'No, I am not well,' Gorky wrote to Romain Rolland on his arrival in Berlin — 'my tuberculosis has come back, but at my age it is not dangerous. Much harder to bear is the sad sickness of the soul — I feel very tired: during the past seven years in Russia I have seen and lived through so many sad dramas — the more sad for not being caused by the logic of passion and free will but by the blind and cold calculation of fanatics and cowards ... I still believe fervently in the future happiness of mankind but I am sickened and disturbed by the growing sum of suffering which people have to pay as the price of their fine hopes.'1 Death and disillusionment lay behind Gorky's departure from Russia in the autumn of 1921. So many people had been killed in the previous four years that even he could no longer hold firm to his revolutionary hopes and ideals. Nothing was worth such human suffering.
Nobody knows the full human cost of the revolution. By any calculation it was catastrophic. Counting only deaths from the civil war, the terror, famine and disease, it was something in the region of ten million people. But this excludes the emigration (about two million) and the demographic effects of a hugely reduced birth-rate — nobody wanted children in these frightful years — which statisticians say would have added up to ten million lives.* The highest death rates were among adult men — in Petrograd alone there were 65,000 widows in 1920 — but death was so common that it touched everyone. Nobody lived through the revolutionary era without losing friends and relatives. 'My God how many deaths!' Sergei Semenov wrote to an old friend in January 1921. 'Most of the old men — Boborykin, Linev, Vengerov, Vorontsov, etc., have died. Even Grigory Petrov has disappeared — how he died is not known, we can only say that it probably was not from joy at the progress of socialism. What hurts especially is not even knowing where one's friends are buried.' How death could affect a single family is well illustrated by the Tereshchenkovs. Nikitin Tereshchenkov, a Red Army doctor, lost both his daughter and his sister to the typhus epidemic in 1919; his eldest son and brother were killed on the Southern Front fighting for the Red Army in that same year; his brother-in-law was mysteriously murdered. Nikitin's wife was dying from TB, while he himself contracted typhus. Denounced by the local Cheka (like so many of the rural intelligentsia) as 'enemies of the people', they lost their town house in Smolensk and were living, in 1920, on a small farm worked by their two surviving sons — Volodya, fifteen, and Misha, thirteen.2
* It also excludes the reduced life expectancy of those who survived due to malnutrition and disease. Children born and brought up in these years were markedly smaller than older cohorts, and 5 per cent of all new-borns had syphilis (Sorokin, Sovremennoe, 16, 67).
To die in Russia in these times was easy but to be buried was very hard. Funeral services had been nationalized, so every burial took endless paperwork. Then there was the shortage of timber for coffins. Some people wrapped their loved ones up in mats, or hired coffins — marked 'PLEASE RETURN' — just to carry them to their graves. One old professor was too large for his hired coffin and had to be crammed in by breaking several bones. For some unaccountable reason there was even a shortage of graves — would one believe it if this was not Russia? — which left people waiting several months for one. The main morgue in Moscow had hundreds of rotting corpses in the basement awaiting burial. The Bolsheviks tried to ease the problem by promoting free cremations. In 1919 they pledged to build the biggest crematorium in the world. But the Russians' continued attachment to the Orthodox burial rituals killed off this initiative.3
Death was so common that people became inured to it. The sight of a dead body in the street no longer attracted attention. Murders occurred for the slightest motive — stealing a few roubles, jumping a queue, or simply for the entertainment of the killers. Seven years of war had brutalized people and made them insensitive to the pain and suffering of others. In 1921 Gorky asked a group of soldiers from the Red Army if they were uneasy about killing people. 'No they were not. "He has a weapon, I have a weapon, so we are equal; what's the odds, if we kill one another there'll be more room in the land." ' One soldier, who had also fought in Europe in the First World War, even told Gorky that it was easier to kill a Russian than a foreigner. 'Our people are many, our economy is poor; well, if a hamlet is burnt, what's the loss? It would have burnt down itself in due course.' Life had become so cheap that people thought little of killing one another, or indeed of others killing millions in their name. One peasant asked a scientific expedition working in the Urals during 1921: 'You are educated people, tell me then what's to happen to me. A Bashkir killed my cow, so of course I killed the Bashkir and then I took the cow away from his family. So tell me: shall I be punished for the cow?' When they asked him whether he did not rather expect to be punished for the murder of the man, the peasant replied: 'That's nothing, people are cheap nowadays.'
