4 Gorky's Despair

Gorky to Ekaterina, 18 June 1917:

Today's demonstration was a demonstration of the impotence of the loyal democratic forces. Only the 'Bolsheviks' marched. I despise and bate them more and more. They are truly Russian idiots. Most of the slogans demanded 'Down with the 10 Bourgeois Ministers!' But there are only eight of them! There were several outbreaks of panic — it was disgusting. Ladies jumped into the canal between the Champs de Mars and the Summer Gardens, waded through the water in their boots, pulled up their skirts, and bared their legs, some of them fat, some of them crooked. The madness continues, but it seems that it is beginning to wear the people out. Although I am a pacifist, I welcome the coming offensive in the hope that it may at least bring some organization to the country, which is becoming incorrigibly lazy and disorganized.68

Socialism for Gorky had always been essentially a cultural ideal. It meant for him the building of a humanist civilization based on the principles of democracy and on the development of the people's moral, spiritual and intellectual forces. 'The new political life', he wrote in April, 'demands from us a new structure of the soul.' And yet the revolution, as he saw it, had unleashed an 'anarchic wave of plebeian violence and revenge' which threatened to destroy Russian civilization. There had been no 'social revolution', as Gorky understood the term, but only a 'zoological' outburst of violence and destruction. Instead of heralding a new civilization, the Russian Revolution had brought the country to the brink of a 'new dark age of barbaric chaos', in which the instincts of revenge and hatred would overcome all that was good in the people. The task of the democratic intelligentsia, as he saw it in 1917, was the defence of civilization against the destructive violence of the crowd. It was, in his own Arnoldian terms, a struggle of 'culture against anarchy'.69


The violent rejection of everything associated with the old civilization was an integral element of the February Revolution. Symbols of the imperial regime were destroyed, statues of tsarist heroes were smashed, street names were changed. Peasants vandalized manor houses, churches and schools. They burned down libraries and smashed up priceless works of art.

Many romantic socialists saw this iconoclastic violence as a 'natural' (i.e. positive) revolutionary impulse from an oppressed people with much to avenge. Trotsky, for example, spoke in idealistic terms of the revolution, even through the incitement of aggression, arousing the human personality.

It is natural that persons unaccustomed to revolution and its psychology, or persons who have previously only experienced in the realm of ideas that which has unfolded before them physically, materially, may view with some sorrow, if not disgust, the anarchic wildness and violence which appeared on the surface of the revolutionary events. Yet in that riotous anarchy, even in its most negative manifestations, when the soldier, yesterday's slave, all of a sudden found himself in a first-class railway carriage and tore out the velvet facings to make himself foot-cloths, even in such an act of vandalism the awakening of the personality was expressed. That downtrodden, persecuted Russian peasant, who had been struck in the face and subjected to the vilest curses, found himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, in a first-class carriage and saw the velvet cushions, while on his feet he had stinking rags, and he tore up the velvet, saying that he too had the right to a piece of good silk or velvet.

And there were many left-wing intellectuals who saw the violence in similar terms. Some, like Blok, idealized the burning down of the old Russia as an exorcism of its sinful past, and believed that out of this destruction of the old world a new and more fraternal world, perhaps even a more Christian world, would be created. Hence Blok, in his famous poem 'The Twelve' (written in January 1918), portrayed Christ at the head of the Red Guards. Others, like Voloshin, Mandelstam and Belyi, were rather more ambivalent towards the revolutionary violence, welcoming it, on the one hand, as a just and elemental force, while, on the other, expressing horror at its savage cruelty.70

