Maxim Gorky
Maxim Gorky; drawing by David Levine

Gorky wrote Chaliapin’s autobiography. This is how it happened. Having heard in the fall of 1909, in his home in Capri. that Chaliapin was planning to let someone publish the story of his life, Gorky dispatched an anxious, exclamatory epistle: “I hasten, my friend, to tell you the following: You’re undertaking a serious business, an important and widely significant matter, that is, something interesting not only to us Russians but to the whole world of culture and especially of art! Do you understand this?” It would be a great pity if his tale fell into the hands of some fellow incapable of appreciating all it meant: “A symbolic life, which attests indisputably to the great strength and power of our land…. Watch out, Feodor, don’t toss your soul into the hands of word peddlers!… Devil take you! I am terribly afraid you won’t understand the national, the Russian significance of your autobiography! Listen, my dear, shut your eyes and think a minute! Look closely—you’ll see on a gray, desert plain, the mighty figure of a peasant genius!”

He suggested that Chaliapin come down to Capri for a month or so, promising, in underlined words: “I myself will write your life as you dictate it.” Chaliapin was too busy at the time, and Gorky’s suggestion was not realized until the summer of 1916. Then, in the Crimea, with Chaliapin “shouting, laughing,” running about in a bathing suit, Gorky got him to dictate his story to a stenographer. “At nine o’clock,” he reported to a friend, “Feodor and Evdokiya Petrovna [the stenographer] appear; we keep busy until about twelve…The work progresses smoothly enough, but not as fast as I had expected…A great deal has to be corrected…Feodor’s narrative is sometimes desperately sluggish, dull and wordy. But sometimes—amazing!” The work was finished that winter and published in Gorky’s journal, Letopis.

It is an absorbing story, without a trace of sluggishness or dullness, a swift, ebullient narrative, full of humor and enthusiasm, an irrepressible verve that keeps even its melancholy moments from seeming dismal—very much a mighty giant’s tale. How much of it is Gorky’s own is hard to tell. Years later, in connection with Chaliapin’s suit against the Soviet government for publishing the book without his permission, Gorky said that it was three-quarters his, that he had not only edited the narrative but filled it in with what Chaliapin had told him at various other times. But it hardly matters. Whatever pruning and shaping had been necessary, the facts are, of course, Chaliapin’s, and so also is the style, if we judge by other pieces of his writing. Gorky knew how to catch another’s tone of voice and reproduce another’s mode of thought, especially when the other was a man with whom he had much in common and of whom he was very fond.

They had met in the summer of 1901 at the Great Fair of Nizhni Novgorod. One night, Chaliapin was to recall, after he had sung Ivan Sussanin in Glinka’s opera A Life for the Czar, a man came to his dressing room, introduced himself, and complimented him on his presentation of the Russian muzhik. “This was my first meeting with Gorky and that evening began a long, warm, sincere friendship between us.” Chaliapin was then twenty-eight years old. His great successes were still in the future, but he had begun to make a name for himself in Petersburg and Moscow; Gorky, five years older, was already known in Russia, though his European fame was to come somewhat later with the publication of The Lower Depths.

The two men discovered that their paths had crossed more than once: that while Chaliapin was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Kazan, Gorky was employed in a corner bakery on a nearby street; that when Chaliapin had hired himself out as a stevedore in the port of Samara, Gorky was there too; that they once lived near each other in Tiflis, had once worked in different departments of the Transcaucasian railroad; and, most amusing of all, had once tried out for a choir in Kazan and Gorky made it, but Chaliapin, whose voice was changing, did not. Above all, they had both experienced the hopeless poverty, the brutalizing stupidity and cruelty of Russian provincial life. Chaliapin’s father was a drunkard who beat his wife and children, lost all capacity for work—he had been a copying clerk—and brought his family to such a state of destitution that his wife, a typically meek, devoted Russian woman, was reduced to begging in the streets, much like Gorky’s own wonderful grandmother. In their teens they were both driven to the brink of suicide. Gorky had actually made the attempt, injuring himself for life; Chaliapin was providentially rescued by a friend who happened upon him just as he was about to get the pistol that was to save him from the misery of starvation.


They shared certain primary enthusiasms and convictions. Both looked on knowledge and art as salvation from the horrifying bestiality of life, as an ennobling of life, without which there was no point in living, took great pride in Russian art, were fervently, though not narrowly, nationalistic, and held among their most cherished experiences those moments when they felt themselves united with the masses, though to Gorky this experience came through physical labor and to Chaliapin through artistic performance.