Other stories were told — of a husband who had murdered his wife for no apparent reason. 'I had enough of her and there is the end of it,' was the murderer's explanation. It was as if all the violence of the previous few years had stripped away the thin veneer of civilization covering human relations and exposed the primitive zoological instincts of man. People began to like the smell of blood. They developed a taste for sadistic forms of killing — a subject on which Gorky was an expert:
The peasants in Siberia dug pits and lowered Red Army prisoners into them upside down, leaving their legs to the knees above ground; then they filled in the pit with soil, watching by the convulsions of the legs which of the victims was more resistant, livelier, and which would be the last to die.
In Tambov province Communists were nailed with railway spikes by their left hand and left foot to trees a metre above the soil, and they watched the torments of these deliberately oddly-crucified people.
They would open a prisoner's belly, take out the small intestine and nailing it to a tree or telegraph pole they drove the man around the tree with blows, watching the intestine unwind through the wound. Stripping a captured officer naked, they tore strips of skin from his shoulders in the form of shoulder straps, and knocked in nails in place of pips; they would pull off the skin along the lines of the sword belt and trouser stripes — this operation was called 'to dress in uniform'. It, no doubt, demanded much time and considerable skill.4
The single biggest killer of these years — it accounted in all for some five million lives — was the famine crisis of 1921—2. Like all famine crises, the great Volga famine was caused in part by man and in part by God. The natural conditions of the Volga region made it vulnerable to harvest failures — and there had been many in recent years, 1891—2, 1906 and 1911 just to name a few. Summer droughts and extreme frosts were regular features of the steppeland climate. Gusting winds in the spring blew away the sandy topsoil and damaged tender crops. These were the preconditions of the Volga famine in 1921: the crop failure of 1920 was followed by a year of heavy frost and scorching summer drought that transformed the steppelands into one huge dustbowl. By the spring it became clear that the peasants were about to suffer a second harvest failure in succession. Much of the seed had been killed off by the frosts, while the new corn stalks which did emerge were weedy in appearance and soon destroyed by locusts and field-rats. Bad though they were, these cracks in nature's moulds were not enough to cause a famine crisis. The peasants were accustomed to harvest failures and had always maintained large stocks of grain, often in communal barns, for such emergencies. What made this crisis so disastrous was the fact that the peasant economy had already been brought to the brink of disaster, even before nature took its toll, by the requisitionings of the civil war. To evade the levies the peasants withdrew into subsistence production — they grew just enough grain to feed themselves and their livestock and provide for seed. In other words they left no safety margin, no reserves of the sort that had cushioned them from adverse weather in the past, since they feared that the Bolsheviks would take them. In 1920 the sown area in the Volga region had declined by a quarter since 1917. Yet the Bolsheviks continued to take more — not just surpluses but vital stocks of food and seed — so that when that harvest failed it was bound to result in the ruin of the peasants.5
By the spring of 1921 one-quarter of the peasantry in Soviet Russia was starving. Famine struck not only in the Volga region but in the Urals and Kama basins, the Don, Bashkiria, Kazakhstan, western Siberia and the southern Ukraine. The famine was accompanied by typhus and cholera which killed hundreds of thousands of people already weakened by hunger. The worst affected regions were on the Volga steppe. In Samara province nearly two million people (three-quarters of the population) were said to be dying from hunger by the autumn of 1921: 700,000 of them did in fact die by the end of the crisis. In one typical volost, Bulgakova, with a population of 16,000 in January 1921, 1,000 people had died, 2,200 had abandoned their homes and 6,500 had been paralysed by hunger or disease by the following November. Throughout the Volga region hungry peasants resorted to eating grass, weeds, leaves, moss, tree bark, roof thatch and flour made from acorns, sawdust, clay and horse manure. They slaughtered livestock and hunted rodents, cats and dogs. In the villages there was a deathly silence. Skeletons of people, children with their bellies bloated, lay down quietly like dogs to die. 'The villagers have simply given up on life,' one relief worker noted in Saratov. 'They are too weak even to complain,' Those with enough strength boarded up their ruined farms, packed their meagre belongings on to carts, and fled to the towns in search of food. At the town markets a few loaves of bread would be exchanged for a horse. Many people did not make it but collapsed and died along the road. Huge crowds converged on the railway stations in the vain hope of catching a train to other regions — Moscow, the Don, Siberia, almost anywhere, so long as it was rumoured there was food. They did not know that all transportation from the famine region had been stopped on Moscow's orders to limit the spread of epidemics. This was the scene at the Simbirsk railway station in the summer of 1921:
Imagine a compact mass of sordid rags, among which are visible here and there lean, naked arms, faces already stamped with the seal of death. Above all one is conscious of a poisonous odour. It is impossible to pass. The waiting room, the corridor, every foot thickly covered with people, sprawling, seated, crouched in every imaginable position. If one looks closely he sees that these filthy rags are swarming with vermin. The typhus stricken grovel and shiver in their fever, their babies with them. Nursing babies have lost their voices and are no longer able to cry. Every day more than twenty dead are carried away, but it is not possible to remove all of them. Sometimes corpses remain among the living for more than five days . . .
