In October 1906, Russian author Maxim Gorky arrived in Naples. He was returning to Europe from New York, where a drive he spearheaded to collect funds to further revolution in Czarist Russia had fizzled. One reason was because it had been discovered that the woman traveling with him, whom he passed off as his wife, was in fact his lover. After more or less spinning their wheels for about six months, the couple had left the United States and hoped to settle, at least temporarily, in southern Italy.
Gorky, who was born in 1868 in southern Russia, was already a famous novelist and playwright and had hobnobbed with Tolstoy and Chekhov. Gorky’s literary style and subject matter showed a knowledgeable sympathy for the plight of the Russian peasants and workers, an aptitude that transcended the traditional condescension and pity and which celebrated the humanity of the downtrodden, the possibilities of improvement in their condition, and the strength of their creativity to cope with their circumstances.
Having risen from the what he called the “lower depths,” Gorky, whom a contemporary critic labelled “an emissary from the anonymous Russian masses,” believed in the ability of the common man to ultimately shape his destiny and be an agent of positive change. He proclaimed in a famous line: “Man – it has a proud ring! …He even invented God.”
Gorky and his companion, actress Maria Andreyeva, arrived in Naples from New York on the German ship Princess Irene on October 26, 1906. First they stayed in the city for a few days before making further plans. Gorky’s preliminary idea was to remain in Italy two to three months before deciding where to settle, since he could not return to Russia, where he would likely be jailed, exiled to Siberia, or worse.
Naples had then a flourishing Russian student community and a smattering of Russian political exiles. Coming ashore, Gorky declared to journalists that he “came to Naples purposely to visit the city of love and Russian expatriates who study in your university.” In Naples, he stayed at the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, a luxury establishment on Via Caracciolo, visited the usual tourist sights, was feted both by fellow Russians and the Neapolitan intelligentsia, and was watched warily by the police, who did not want the Socialists to use him to create social strife.
Within days, Gorky had decided that he liked Italy and decided to go to Capri, where the balmy climate would be good for his health, and the still, country-like pace of life would be conducive to writing.
On November 4, he and Andreyeva moved to Capri on the ferryboat Mafalda and were received at the dock at Marina Grande by a multitude. They planned to stay for a few days at the luxurious Grand Hotel Quisisana while exploring, but after seeing Capri’s beauty, they first decided to stay until after Christmas and then to stay indefinitely.
Gorky was to live in Capri for more than seven years, until December 1913. He wrote:
Capri is a small bite of an island but exquisite. Here you see right away, in a day, so much beauty that you remain inebriated and cannot accomplish anything. The Gulf of Naples is more beautiful and deeper than love and women. In love you discover everything right away. Here I am not sure if is it possible to discover everything. In my brain, a happy devil is dancing the tarantella. In Capri I feel drunk without having touched wine…
On November 22 they left the hotel and moved to Villa Blaeseus (now Hotel Krupp), a modest but spacious house looking over Capri’s Marina Piccola and the rocky stacks rising dizzyingly against the sky from the vine blue sea, the Faraglioni.
Gorky remained at Villa Blaeseus until 1909, sponsoring a room of the house a revolutionary party school to teach Russian expatriates the theory and practices of revolutionary Socialism. It is likely that the Italian government did not object to Gorky’s stay in Capri since in the small island his activities were easier to control and the comings and goings of his visitors and guests could be observed much more easily than on the mainland. Many future figures of the Russian Revolution showed up in Capri as Gorky’s guests: the physicist and philosopher Alexander Bogdanov, Marxist theoretician Anatoly Lunacharsky, Marxist author Vladimir Bazarov, and Vladimir Lenin, who visited Gorky twice. Russian cultural figures also made frequent pilgrimages. Gorky’s guests included writer Ivan Bunin, writer Alexander Tikhonov, playwright Leonid Andreyev, and opera bass Fiodor Chaliapin.
In April 1907, Gorky traveled to London to attend the Congress of the Socialist Party. Some 300 delegates attended, including the old stalwarts and the new lions of the Left: Trotsky, Lenin, a young but not yet well-known Stalin, Bogdanov, Rose Luxemburg, Angelica Balabanoff, and many others. The group had meant to assemble in Copenhagen and had already traveled to that city a few at a time, so that they would not intrude on Danish sensibilities, but on the last minute the city fathers denied permission for the meeting, as the Czar was the nephew of the Danish king. The delegates then traveled to London where they held their congress, ironically, in a non-descript church in Whitechapel.
Lenin was elected chairman and tried to keep a tight rein on the proceedings but soon the sessions degenerated into a free-for-all. Gorky wrote later: “… My festive mood lasted only until the first meeting when they began wrangling about ‘the order of business.’ The fury of the disputes chilled my enthusiasm…”
Gorky saw Lenin, whom he had previously met in Russia, was welcomed warmly and they talked about Gorky’s book Mother. He described Lenin thus:
When we were introduced, he shook me heartily by the hand, and scrutinizing me with his keen eyes and speaking in the tone of an old acquaintance, he said jocularly: ‘So glad you’ve come, believe you’re fond of a scrap? There’s going to be a fine old scuffle here.’ I did not expect Lenin to be like that. Something was lacking in him. He rolled his r’s gutturally, and had a jaunty way of standing with his hands somehow poked up under his armpits. He was somehow too ordinary and did not give the impression of being a leader.
Lenin first visited Gorky in Capri on April 23, 1908, staying until April 30. The primary reason for the visit was to explore whether a theoretical quarrel brewing between Lenin and the teachers at Gorky’s Capri party school could be averted. Lenin did not want to go and had written to Gorky: “My going is useless and harmful. I cannot and will not have anything to do with people who have set out to preach a union of scientific socialism and religion. The days of copybook controversy have passed. There is nothing to argue about, and it’s silly to upset one’s nerves for nothing.” Eventually he went, telling Gorky that he would go, “on the condition that I do not speak about philosophy or religion.”
Getting ready for the trip to the south, Lenin had started to teach himself Italian. He traveled by train from Geneva, Switzerland, to Milan and hence down the peninsula through Florence. Being a Roman history buff since childhood, he stopped off in Rome for a few hours, enough for a walk from the rail station to the Capitoline Hill and the Forum, before boarding the night train for Naples.