“I am haunted by humans.”
–Death, our narrator, in the last line of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Maiakovsky are not two writers most readers of Russian literature would put in the same sentence. Even their appearances suggest differences in attitude and temperament. Gorky, with his swept-back black hair, his Nietzschean mustache and high forehead, suggested dormant nobility, when, in fact, he came from the artisan class. Vladimir Maiakovsky, without a mustache, without any hair on his face or head at all, glares out from most of his photographs with intense eyes, pronounced bone structure, and a long face. He claimed descent from Cossacks. Both of these writers, differences in personality aside, had some things in common: they both visited America, for example, but the most dangerous and disturbing parallel is their engagement with Communism and how ideology would haunt their faith in literature, if not humanity.
Gorky’s full name was Aleksei M. Peshkov. His last name ‘Peshkov’ means ‘pawn’ in Russian. His pseudonym, Gorky, means ‘bitter.’ He gained his initial fame from his short stories about a proud and fierce people, the “bosiaki” or ‘the barefooted people,’ he had observed in his travels as a young man. The collection earned praise from Tolstoy, who noted his ear for lower-class speech. Gorky interpreted Tolstoy’s remark as an ambiguous compliment. Readers not familiar with Russian literature have to understand both sides of Tolstoy’s compliment. Up to Gorky’s day, nearly all of the recognized writers were aristocratic, or were tied to the land somehow. Gogol was from petty nobility. Chekhov, the grandson of a serf, still had that tie to the soil. Gorky’s pedigree associated him with the mercantile and materialistic, the dirty hands that touched money and less noble than those who had touched the earth or had the leisure time to read and write. Gorky’s ear for demotic speech is what made his stories seem real, relevant, and a time capsule.
Gorky was also a compassionate man. His grandmother, Akulina, who had an extraordinary gift for reciting folktales, was illiterate, but in no way ignorant just because she had never been given an education. Gorky wanted all Russians to receive an education and acquire affordable translations of the classics of world literature. He would fund and champion this effort, with mixed results. The humane Gorky helped writers financially. He saved a few from firing squads, too. His final split with Lenin and self-exile to Italy was over the execution of the poet Nikolay Gumilev. The poet’s crime had been his refusal to inform on his counter-revolutionary friends to the secret police. Gorky had gone to Lenin to save the man. Lenin told him that he would dispatch a telegram. Lost telegram or not, Lenin’s trickery or not, Gumilev was shot. Gorky had words with Lenin and went off to Sorrento, Italy.
The years of exile helped Gorky produce some of his best work. While in Italy, where he also convalesced from TB, Gorky would pen his autobiography and memoirs in which he provides vivid recollections of the majestic but difficult Tolstoy, places and times, and the full humanity of Chekhov, a man well aware that he was writing against the clock since he was terminally ill with tuberculosis. Most importantly, Gorky presents his political and literary development.
Gorky’s exile in Italy after his argument with Lenin had not been his first experience of exile. Late, with the Fascists to his back in Italy, little money in his pockets, and Stalin in front of him (literally), Gorky returned to Russia. He spent his last years in forced isolation, writing about the “socialist realist” literature Stalin expected from party writers. Not quite the political hack and never the political radical, Gorky must have been aware, given all that he had survived, that he was a tool of the Communist Party. The state-sponsored and state-approved literature, MASSOLIT, was often very bad, proving that ideology and literature should not mix; but Stalin had chosen Gorky because he was respectable, the one writer with a pedigree traceable to the early days of the Communist Party. Gorky would die under suspicious circumstances in 1936, right before Stalin initiated one his infamous purges.
Maiakovsky was a different man altogether. In terms of names, ‘Vladimir’ is a noble name, and ‘Maiakovsky’ contains the word ‘maiak,’ meaning ‘lighthouse.’ Everything about Comrade Maiakovsky was about Maiakovsky the Poet. He stomped and stormed. He was also a Futurist. His behavior outraged and scandalized. Once, when asked to sign a guestbook, he threw the book on the floor and pressed his muddy boot to the page as his signature. Maiakovsky believed in Art of the Worker in capital letters, in an ideal society, and most of all, in The Party. Unlike Gorky, he saw no value in the art and literature of the past, before the Revolution, because he looked forward. As an avowed Futurist, Maiakovsky called himself the “Revolution’s tribune.”
In his 1920 poem, “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Happened to Vladimir Maiakovsky in a Summer Country House,” he equates himself with the sun in that they both share the responsibility of illuminating the world. A lighthouse, indeed. Bombast and monstrous ego and behavior aside, Maiakovsky evolved and, like Gorky, would arrive at an unfortunate conclusion about his art that was serving political ends. Later in his career, he would mock the New Economic Policy (NEP) in his brilliant play, The Bedbug. The NEP was a brief suspension of Communist ideals in which capitalism was encouraged; and in an irony of ironies, Maiakovsky would travel to the United States in 1925. Gorky had visited the U.S. in 1906.
