choose
the name Maxim Gorky (which means "the bitter one")
as his pseudonym.
Gorky's teenage years were spent working in Kazan as a baker,
docker, and night watchman. At the age of 21, Gorky attempted
suicide, shooting a bullet through his lung. Although he survived,
his lungs were permanently damaged and caused him to suffer frequent
bouts of tuberculosis. After recovering from this incident, he
left Kazan and tramped around the country, from his native Nijny
Novgorod all the way to the southern Caucasus and back again.
During the course of this two-year journey, he became acquainted
with the lowest members of society, the derelicts, theives, and
At the age of 24, he decided to rejoin society and took a
job as a reporter for a provincial newspaper. Although jailed
periodically for association with revolutionaries and for his
own outspoken opinion on the existing social order, Gorky managed
to publish a few short stories, mostly about the tramps and derelicts
he had met on his journeys. These short stories soon became very
popular, touching the imagination of the Russian people. Gorky
became a kind of folk hero. He was the first Russian author to
write sympathetically of such characters as tramps and theives,
emphasizing their daily struggles against overwhelming odds.
Eventually, rumors reached the Moscow Art Theatre of "a
tramp from the Volga with an enormous talent for writing,"
and when Chekhov introduced Gorky to
the company in the spring of 1900, they convinced him to give
them a play.
Gorky spent the next two years toiling over two plays. The
first to appear on the stage was The Smug Citizen (1902)
which portrayed the worker as superior to the average intellectual.
The play was produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1902, but
only in a censored version because Gorky had come to the attention
of the Tsarist police. They now had a file on the writer. Because
of his outspoken opinions, they considered him a threat. In addition,
the authorities had Gorky's election to the Imperial Academy
of Russian Artists overturned, sparking a storm of controversy,
even from the mild-mannered Chekhov who resigned from the academy
in protest. During the premiere of the play, the theatre was
surrounded by a squadron of mounted Cossacks in order to discourage
any public demonstrations. Although The Smug Citizen is
no longer considered an important work, all of the controversy
surrounding it insured its success at the time with the Russian
Gorky's second play, The Lower Depths (1902), however,
was even more successful. Produced by the Moscow Art Theatre
in 1902, the play is full of striking characterizations, based
mostly on outcasts Gorky had met during his travels. Like all
of his novels, short stories, and plays, The Lower Depths
was a protest against inhumanity, but Gorky not only wrote about
the injustices of his society, he also acted against them. He
continued to be involved in revolutionary activities, and his
sympathies soon turned towards the Marxists. In fact, the earning
from his plays, which were donated to support party activities,
constituted a large portion of the organization's income. As
a result of Gorky's activities, he also continued to be in and
out of jail. During one prison sentence, he composed The Children
of the Sun (1905). After the abortive revolution of 1905,
in which he was involved, Gorky went abroad to raise money for
the Marxists. During this period, he wrote Summer Folk
(1903), Barbarians (1906), and Enemies (1906),
The Last Ones (1908), Queer People (1910), Vassa
Zheleznova (1910). Russian theatres, however, were forbidden
by the authorities to produce Enemies or The Last Ones.
Gorky returned to Russia in 1914, just in time for World War
I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Although he agreed with the Bolsheviks
in opposing Russia's involvement in the war, he opposed their
seizure of power in 1917 and publicly criticized Lenin's methods.
Disillusioned with post-revolutionairy life, he again went abroad,
this time to Italy, where he remained from 1922 to 1930.
In 1928, Gorky yielded to great public pressure to return
to Russia, and upon his return, he was greeted with extravagant
festivities. He died on June 14, 1936 at the age of sixty-eight,
and there is a bit of a mystery surrounding the circumstances
of his death. Although he was receiving treatment for tuberculosis,
from which he had suffered ever since his failed suicide attempt
at the age of 21, these treatments were standard, and his life
was not considered to be in jeopardy. A police chief, Genrikh
Yagoda, later confessed to having ordered his death, and although
there has been no solid proof, some historians believe Yagoda
was acting under orders from Stalin himself.
Gorky left behind a body of work that helped to found socialist
realism. His other plays include The Zykovs (1914), The
Old Man (1919), The Counterfeit Coin (1926), Yegor
Bulychov (1931), and Dostegayev and Others (1933).
In addition to his plays, novels, and short stories, he also
wrote an autobiographical trilogy consisting of My Childhood
(1914), In the World (1916), and My Universities