A woman tries to soothe a small child lying in her lap. The child cries, asking for food. For some time the mother goes on rocking it in her arms. Then suddenly she strikes it. The child screams anew. This seems to drive the woman mad. She begins to beat it furiously, her face distorted with rage. She rains blows with her fist on its little face, on its head and at last she throws it upon the floor and kicks it with her foot. A murmur of horror arises around her. The child is lifted from the ground, curses are hurled at the mother, who, after her furious excitement has subsided, has again become herself, utterly indifferent to everything around her. Her eyes are fixed, but are apparently sightless.6
Hunger turned some people into cannibals. This was a much more common phenomenon than historians have previously assumed. In the Bashkir region and on the steppelands around Pugachev and Buzuluk, where the famine crisis was at its worst, thousands of cases were reported. It is also clear that most of the cannibalism went unreported. One man, convicted of eating several children, confessed for example: 'In our village everyone eats human flesh but they hide it. There are several cafeterias in the village — and all of them serve up young children.' The phenomenon really took off with the onset of winter, around November 1921, when the first snows covered the remaining food substitutes on the ground and there was nothing else to eat. Mothers, desperate to feed their children, cut off limbs from corpses and boiled the flesh in pots. People ate their own relatives — often their young children, who were usually the first to die and whose flesh was particularly sweet. In some villages the peasants refused to bury their dead but stored the corpses, like so much meat, in their barns and stables. They often begged relief workers not to take away the corpses but to let them eat them instead. In the village of Ivanovka, near Pugachev, a woman was caught with her child eating her dead husband and when the police authorities tried to take away his remains she shouted: 'We will not give him up, we need him for food, he is our own family, and no one has the right to take him away from us.' The stealing of corpses from cemeteries became so common that in many regions armed guards had to be posted on their gates. Hunting and killing people for their flesh was also a common phenomenon. In the town of Pugachev it was dangerous for children to go out after dark since there were known to be bands of cannibals and traders who killed them to eat or sell their tender flesh. In the Novouzensk region there were bands of children who killed adults for their meat. Relief workers were armed for this reason. There were even cases of parents killing their own babies — usually their daughters — in order to eat their flesh or feed it to their other children.
It is easy to say that such acts were simply a sign of moral depravity or psychosis. But it was often compassion which drove people to cannibalism. The agony of watching one's children slowly die of hunger can spur people to do anything, and in such extreme circumstances the normal rules of right and wrong can seem remote. Indeed when interviewed the flesh-eaters appeared quite rational and had often developed a new moral code to legitimize their behaviour. Many of them argued that eating human flesh could not be a crime because the living soul had already departed from the bodies, which remained 'only as food for the worms in the ground'. Moreover, the craving for human flesh which starving people can easily develop once they have eaten it was not peculiar to any social class. Hungry doctors often succumbed to eating it after long spells of relief work in the famine region, and they too stated that the worst part of the experience was 'the insuperable and uncomfortable craving' which they acquired for human flesh.7
Until July 1921 the Soviet government refused to acknowledge the existence of the famine. It was a major embarrassment. As in the crisis of 1891, the press was even forbidden to use the word 'famine'. It continued to report that everything was well in the countryside after the introduction of the NER This deliberate policy of neglect was even more pronounced in the Ukraine: although famine was widespread there by the autumn of 1921, Moscow continued to export large quantities of grain to the Volga until the following summer. Of course, this was taking from one hungry region to give to another, even hungrier. But it may also be, as Robert Conquest has argued convincingly for the famine of 1930—2, that Moscow sought to punish the Ukrainian peasants for their opposition to the Bolshevik regime.8
As in 1891, it was left to the public and foreign bodies to organize the relief campaign. Gorky took the lead. On 13 July he issued an appeal 'To All Honest People' which later appeared in the Western press:
Tragedy has come to the country of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mendeleev, Pavlov, Mussorgsky, Glinka and other world-prized men. If humanitarian ideas and feelings — faith in whose social import was so shaken by the damnable war and its victors' unmercifulness towards the vanquished — if faith in the creative force of these ideas and feelings, I say, must and can be restored, Russia's misfortune offers a splendid opportunity to demonstrate the vitality of humanitarianism. I ask all honest European and American people for prompt aid to the Russian people. Give bread and medicine. Maxim Gorky.