But Gorky saw only darkness in the violence. He was appalled by what, he had no doubts, were its inevitable consequences, the moral corruption of the revolution and the people's descent into barbarism. He was, as always, quite uncompromising and outspoken in his condemnations of the violence in his well-known column, 'Untimely Thoughts', which he published in his newspaper Novaia zhizn during 1917 and 1918. He condemned the boom in royal pornography as 'poisonous filth', whose only real effect was to arouse the 'dark instincts of the mob'. Later, during the Red Terror, he would take up the defence of several Romanovs, including even a Grand Duke, seeing them as the 'poor scapegoats of the Revolution, martyrs to the fanaticism of the times'. He was even more appalled by the 'rise of anti-Semitism, the pogrom mentality of the working class', a class upon which, like all the Marxists, he had placed great faith as a liberating and moral force. Gorky also condemned the vandalism of the peasant revolution. He saw the destruction of the gentry's manors, with their libraries and fine art, as nothing less than an attack on civilization. In March 1917, after hearing rumours that the crowds were about to smash the equestrian statue of Alexander III in Znamenskaya Square, Gorky held a meeting of fifty leading cultural figures in his flat, and out of this was formed a twelve-man commission to campaign for the preservation of all artistic monuments and historic buildings. The 'Gorky Commission' it was often called.71

Gorky's own beloved Petersburg, the capital of Russia's Western civilization, was, as he saw it, being destroyed and profaned by 'this Asiatic revolution'. On 14 June he wrote to Ekaterina in Moscow:

This is no longer a capital, it is a cesspit. No one works, the streets are filthy, there are piles of stinking rubbish in the courtyards ... It hurts me to say how bad things have become. There is a growing idleness and cowardice in the people, and all those base and criminal instincts which I have fought all my life and which, it seems, are now destroying Russia.72

Twentieth-century Russia seemed to be returning to the barbarism of the Middle Ages. Gorky was especially outraged by the spread of lynch law (samosudy) in the cities. In December 1917 he claimed to have counted 10,000 cases of summary justice since the collapse of the old regime. It seemed to him that these mob trials — in which the crowd would judge and execute an apprehended criminal on the street — utterly negated the ideals of justice for which the revolution had been fought. The Russian people, having been beaten for hundreds of years, were now beating their own enemies with a morbid sensuality.

Here is how the democracy tries its sinners. A thief was caught near the Alexandrovsky Market. The crowd there and then beat him up and took a vote — by which death should the thief be punished: drowning or shooting? They decided on drowning and threw the man into the icy water. But with great difficulty he managed to swim out and crawl up on to the shore; one of the crowd then went up to him and shot him.

The middle ages of our history were an epoch of abominable cruelty, but even then if a criminal sentenced to death by a court fell from the gallows, he was allowed to live.

How do the mob trials affect the coming generation?

A thief, beaten half to death, is taken by soldiers to the Moika to be drowned; he is all covered with blood, his face is completely smashed, and one eye has come out. A crowd of children accompanies him; later some of them return from the Moika and, hopping up and down, joyfully shout: 'They sunk him, they drowned him!'

These are our children, the future builders of our life. The life of a man will be cheap in their estimation, but man — one should not forget this! — is the finest and most valuable creation of nature.73

Gorky's pessimism was of course the view of a man of letters repulsed by violence in all its forms. He judged the revolution, not in its own terms, but in terms of how far it matched up to his own cultural values and moral ideals. This he made clear in a brave and daring speech, never before published, to commemorate the first anniversary of the February Revolution:

A revolution is only a revolution when it arises as a natural and powerful expression of the people's creative force. If, however, the revolution is simply a release of the instincts of the people accumulated through slavery and oppression, then it is not a revolution but just a riot [bunt] of malice and hatred, it is incapable of changing our lives but can only lead to bitterness and evil. Can we really say that one year after the Russian Revolution, the people, having been liberated from the violence and oppression of the old police state, have become better, kinder, more intelligent, and more honest people? No, no one could say that. We are still living as we lived under the monarchy, with the same customs, the same prejudices, the same stupidity and the same filth. The greed and the malice which were inculcated in us by the old regime are still within us. People are still robbing and cheating one another, as they have always robbed and cheated one another. The new bureaucrats take bribes just like the old ones did, and they treat the people with even more rudeness and contempt. . . The Russian people, having won its freedom, is in its present state incapable of using it for its own good, only for its own harm and the harm of others, and it is in danger of losing everything that it has been fighting for for centuries. It is destroying all the great achievements of its ancestors; gradually the national wealth, the wealth of the land, of industry, of transport, of communications, and of the towns, is being destroyed in the dirt.74