And yet Gorky’s own autobiography, the first and best part of which, My Childhood, had been written three years earlier, is very different from Chaliapin’s. It is more somber, and much more externalized—a self-portrait that consists of others’ portraits, a work of remarkable objectivity that reflects the man’s selflessness. It is as if intolerable, early unhappiness had cast Gorky out of himself and made him all eyes and ears. Chaliapin’s book is more self-centered and more lighthearted, a joyous tale of self-fulfillment, which is most moving in its accounts of the boy’s discovery of art and of the man’s artistic triumphs: his first visit to the theater at the age of twelve, his debut at the La Scala Opera House, his concert for workers in Kiev. Chaliapin’s voice is suffused with laughter. His present happiness pervades the past. (A pity that the translation is often inaccurate and takes liberties with the text! For example, Chaliapin’s terse, humorous description of his first abode in St. Petersburg:

At the end of Pushkin Street, behind a little square on which stands a tiny Pushkin, there rises an enormous building, resembling a warehouse. This is the Palais Royal, refuge of Petersburg’s artistic bohemia.

becomes the pallid and verbose:

When I first caught sight of the Palais Royal I got the impression of some gaunt warehouse, though this was indeed the noted haunt of the St. Petersburg artists. It stood on the corner of Pushkin Street, behind the small square in which the statue of the poet stands.)

Chaliapin was goodhearted and naïve, ready to love all men so long as they appreciated what he was doing and did not interfere with his work, and was deeply hurt by unfair criticism and malicious gossip. He was wholly apolitical, and Gorky advised him to stay away from politics: it was not his business.

Lenin thought it was not Gorky’s business either. “There is no doubt,” he said, “that Gorky is a gigantic artistic talent…But why does Gorky mix in politics?” Gorky mixed in politics because his conscience would not let him do otherwise. From first to last, he was deeply “committed.” In imperial Russia he lived mostly under police surveillance and endured imprisonment and exile. In the Soviet Union he was worshipped, hounded, loved, and denounced. He was the most abused of heroes. He was never a Party man. His commitment was to principles, not to organizations.

He had joined the Bolsheviks in 1905, but after their take-over in 1917, he damned them out of hand, left the country in 1921, and did not come back to live there until 1933, making his peace with Stalin—in an attempt, according to Bertram Wolfe, who promises to tell the “pathetic story on another occasion,” “secretly to moderate Stalin’s brutal role”—and dying three years later, sick and disheartened, in circumstances that remain obscure, poisoned, it may be, by order of Stalin. There is also some puzzlement about his departure in 1921: was it voluntary, or instigated, or even murdered, by Lenin?

Whatever mystery may surround his life, however, his views on the Revolution are clear, and nowhere more clearly stated than in Untimely Thoughts, the feature articles he wrote for his newspaper Novaya Zhizn (New Life) from May 1917 to July 1918. They have not been reprinted in Russia since 1918; and for understandable reasons, have been studiously ignored by Soviet scholars. Professor Ermolaev has now presented them in what appears to be an admirable translation, and so fully and carefully annotated that the circumstances in which they appeared, the events that provoked them, the controversies they aroused, are brought back to life. This is a book of unquestionable historical importance as well as of artistic value.

Never was Gorky more forceful and eloquent than in these pieces in which he discusses, day after day, the actions, thoughts, and tempers of men during some of the most crucial months in modern history. Despite his friendship with Lenin, he excoriates him here as an amoral, pitiless man, “a cold-blooded trickster,” performing a cruel experiment on the Russian people. Lenin and his companions have “become poisoned” with the filthy venom of power,’ they are committing “all kinds of crimes,” shamefully violating the very rights for which democracy has struggled, “rushing madly” not “along the road of the ‘social revolution’ ” but “the road of anarchy to the destruction of the proletariat and the revolution.” They are misleading and misusing the workers, who will later bear the blame for the crimes fostered by their leaders. They are fomenting hatred, vengeance and suspicion, encouraging lynch law and destruction. They have abrogated justice, and are suppressing freedom of thought and speech.