With a group of other public figures Gorky appealed to Lenin for permission to organize a voluntary body for famine relief. The All-Russian Public Committee to Aid the Hungry, or Pomgol for short, set up as a result on 21 July, was the first and the last independent public body established under Communism. It was partly as a concession to Gorky and partly as a means of securing foreign aid that Lenin agreed to its formation. The seventy-three members of Pomgol included leading cultural figures (Gorky, Korolenko, Stanislavsky); liberal politicians (Kishkin, Prokopovich, Kuskova); an ex-tsarist minister (N. N. Kutler) and a veteran Populist (Vera Figner); famous agronomists (Chayanov, Krondatev) and engineers (P. I. Palchinsky); doctors; and Tolstoyans. There was even a place for Alexandra Tolstaya, the writer's daughter, who had spent the past four years in and out of Cheka jails and labour camps. Pomgol sought to revive the public spirit that had saved the country in 1891: it made appeals to the public at home and abroad to contribute to the relief campaign. Prince Lvov, who had taken part in the relief efforts of thirty years before, collected money and sent off food supplies through the Paris Zemgor organization (even in exile, he continued with his zemstvo work). To make sure that Pomgol did not get involved in politics the Bolsheviks assigned to it a 'cell' of twelve prominent Communists led by Kamenev. Lenin was adamant that the famine crisis should not give rise to the same public opposition as that of 1891 had done.9
Responding to Gorky's appeal, Herbert Hoover offered to send the American Relief Administration to Russia. Hoover had established the ARA to supply food and medicines to post-war Europe. Hoover's two conditions were that it should be allowed to operate independently, without intervention by the Communist officials, and that all US citizens should be released from Soviet jails. Lenin was furious — 'One must punish Hoover, one must publicly slap his face so that the whole world sees,' he fumed — yet like any beggar he could not be choosy. Once Pomgol had secured American aid Lenin ordered it to be closed down, despite vigorous protests from Kamenev and Gorky. On 27 August all its public members — except Gorky and Korolenko — were arrested by the Cheka, accused of all manner of 'counter-revolutionary activities', and later sent into exile abroad or to restricted zones in the interior. Even Gorky was pressurized by Lenin to go abroad 'for his health'.10
By the summer of 1922, when its activities were at their height, the ARA was feeding ten million people every day. It also despatched huge supplies of medicine, clothes, tools and seed — the last enabling the two successive bumper harvests of 1922 and 1923 that finally secured Russia's recovery from the famine. The total cost of the ARA operation was sixty-one million dollars.
