Wednesday 5 June 2013

The Humanism of Gorky

 Most of  my discussion about Maxim Gorky in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013 is critical of his obsequious behaviour toward Stalin. In the following selection that did not survive the editing process, I applaud his courage to protect art and save artists during the revolutionary era.                                                    

Maxim Gorky

With the outbreak of Civil War and the closure of his newspaper,  Maxim Gorky no longer possessed a venue for articulating his opposition to the Bolsheviks. At this point, he decided to shift tactics and try to influence or mitigate the harshness of their regime from within. Whether his motivation derived from an acceptance of Lenin’s requirement that he work with them “inside history,” Gorky recognized that any other alternative would consign him to impotence. Moreover, as much as he had reviled the Bolsheviks and would continue to do so, they were infinitely preferable to a White dictatorship. His rapprochement with Lenin allowed him to become patron of the intelligentsia which provided him with access to material aid and the power to preserve the artifacts of Russian culture. In this new order, one’s usefulness and political loyalties were criteria for determining one’s rations. In the chaotic and brutal years of the Civil War and famine, even the newly proclaimed elite – working men, soldiers and Communist officials – had to cope with hunger and lack of fuel. For the non-political intellectuals and artists, obtaining the basic subsistence for life was far more difficult, and without Gorky’s importunate efforts for shelter, increased rations, medicine, light and heat, few of the intelligentsia would have survived even though about a hundred scientists died of hunger and hardship. His herculean attempts to secure work and dignity for translators of world literature, laboratory space for scientists, dormitories and reading rooms for scholars, poets and dramatists were extraordinary considering the extreme material deprivation of these years and the Bolshevik disdain for the intelligentsia reviled by Lenin as “shit.” His accomplishments, as great as they were, would not have occurred without Lenin’s benevolence towards him, particularly his efforts to secure rations for those in need. Lenin instructed officials to cooperate with Gorky when he besieged them with requests.
 Gorky also directed his attention to the equally disturbing wanton destruction of works of art after he observed a delegation of the village poor at the Winter Palace who indulged in hooliganism that was designed “to spoil, to deface and sully beautiful things.” For one who was aghast at the Bolshevik cavalier disregard for cultural artifacts, he perceptively noted that the “urge to spoil things of exceptional beauty comes from the same source as the shameful striving to vilify any exceptional human being.” For one who had long believed the eighteenth-century Enlightenment notion that education and culture could improve man and lead to progress for mankind, it was only natural that he would chair the Commission for the Preservation of Historical Buildings and Monuments, and the Protection of Art Objects. The self-educated former tramp was able to inspire enthusiasm in the professors and academicians when he presided over meetings. His role, as “Curator of Culture,” to conserve museums and art objects was inextricably linked to his attempt to save lives through addressing not only the basic needs but also their spiritual well being. According to his fellow writer and friend, Zamyatin, it was his faith that sustained Gorky during these harsh years where Petrograd deteriorated into “an atmosphere of catastrophe and ruin,” particularly after Lenin moved the capital and its limited state resources to Moscow in March 1918.
Gorky and Lenin
That faith, however, was tested because his efforts were constantly thwarted by the Bolsheviks’ policies. At times, Gorky received the lukewarm indulgence of Lenin, but since the latter regarded the preservation of culture (and requests to save an innocent person from the clutches of the Cheka) “a trivial thing,” Gorky too grew impatient. His angry missive to Lenin about ‘trivialities’ provided Gorky with the opportunity to berate the “scoundrels and swindlers who play the destructive role of pathogenic bacilli” in the bureaucracy. Bureaucrats had refused to distribute the vital rations to accommodate an increased membership in the Expert Commission. In the same letter, he pleaded with Lenin to allow the poet, Alexander Blok, by now broken in spirit as well as health, to decamp to a sanatorium in Finland.

Gregory Zinoviev
But it was Gorky’s efforts to save the lives of those who were in the clutches of the Cheka that earned him the most animosity from the regime that regarded him at best as pathetically naive. Hundreds of people, from poets to peasants, wrote pleading for him to intercede on behalf of a loved one. He bombarded Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin and Zinoviev, with countless letters demanding the release of innocent individuals. But for Lenin, along with Trotsky and Stalin, mercy was a sign of inexcusable sentimentality. In one verbal exchange between Lenin and Gorky, who had complained about the arrest of individuals who had hidden many Bolsheviks, Lenin included, during the abortive July uprising in 1917, Lenin revealed his contempt for the “spineless drooling” liberals and humanitarians. They were the “fine kind people” who always aided the persecuted. Before, they hid Bolsheviks from the Tsar, now they protected those whom Lenin condemned as enemies. “And we need to catch and destroy active counterrevolutionaries. The rest is clear.” It certainly was for the liberals who once may have been useful, but now were dangerous. In another heated but frank exchange, Gorky did not mince his words when he expressed his indignation in a missive about a psychology professor who had been arrested by the Cheka. “In Russia, there are few brains, and we have too many scoundrels, adventurers and crooks.” As to the Communists, “they are thieves and within a year or two, they will turn into despicable bourgeoisie.” In exasperation, Lenin replied that Gorky was “morbid” and that he “should change [his] environment and [his] activities radically or life would surely become unbearable.” Gorky’s friendship with Lenin enabled him to remonstrate with him and secure promises for the release of individuals whose lives were put at great risk. With others, like the Petrograd Party chief Zinoviev, he could only antagonize. In an initially polite letter to Zinoviev, he requested the release of experts, arrested by the Cheka, who had evaluated the value of art works seized by the Bolsheviks. But he could not restrain himself from adding this acidic comment, “The barbarous outrages which have been taking place recently in Petersburg are compromising the regime completely, provoking universal hatred and contempt for its cowardice.”  Lenin’s protection deterred Zinoviev from venting in full his implacable hatred toward Gorky, but he
did harass Gorky by ordering the monitoring of his private correspondence, putting him under surveillance and authorizing a police search of his apartment. Under these trying conditions, Gorky still secured the release of countless individuals, including members of the Romanoff family, many of which, he did not know. He facilitated the emigration of a one-time Bolshevik enthusiast and engineer, Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose banned novel, We, a dystopian science-fiction satire, had placed its author in personal jeopardy.
Nikolay Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova and son Lev, 1913
Gorky was, however, not always successful. The poet, Nikolay Gumilev, once married to the gifted poet, Anna Akhmatova, was arrested in 1922 for allegedly participating in a counter-revolutionary monarchist plot that basically consisted of providing financial assistance for political refugees to flee across the border and, according to recently opened KGB files, for merely stating if there was a popular uprising against the government he would join it.  Gorky tried to secure his release, but to no avail. Gumilev was the first writer the regime executed, and, along with others in the artistic community who believed that an irreversible line had been crossed, it darkened Gorky’s temperament enough for him to consider exile. Three years earlier, he had already privately expressed his outrage and anguish at “the deliberate destruction of the best brains in the country,” declaring that the “actions [of] the Soviet regime have made an enemy out of me.”  But when the alternative was the possibility of a military dictatorship, he was willing to work with the Bolsheviks. However with the end of Civil War and still more repression, it was hard to continue the struggle.

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