Gorky sketches, graphically, brutal incidents he has witnessed on the streets of Petrograd and appeals to the workers’ intelligentsia and to other intellectuals to counteract the unspeakable vileness around them by furthering “intellectual enrichment,” the only means by which the country might be saved. He wants artists, scientists, musicians encouraged and protected. He begs support for the Free Association of Science which he has organized, calls for the publication of journals and books to inform literate people of scientific progress, asks that museums and institutes for craftsmen be established. “We must work, honorable citizens, we must work, for in this alone is our salvation and in nothing else.” Something over and above politics is needed. “Not everything is just politics, it is necessary to preserve some conscience and other human feelings.” “Name anything bad in man and it is precisely in the soil of political struggle that it grows with particular liveliness and abundance.” “Where there is too much politics there is no place for culture.” “One should rise above politics…Politics is always repulsive, for it is inevitably accompanied by lies, slander, and violence.” The antidote to politics is culture, which Gorky defines as “an inherent aversion to all that is filthy, base, false, and coarse, to all that humiliates man and makes him suffer.”

The eloquence of these pages is not cold rhetoric. It is the speech of passion and horrified concern, the desperate exhortations of a man who believes, in the face of crushing evidence to the contrary, that reason and humaneness still exist and can be appealed to. He reiterates what he had always said: that Man is the center of the world, the master of his fate and therefore responsible for what he does and for what happens to him, but adds that Russians, brought up in slavery and ignorance, and now plunged into a state of anarchy, intoxicated with power, and egged on by the Bolshevik leaders with their slogan of “Rob the Robbers,” are resorting to the methods they have always known: torture, cruelty, murder.

All this became too much for Lenin. “On July 16, 1918, having long ago silenced all other democratic and socialist journals,” says Mr. Wolfe, “Lenin gave the order that the voice of Maxim Gorky, too, be stilled.” And now Gorky, who had been running “the most popular paper in Russia” and was Russia’s best known and most influential writer, found himself unable to get anything published anywhere. But six weeks later, on August 30th, Lenin was seriously wounded by the bullet of a would-be assassin. Gorky, moved by sympathy, went to see him. Lenin, seizing his advantage, offered to help Gorky in preserving the intelligentsia, provided he worked within, and not against, the regime. Gorky accepted; and from August 1918 to July 1921, he “gave up writing, which was his very life,” as Mr. Wolfe puts it, “to dedicate himself to saving the lives of others.” He established “so many enterprises, commissions, projects, and institutions that it is impossible now to track them all down.” Mr. Wolfe lists about a dozen of them: a Scholar’s Home, a Writers’ Home, a Home of the Arts, a publishing house of World Literature, a journal for children, a Workers’ University, etc., etc.

The full story of what Gorky accomplished in these years has not yet been told. “If we were to collect from all institutions all the letters in which Gorky interceded at that time for Russian writers,” says Chukovsky, “we would have at least six [additional] volumes of his prose.” And among tributes to him quoted by Mr. Wolfe, there is the following, again from Chukovsky: “If we survived those breadless, typhus-filled years, we owe it in large measure to our ‘kinship’ with Maxim Gorky, to whom all of us became his ‘family.’ ” (It was for members of his family that Gorky could get various kinds of permits, and so all petitioners became his sisters, daughters, wives, or sons.) He saved many lives, but some he could not save. Because of bureaucratic indifference and ill will, he was too late in getting the exit permit that might have saved Alexander Blok; he was circumvented in his efforts to snatch Nikolai Gumilev from a secret and arbitrary execution; he was deceived and thwarted in his work for famine relief by Lenin himself, who first permitted the establishment of his Committee and then, perfidiously, had its members arrested, jailed, and deported. Mr. Wolfe recounts these, and other, incidents, using documents that have not been hitherto published. “Gorky felt that his power to save had ended,” and he left Russia.

The “bridge” of Mr. Wolfe’s title is the friendship between Lenin and Gorky, the “abyss” is the differences between them over which the bridge was thrown. They were the differences, on the one hand, of a man who believed in the importance of political organization, the right of absolute dictatorship unrestricted by laws or rules, and in the attainment of ends by any means whatever; and, on the other, of one to whom these theories represented the essence of evil, for whom politics was immoral, and nothing was more inviolable than the life, and especially the free thought and creative work, of an individual human being. “You are wasting your time on trifles,” said Lenin, annoyed by Gorky’s persistent appeals during the period of their truce. “This is only one lad, and there is a revolution going on. Do you understand what a revolution is?” Gorky understood that even Lenin and the revolution were “trifles” by comparison with the unjust condemnation of a single boy.

This Issue

March 27, 1969