There is much that one might admire in Gorky's brave stand against the destruction of the revolution. His despairing voice was an isolated one — which made it all the more noble and tragic. As far as the Left was concerned his 'untimely thoughts' were heretical — they were 'politically incorrect' — because it was the received view that violence and destruction were both natural and even justified by the wider goals of the revolution; and yet Gorky's contacts with the Bolsheviks made them just as unwelcome on the Right. His own circle around Novaia zhizn was not so much a political faction as a loose assortment of disaffected Marxists who had no party they felt they could join. 'I should form my own party,' Gorky wrote to Ekaterina on 19 March, 'but I wouldn't know what to call it. In this party there is only one member — and that is me!75

And yet, as Gorky himself acknowledged, his own position was full of prejudices and contradictions which only an intellectual could afford. He made sweeping moral and cultural judgements about the violence of the revolutionary crowd without ever attempting to understand this violence in its historical or social context. In his many writings on the mob trials, for example, he never considered the simple social fact that, with the cities full of crime and violence, and with no police force to uphold the law, these acts of street justice had become the only way for ordinary citizens to protect their property and themselves. Gorky did not really understand the problem; he simply judged it from a moral viewpoint.

Gorky's cultural prejudices were nowhere more apparent than in his efforts to explain the origins of this violence. Of course he saw the need to place it in the context of the legacies of tsarism:

The conditions in which the Russian people lived in the past could foster in them neither respect for the individual, nor awareness of the citizen's rights, nor a feeling of justice — these were conditions of absolute lawlessness, of the oppression of the individual, of the most shameless lies and bestial cruelty. And one must be amazed that with all these conditions, the people nevertheless retained in themselves quite a few human feelings and some degree of common sense.

And he was the first to stress that the barbarism of the revolution was born in the barbarism of the First World War. The mass slaughter of the trenches and the hardships of the rear had brought out the cruelty and brutishness of people, Gorky explained to Romain Rolland, hardening them to the suffering of their fellow human beings. People had developed a taste for violence and few of them, he maintained, had been shocked by the killing of the February Days. The unwritten rules of civilized behaviour had all been forgotten, the thin veneer of civilization had been stripped away, in the revolutionary explosion.76


Yet Gorky was always rather more inclined to explain this violence in terms of the Russian national character than in terms of the context in which it took place. 'The environment in which the tragedy of the Russian Revolution has been and is being played out', he wrote in 1922, 'is an environment of semi-savage people. I explain the cruel manifestations of the revolution in terms of the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people.' He never stopped to think that all social revolutions are, by their very nature, violent. Here Gorky's view was prejudiced by his ardent Westernizing sympathies. It was his belief that all human progress and civilization derived from the West, and that all barbarism derived from the East. Socially, historically and geographically, Russia was caught between Europe and Asia. The Petrine state tradition and the Russian intelligentsia were both Westernizing influences; the peasantry were Asiatic; while the working class was in between, derived as it was from the peasantry yet capable of being civilized under the intelligentsia's guidance. The Russian Revolution, which, Gorky realized in 1917, came essentially from the peasant depths, was an Easternizing and barbaric force. He had no illusions, as Lvov did, about the goodness or the wisdom of the simple Russian people. 'I am turning into a pessimist, and, it seems, a misanthrope,' he wrote to Ekaterina in mid-March. 'In my view the overwhelming majority of the population in Russia is both evil and as stupid as pigs.'77

The 'savage instincts' of the Russian peasants, whom Gorky hated with a vengeance, were, in his view, especially to blame for the violence of the revolution. The sole desire of the peasants, Gorky often argued, was to exact a cruel revenge on their former masters, and on all the wealthy and privileged elite, among whom they counted their self-appointed leaders among the intelligentsia. Much of the revolutionary violence in the cities — the mob trials, the anarchic looting and the 'carting out' of the factory bosses — he put down, like many of the Mensheviks, to the sudden influx of unskilled peasant workers into cities during the war. It was as if he refused to believe that the working class, which, like all Marxists, he saw as a force of cultural progress, might behave like peasants or hooligans. And yet he often expressed his own deep fear that the urban culture of the working class was being 'dissolved in the peasant mass', that the world of school and industry was being lost to the barbaric customs of the village.78

