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 https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/f2gorky.html
Hingley, R. F. (2017, November 15). Maxim Gorky. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Maxim-Gorky
Von Geldern, J. (2015, October 07). Writers’ Congress. Retrieved March 19, 2018, from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/writers-congress/
Viktor Nikolaevich GOVOROV. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2018, from http://horvath.members.1012.at/govorov.htm