Maksimizing our Potential: Maksim Gorky and the Great Retreat

The 1930s in the USSR was a period of great change on the cultural front, a period in which revolutionary values were replaced with Stalinist ideology and policies. A crucial part of this “Great Retreat”, as it is now called, was the re-unification of literature with Party values; thus making a move away from the past two decades of revolutionary writing and culture that had been brewing in Russia. The central figure in this recalibration of literature and culture within Russia was embattled but renowned author Maksim Gorky. Gorky would become the first president of the Union of Soviet Writers and the founder of Socialist Realism in Russian Literature, which would serve as an essential part of the Stalinist propaganda machine.


Maksim Gorky (real name Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov) was born in 1868, and at or around the age of 5,  taken in at a young age by his grandparents after the death of his father. After moving in with his grandparents, Peshkov exposed to the harsh realities of life for the working class in Russia, which played a role in influencing his  pseudonym “Gorky” (bitter, in Russian). Gorky’s childhood and early adulthood consisted of hard labor and impoverishment, and played an important role in influencing Gorky’s writing and thoughts on the individual, capitalism, labor, and literature itself. Gorky’s candid nature and ability to embody in his writing the “idealism and optimism of Socialism” mixed with his realist style, helped him capture the struggles that many Russians had faced in the first two decades of the 20th Century, especially his unfinished work “The Life of Klim Samgin”.

In the burgeoning days of the 1917 Revolution (and after) Gorky was openly critical of Lenin during the 1917 Revolution (and after), which resulted in his banishment.  Gorky’s work following his exile by Lenin ended up catching the eye of Stalin and the Party in the late 1920s and early 1930 . Stalin personally visited Gorky in 1931, applauding his work “A Girl and Death”, gaining Gorky reinvitation to the USSR.


Gorky reads “A Girl and Death” to Stalin in this painting by Viktor Govorov

Upon his return, Gorky initially campaigned on the behalf of the Party and State and helped chair the newly established writers Union. In 1934, Gorky told the delegates of the First Congress of Soviet Writers that the Party was “offering to us the right to teach one another. TO teach, meaning to share with one another our experience” about the reality and struggles faced by the millions of working class people in Russia. Yet, Gorky was unafraid to point out flaws in Stalin and the Communist parties tactics when he felt it was necessary. In a letter to Stalin, Gorky took great issue with the Party’s approach to educating and agitating its base, saying

“The emigre and bourgeois press bases its perception of
Soviet reality almost entirely on the negative information which
is published by our own press for self-criticism with the aim of
education and agitation.”


Gorky’s campaigning and candidness made him a valuable asset to Stalin and the Party, helping influence the Party’s  structuring of the Writers Union,  which would serve as the basis of how the other cultural unions were developed in its aftermath. However, Gorky’s involvement with both the Socialist Realism movement and the Writers Union slowly faded due to his disillusionment with Stalinism in mid-years of the 1930s; this flip against Stalinism was notable because during his first few years back in the USSR, Gorky had written small pieces aggrandizing Stalinist tactics. Gorky would soon meet his demise in 1936, under suspicious circumstances some attribute to Stalin’s disappointment with Gorky’s disillusionment and private criticism of him. Ultimately,  Gorky’s role in influencing Socialist Realism, and thus the propaganda machine that came to be in Russia under Stalin, would have a lasting effect on the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century.



Gorky, M. (n.d.). Letter for Gorky to Stalin. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from

Hingley, R. F. (2017, November 15). Maxim Gorky. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from

Von Geldern, J. (2015, October 07). Writers’ Congress. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from


Image Sources:

Viktor Nikolaevich GOVOROV. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2018, from


10 thoughts on “Maksimizing our Potential: Maksim Gorky and the Great Retreat

  1. Zane, this was a really interesting post! I think it’s interesting how Gorky was able to stay with Stalin as long as he did, considering his critiques of the party. But I also think this shows the importance of the arts and cultural activities in the Soviet Union, especially in using these things to create propaganda for the state. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading this post! I’m not very familiar with Gorky but after reading this i feel the post answered every question that I have about him! It was very interesting. I found really interesting how Stalin viewed him as an asset up until he became active with the Socialist Realism movement and the Writers Union!


  3. Great post about a very interesting guy! Re: his suspicious death, there is actually a book called “The Murder of Maxim Gorky: A Secret Execution.” It was a written by a journalist named Arkady Vaksberg, who unfortunately also died under suspicious circumstances 2014.


  4. I really liked this post and that you mentioned Soviet realism! I focused my blog post on Aleksandr Deineka. A famous soviet painter who was also a part of this larger Soviet propaganda machine and found it to be very interesting!


  5. Nice post! I really like how you included details of Gorky’s early life. It is interesting how he was brought back into the Soviet Union by Stalin, but was ultimately disillusioned by Stalinism. It is fascinating how his criticisms came a little too late and his writing largely influenced the propaganda machine of the 30’s.


  6. Nice post Zane, Gorky appears to have been a courageous figure, not afraid to criticize those in power despite the clear danger this put him in. I wonder if you know how closely Gorky worked with party figures. Was he urged by Stalin and others to publish propaganda that supported beliefs that the party wanted to push? Or was he more of a lone wolf who conveniently filled a role for the party until his beliefs changed and he became too critical?


    1. At first, Gorky helped Stalin and the Party out on his own volition, so in a sense yes he did support the beliefs. But as time progressed, it seems he became disillusioned and critical of the courses of action the Party was undertaking.


  7. I agree with the previous comment that it was interesting in how long Stalin allowed Gorky to stay with him. He was really bashing the party – one would assume that Stalin would have made a better example of him. Overall, I liked the post and would like to see more research into Gorky himself!


  8. I realy liked this post and the pictures you included. I also thought it was interesting that Stalin allowed Gorky to stay as long has he did.


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