Gorky blamed the Bolsheviks for much of this. Lenin's April Theses had, as he saw it, called prematurely for a new revolution, and in Russia's state of backwardness this was bound to make it hostage to the peasantry. As he wrote in 1924:

I thought that the Theses sacrificed the small and heroic band of politically educated workers, as well as the truly revolutionary intelligentsia, to the Russian peasantry. The only active force in Russia would be thrown, like a pinch of salt, into the flat bog of the village, and it would dissolve without a trace, without changing the spirit, the life, the history of the nation.79

It seemed to Gorky that the cultural ideals of the socialist intelligentsia were being sacrificed by the Bolsheviks in the interests of their own political ends. The Bolsheviks were guilty of stirring up class hatred and of encouraging the 'nihilistic masses' to destroy the old order root and branch.

The violent clashes on the Nevsky Prospekt during the demonstrations of 20—1 April, which many people blamed on the Bolsheviks, filled Gorky with a sense of deep revulsion. His 'untimely thoughts' for the 23rd:

The bright wings of our young freedom are bespattered with innocent blood. Murder and violence are the arguments of despotism .. . We must understand that the most terrible enemy of freedom and justice is within us; it is our stupidity, our cruelty, and all that chaos of dark, anarchistic feelings . . . Are we capable of understanding this? If we are incapable, if we cannot refrain from the most flagrant use of force on man, then we have no freedom ... Is it possible that the memory of our vile past, the memory of how hundreds and thousands of us were shot in the streets, has implanted in us, too, the calm attitude of the executioner toward the violent death of a man? I cannot find harsh enough words to reproach those who try to prove something with bullets, bayonets, or a fist in the face. Were not these the . . . means by which we were kept in shameful slavery? And now, having freed ourselves from slavery externally, we continue to live dominated by the feelings of slaves.80

The role of the Bolsheviks in the abortive demonstrations of 10 June also angered him. He wrote to Ekaterina on 14 June:

I have come to the end of my tether. Physically I am still holding out. But every day my anxiety grows and I think that the crazy politics of Lenin will soon lead us to a civil war. He is completely isolated but his slogans are very popular among the mass of the uneducated workers and some of the soldiers.81

It seemed to Gorky that the 'plebeian anger' aroused by the Bolsheviks' militant slogans might all too easily degenerate into a force of destruction and chaos in a peasant country such as Russia, where the mass of the people were 'ignorant and base'. Hatred of the burzhoois would soon give way to a senseless pogrom, a class war of retribution, a 'looting of the looters', to adopt the Bolsheviks' own slogan. Distrust of the democratic parties, equally fostered by the Bolsheviks, would soon become a general negation of the intelligentsia and its humanist values.

In a sense it was not just the Bolsheviks but all the political parties which Gorky despaired of in 1917. 'Polities', he wrote on 20 April, 'is the seedbed of social enmity, evil suspicions, shameless lies, morbid ambitions, and disrespect for the individual. Name anything bad in man, and it is precisely in the soil of political struggle that it grows with abundance.' His cri de coeur was based on the belief that the role of the intelligentsia, in which he included the political parties, was to defend the moral and cultural values of the Enlightenment against the destructive violence of the crowd. Its role was to safeguard the revolution as a constructive and creative process of national civilization. Gorky, in this respect, was moving closer to the viewpoint of the liberals and the Soviet leaders, who were just as concerned by the growing tide of anarchy. And like them, during the spring and early summer he was becoming increasingly inclined to view a new offensive on the Front as a galvanizing and disciplining force. For, as Gorky put it on 18 June, 'although I am a pacifist, I welcome the coming offensive in the hope that it may at least bring some organization to the country'.82 How wrong he would be.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!