The Bolsheviks received this aid with an astonishing lack of gratitude: never has such a generous gift horse been so shamefully looked in the mouth. They accused the ARA of spying, of trying to discredit and overthrow the Soviet regime,* and constantly meddled in their operations, searching convoys, withholding trains, seizing supplies, and even arresting relief workers. The two conditions of aid set by Hoover — freedom from intervention and the release of all Americans from prison — were thus both blatantly broken by the Bolsheviks. Further outrage was caused in America when it was discovered that at the same time as receiving food aid from the West, the Soviet government was exporting millions of tons of its own cereals for sale abroad. When questioned, the Soviet government claimed that it needed the exports in order to purchase industrial and agricultural equipment from abroad. But the scandal made it impossible to raise extra US funds for the ARA in Russia, and in June 1923 it suspended its operations.11
For Gorky the way the Soviet government had handled the famine crisis was both shameful and embarrassing. It was a major factor in his decision to leave Russia. When the worst of the famine was over the Bolsheviks sent a short formal note of gratitude to the American people. But Gorky was more generous in his thanks. In a letter that voiced many of his deepest ideals, Gorky wrote to Hoover on 30 July 1922:
In all the history of human suffering I know of nothing more trying to the souls of men than the events through which the Russian people are passing, and in the history of practical humanitarianism I know of no accomplishment which in terms of magnitude and generosity can be compared to the relief that you have actually accomplished. Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death. The generosity of the American people resuscitates the dream of fraternity among people at a time when humanity greatly needs charity and compassion.12
One of the saddest legacies of the revolution was the huge population of orphans who roamed the streets of every city. By 1922 there were an estimated seven million children living rough in stations, derelict houses, building sites, rubbish dumps, cellars, sewers and other squalid holes. These ragged, barefoot children, whose parents had either died or abandoned them, were a symbol of Russia's social breakdown. Even the family had been destroyed.
* Hoover's motives are not entirely clear. Intensely hostile to the Soviet regime, he may indeed have sought to use the famine relief as a means of diplomatic leverage and political influence in Russia. But this does not negate a genuine humanitarian concern on Hoover's part. Nor does it merit the Bolshevik charge. See Weissman, Herbert, ch. 2.
These orphans of the revolution were a ghastly caricature of the childhood they had lost. The struggle for survival on the streets forced them to live like adults. They had their own jargon, social groups and moral codes. Children as young as twelve got 'married' and had their own children. Many were seasoned alcoholics, heroin or cocaine addicts. Begging, peddling, petty crime and prostitution were the means by which they survived. At stations they swarmed like flies, instantly swooping on any scraps of food thrown to them from the trains. Some child beggars maimed themselves or shamed themselves in public to gain some small gratuity. One boy who lived in the station at Omsk would smear his face with his own excrement if people gave him five kopecks. There was a close connection between them and the criminal underworld. Gangs of children stole from market stalls, mugged pedestrians, picked people's pockets and broke into shops and houses. Those who were caught were likely to be beaten in the street by members of the public, who had very little sympathy for the orphans, but it seemed that even this would not deter them. The following scene in a market square was witnessed by one observer:
I myself saw a boy of about 10 to 12 years of age reach out, while being beaten with a cane, for a piece of bread already covered with grime and voraciously cram it into his mouth. Blows rained on his back, but the boy, on hands and knees, continued hurriedly to bite off piece after piece so as not to lose the bread. This was near the bread row at the bazaar. Adults — women — gathered around and shouted: 'That's what the scoundrel deserves: beat him some more! We get no peace from these lice.'
Nearly all these orphans were casual prostitutes. A survey of 1920 found that 88 per cent of the girls had engaged at some time in prostitution, while similar figures were found among the boys. Some of the girls were as young as seven. Most of the sexual acts took place in the streets, in market-places, in station-halls and parks. The girls had pimps — themselves usually no more than teenage boys — who often used them to rob their clients. But there were also paedophil-iac brothels run by so-called 'aunties', who gave the children food and a corner of a room, whilst putting them to work and living off their earnings.13 For millions of children this was the closest thing they ever had to maternal care.
'There are twelve-year-old children who already have three murders to their name,' Gorky wrote to Lenin in April 1920. Once an orphan of the streets himself, Gorky was one of the first to champion the struggle against 'juvenile delinquency'. That summer he set up a special commission to combat the problem, which provided colonies and shelters for the children and taught them how to read and write. Similar initiatives were undertaken by the League for the Rescue of Children established in 1919 by Kuskova and Korolenko with the approval of Sovnarkom. But with only half a million places in all the institutions put together, and seven million orphans on the street, this could only scratch the surface of the problem. Increasingly, the Bolsheviks turned to penal remedies, despite their own proclaimed principle of 1918 that there should be 'no courts or prisons for children'. Prisons and labour camps contained thousands of children, many under fourteen, the age of criminal responsibility. Another way of dealing with the problem was to allow factories to employ the children as sweated labour. Even in the civil war, when thousands of adult workers were laid off, there was a huge growth of child employment, with some workers as young as six, especially in the smaller factories where exploitative practices died hard. Despite widespread calls to limit the children to six hours of labour, and to make employers provide two hours of schooling, the authorities chose not to intervene, claiming it was 'better to have the children working than living from crime on the streets', with the result that many minors ended up by working twelve or fourteen hours every day.14
Children also made excellent soldiers. The Red Army had many young teenagers in its ranks. Having spent the whole of their conscious lives surrounded by the violence of war and revolution, many of them had no doubt come to think that killing people was part of normal life. These little soldiers were noted for their readiness to do as they were told — their commanders often played the role of surrogate fathers — as well as for their ruthless ability to kill the enemy, especially when led to believe that they were avenging their parents' murder. Ironically, many of these children were in fact much better off in the army — which treated them as its own children, clothing and feeding them and teaching them to read — than they would have been living on the streets.
