The Childhood of Maxim Gorky: Mark Donstoy’s Loving Portrait of the Former Soviet Union’s B

* (AUTHOR'S NOTE: These are the program notes for the screening of CHILDHOOD OF MAXIM GORKY presented at Heritage House as part of the Slavic Film Series in July of 2017.)

“Language is the weapon of the poet, like the gun is the weapon of the soldier.”

-- Maxim Gorky

Two years after Maxim Gorky’s death, director Mark Donskoy began work on a film made very much in the spirit of its subject, The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938). Concentrating on just the first volume of the esteemed Russian author’s autobiography, he would eventually film all three chapters of the author’s life: My Apprenticeship (Out in the World, Among People), released in 1939, and My Universities, in 1940, thus completing what is today referred to as ‘The Gorky Trilogy.’

The young Maxim Gorky was born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov somewhere between the 16th and 28th of March in 1868 and was blessed (or some might say cursed, given his surroundings) with an above-average ability of recall, even of the tiniest of details. This skill would serve him well in his writing years as a vocal proponent of the literature of socialist realism.*

After being orphaned at the age of eleven, he was put into the care of his grandmother, whom he loved dearly. However, life at home was a constant quarrel, and after a year Gorky could take no more and ran away from home. He then hiked across Russia on foot, working odd jobs as he traveled from town to town. As he plied his various trades, he soon learned firsthand that he had a knack as a writer, and began working as a journalist for the various small provincial papers he encountered.

It was as a journalist working for the newspaper The Caucasus in Tiflis that he created his first pseudonym, Jehudiel Khlamida, and came up with his eventual pen name, Gorky, in 1892. The name literally translates as “bitter” and reflected Maxim’s simmering anger regarding life in Russia and a determination to speak the truth, no matter how ugly or repellent it might seem.

Gorky's first book, Essays & Stories, published in 1898, was the firebrand which truly launched his writing career. The book was an enormous success, and in the wake of his fame he wrote incessantly, driven by an innate belief that his writing was not just an artistic pursuit, but a moral and political act that would change the world.

Most typically, in his books Gorky describes the lives of people in the lowest strata, living on the very margins of society. He reveals their hardships, humiliations, and brutalizations, but shining through it all, their inward spark of humanity. It was these same rough types with whom Gorky had always freely associated, beginning in his early youth. But even as he grew older and attracted the attention of aristocrats and the intelligentsia, Maxim would always find himself most at ease with the common laborers and merchants, the convicts and the beggars.

These characters, along with the aforementioned tempestuous inlaws with whom he briefly resided, populate the foreground of Childhood . . . creating a form of anti-pastoral of Russian life in the 1860s and 70s. As mentioned previously, the book on which the film is based is the eponymously-titled first volume of Gorky’s autobiography.

It would seem that in his middle age, Gorky had discovered he had a very real talent for biography (not only his own, but also well-regarded monographs of Chekhov, Andreyev, and Lenin) and so, waxing back to his early childhood growing up in Nizhny Novgorod in the 1870s and 80s, he recalled how his philosophical and social outlook had first germinated — as a reaction to the archetypal characters with whom he was surrounded as a child.

The book itself was written immediately after Gorky’s return to Russia in 1913 after a seven year sojourn on the Isle of Capri. Maxim had fled to the Mediterranean isle in 1906 in order to escape the oppressive atmosphere in Russia at the time, as well as give himself a much-needed vacation (it was later revealed that Gorky was suffering from tuberculosis).

But now, refreshed and reinvigorated, he waxes philosophically back to those early days:

"I imagine myself in my childhood, as a hive to which all manner of simple people brought, as the bees bring honey, their knowledge and thoughts about life, generously enriching my soul with what they had to give. The honey was often dirty, and bitter, but it was all the same knowledge--and honey.”

Gorky would publish some 26 major books (in addition to 17 plays) before his death in 1936. His last major work was as editor of the tome on the construction of the I.V. Stalin White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal. Although an ‘official record,’ the book was highly critical of the canal’s use of forced labor from the Gulag and the many consequent deaths.

This latter incident very likely led to a straining of the relationship between Gorky and Stalin. In addition, as his years waned, Maxim continued to resolutely advocate for fellow artists who had fallen out of official favor.

And although hailed on his deathbed as a national hero, Gorky’s death today still carries the stigma of a possible conspiracy.

The film floats by the eye, not like a traditional narrative, but like a halcyonic dream of crisply remembered images conjured up by the deepest of emotional stirrings . . .

* Socialist realism is a style of realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in that country as well as the Soviet satellites. The style could best be described as government propaganda, and is characterized by the glorified depiction of such communist values as the emancipation of the working class by means of realistic imagery.