These two visits are worth discussing. Gorky’s purpose in 1906 was to drum up support for the revolution back home. The American perception of events in Russia was favorable because Americans believed that Russia was moving towards democracy, or to a form of government similar to that of the United Kingdom, with a ceremonial monarch. The outcome was for Gorky is a combination of his poor judgment and the shameful behavior of the American literati. Gorky signed an exclusive contract with a Hearst newspaper for travel essays as he moved about the country. He had not anticipated that this would enrage other newspapers. Since his mission was to win hearts and minds and lighten pockets for a political adversary to Czar Nicholas II, the Russian diplomats in DC dropped the dime and let reporters know that Gorky was traveling with a woman not his wife. Prudish Americans would not know that divorce was impossible in Russia. Gorky and his companion appeared in newsprint as immoral degenerates. Numerous newspapers would also misspell Gorky’s name as ‘Gorkyh,’ and ‘Gorkey.’ The hotel expelled them. The shameful part about this whole affair is that the man most responsible for deserting Gorky was the head of the welcoming committee, Mark Twain. Jane Addams and William Dean Howells were among the notables who had slinked away. Gorky and Maria Andreeva could not speak any English. President Theodore Roosevelt changed his mind about hosting the couple. John Dewey, the future philosopher, rescued and sheltered Gorky and Andreeva.
Maiakovsky’s poetry, before Lenin’s success, addressed the horrors of war. Into the Twenties, the poet’s outsized personality and charisma deepened, as did his taste for satire. He traveled extensively, visiting the United States in 1925. In a not so surprising turn since he was a Futurist, he found inspiration in technology in the form of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, Maiakovsky had become disillusioned, having seen destitution and degradation in his travels around the Soviet Union. He noticed and observed the sycophants within the Party. Having seen poverty at home and admirable living conditions in the lair of his ideological enemy, capitalist America, Maiakovsky felt that the NEP was a sign of failure. He praises the Brooklyn Bridge and the U.S., although, towing the line, he interjects some criticism at the forgotten sacrifices of the laborers. His poem concludes with the suicide of one of the laborers. The man jumps to his death in the Hudson River. The Brooklyn Bridge is over the East River.
His play The Bedbug (1929) is biting satire, sci-fi, and horror. The play mocks social climbers, depicts Communism fifty years in the future with a new type of man, Homo sovieticus, and ends with an allegorical image of the gulag. Stalin had created concentration camps in 1917, which he later expanded into the gulag. The main character finds out the future is no Utopia, but it is too late. He is accused of corrupting society with his bad behavior and with his love of beer. The protagonist seeks compassion and understanding, but finds none. The image at the end is of Prysipkin and his bedbug friend on display at a zoo as Bedbugus normalis and Bourgeoisius vulgaris, respectively. The audience stopped laughing. The play was performed only once in Maiakovsky’s lifetime and banned after that first and only performance. Maiaikovsky’s reputation declined. He wrote one last poem, “Past One O’Clock,” that demonstrates that he was one of the great lyrical poets of the twentieth century, so said Pasternak. Depressed, he would tempt fate and play Russian roulette. He lost, on April 14, 1930. He was 36 years old.
Gorky documented and reflected on the best of Russian literature, particularly from the Nineteenth Century. He knew Chekhov and Tolstoy. He may have thought that the literature of bourgeois society of the last century could be transformed into socialist art. He was empathetic and sympathetic to all of Russia’s peoples. He witnessed pogroms and despised racism. He saw hunger and initiated a campaign to feed others. Most importantly, he protected writers from destitution or execution. As political idealism disintegrated into violence, Gorky had no illusions about the character of Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. He would return to the lion’s den.
Maiakovsky, for all of his blustering bravado, believed in a new world. He may have taunted and teased other artists, equating their work to sewing patches on Pushkin’s coat, but he believed through his fiery rhetoric and lyricism that he could motivate others to create a better society. Unfortunately, he had not anticipated that others were of less integrity. Both men lived to see what came after the Bolsheviks had won, their Russia, now called the Soviet Union. The more they wrote, the more haunting they became.
Millions of Russians died in World War I, a war that ignited a political system that would kill many more Russians before the Second World War and millions more during it. The British historian A. J. P. Taylor argued 1917 was the year world history started because Lenin had succeeded and America had entered the war that April; and war, since then, is all about ideology. I believe that Gorky and Maiakovsky’s deaths anticipated Mikhail Bulgakov’s assessment of ideological governments in The Master and Margarita: there is always that Faustian deal, always flawed human beings as devils.