* * * According to Nina Berberova, Gorky came to Europe angry not only at what had been done in Russia but profoundly shaken by what he had seen and experienced. She recalls a conversation he had with her husband, the poet Khodasevich:
Both (but at different times) in 1920 went to a children's home, or perhaps reformatory for pre-teenagers. These were mostly girls, syphilitics, homeless from twelve to fifteen; nine out of ten were thieves, half were pregnant. Khodasevich . . . with a kind of pity and revulsion remembered how these girls in rags and lice had clung to him, ready to undress him there on the staircase, and lifted their torn skirts above their heads, shouting obscenities at him. With difficulty he tore himself away from them. Gorky went through a similar scene: when he began to speak about it, horror was on his face, he clenched his jaws and suddenly became silent. It was clear that his visit shook him deeply — more, perhaps, than his previous impressions of tramps, the horrors of the lower depths from which he took his early subject matter. Perhaps, now in Europe, he was healing certain wounds he himself was afraid to admit to; and at times ... he asked himself, and only himself: Was it worth it?
Gorky was himself an orphan of the revolution. All his hopes for the revolution — hopes by which he had defined himself — had been abandoned in the past four years. Instead of being a constructive cultural force the revolution had virtually destroyed the whole of Russian civilization; instead of human liberation it had merely brought human enslavement; and instead of the spiritual improvement of humanity it had led to degradation. Gorky had become deeply disillusioned. He described himself in 1921 as 'in a misanthropic mood'. He could not reconcile his own humanist and democratic socialism with the realities of Lenin's Russia. He could no longer 'turn a deaf ear' to the faults of the regime in the hope of doing good and reforming it later: all his efforts had come to naught. If his own ideals had been abandoned in Russia, there was nothing left for him to do but abandon Russia.15
Gorky's decision to emigrate from Russia was preceded by mounting conflict with the Bolsheviks. The mindless terror of the past four years, the destruction of the intelligentsia, the persecution of the Mensheviks and SRs, the crushing of the Kronstadt rebels, and the Bolsheviks' callousness towards the famine crisis — all these had turned Gorky into a bitter enemy of the new regime. Much of Gorky's enmity focused on Zinoviev, the party boss in his own Petrograd. Zinoviev disliked Gorky, he saw his house as a 'nest of counterrevolution', and placed him under constant surveillance: Gorky's mail was opened; his house was constantly searched; and his close friends were threatened with arrest. Gorky's most angry letters of denunciation during the Red Terror were all addressed to Zinoviev. In one he claimed that his constant arrests had made 'people hate not only Soviet Power but — in particular — you in person'. Yet it soon became clear that behind Zinoviev stood Lenin himself. The Bolshevik leader was scathing about Gorky's denunciations. In a menacing letter of July 1919 he claimed that the writer's whole 'state of mind' had been made 'quite sick' by the 'embittered bourgeois intellectuals' who 'surrounded' him in Petrograd. 'I don't want to thrust my advice on you,' Lenin threatened, 'but I cannot help saying: change your circumstances radically, your environment, your abode, your occupation — otherwise life may disgust you for good.'16
Gorky's disillusionment with Lenin deepened during 1920. The Bolshevik leader was opposed to the editorial independence of Gorky's publishing house, World Literature, and threatened to cease supporting it financially. Gorky complained bitterly to Lunacharsky. He rightly suspected that Lenin was trying to bring all publishing under state control — something he found anathema — and claimed (or threatened) that the only way to keep the project going was to run it from abroad. But with the stern Lenin breathing down his neck there was little the commissar could do. In his play Don Quixote (1922) Lunacharsky re-enacted the strained triangular relationship between himself (in the part of Don Balthazar), Gorky (Don Quixote) and Lenin (Don Rodrigo). Here are Don Balthazar's parting words to Don Quixote. They summarize the clash between Gorky and Lenin — between the ideals of the revolution and its grim 'necessities':
If we had not broken the plots in the rear, we would have led our army to ruin. Ah, Don Quixote! I do not wish to aggravate your guilt, but here you played your fatal role. I will not hide the fact that it came into stern Rodrigo's head to bring down the threatening hand of the law on you, as a lesson to all the soft-hearted people who thrust themselves and their philanthropy into life, which is stern and complicated and full of responsibility.17
The deaths of two of Russia's greatest poets, Alexander Blok and Nikolai Gumilev, were the last straw for Gorky. Blok had been struck down in 1920 by rheumatic fever as a result of living through the civil war in unheated lodgings and in hunger. But Blok's real affliction was despair and disillusionment with the outcome of the revolution. To begin with he had welcomed its destructive violence as a purgatory for the rotten old world of Europe out of which a new and purer world of Asiatics — the Scythians — would emerge. His epic poem 'The Twelve', written in 1918, had depicted twelve rough Red Guards marching 'in step with the Revolution' through a blinding snowstorm destroying the old world and making the new. At their head, bearing the Red Flag, wreathed in white roses, and walking lightly above the snow, was the figure of Jesus Christ. Blok later noted that while writing this sensational poem: 'I kept hearing — I mean literally hearing with my ears — a great noise around me, a noise made up of many sounds (it was probably the noise of the old world crumbling).' For a while Blok continued to believe in the messianic mission of the Bolsheviks. But by 1921 he had become disillusioned. For three years there was no poetry. Gorky, a close friend, compared him to a 'lost child'. Blok plagued him with questions about death and said that he had given up all 'faith in the wisdom of humanity'. Kornei Chukovsky recalled Blok's appearance at a poetry reading in May 1921: 'I was sitting backstage with him. On stage some "orator" or other . . . was cheerfully demonstrating to the crowd that as a poet Blok was already dead . . . Blok leaned over to me and said, "That's true. He's telling the truth, I'm dead." ' When Chukovsky asked him why he did not write poetry any more, Blok told him: 'All sounds have stopped. Can't you hear that there are no longer any sounds?' That same month Blok took to his death-bed. His doctor insisted that he needed to be sent abroad to a special sanatorium. On 29 May Gorky wrote to Lunacharsky on his behalf. 'Blok is Russia's finest living poet. If you forbid him to go abroad, and he dies, you and your comrades will be guilty of his death.' For several weeks Gorky continued to plead for a visa. Lunacharsky wrote in support to the Central Committee on II July. But nothing was done. Then, at last, on 10 August, a visa came. It was one day late: the night before the poet had died.18
If Blok had died through despair and neglect, the death of Gumilev, just two weeks later, was much more straightforward. He was arrested by the Petrograd Cheka, jailed for a few days, and then shot without trial. Gumilev was accused of being involved in a monarchist conspiracy — an allegation that was almost certainly false, although he was a monarchist by sentiment. A committee of intellectuals formed at Blok's funeral had petitioned for his release. The Academy of Sciences had offered to guarantee his appearance in court. Gorky was asked to intervene and rushed to Moscow to see Lenin. But by the time he returned to Petrograd with an order for his release, Gumilev had already been shot. Gorky was so upset he coughed up blood. Zamyatin said he had never seen him 'so angry as he was on the night when Gumilev was shot'.19
Gumilev was the first great Russian poet to be executed by the Bolsheviks. His and Blok's deaths symbolized for Gorky, as for the intelligentsia as a whole, the death of the revolution. Hundreds of people — 'all that remained of literary Petersburg' in Zamyatin's words — turned out for the funeral of Blok. Nina Berberova, then only a young girl, recalls how on seeing the announcement of Blok's death she was 'seized by a feeling, which I never again experienced, that I was suddenly and sharply orphaned... The end is coming. We are lost.' Anna Akhmatova, Gumilev's first wife, similarly mourned, not just for a poet but for the ideals of a generation, at Blok's funeral:
In a silver coffin we bore him
Alexander, our pure swan,
Our sun extinguished in torment.20
Two months later, plagued by ill health himself, Gorky left: Russia, seemingly for good.