Maxim Gorky: 3 must-read books by an iconic Soviet writer

Born nearly 150 years ago, Alexei Peshkov adopted the pen name Gorky (“bitter”) as a twenty-something journalist. He was politically active and became a symbol of socialist idealism, but his relationship with the Soviet authorities was complicated. His works included novels, plays and autobiographies.

1. The Mother

This month heralds the publication of the first new translation in decades of Gorky’s best-known novel The Mother. Hugh Aplin’s version of this flawed but rousing text conscientiously conjures the pre-Soviet world of Dickensian poverty, of loving widows and hard-pressed, saintly factory workers fomenting just revolution. Gorky wrote part of the novel in the States and it was first published, in English, in a New York literary magazine in 1907.

The events in The Mother were real and happened near Nizhny Novgorod, where Gorky was born. The army broke up a 1902 May Day protest and the parade’s leaders were imprisoned. The revolutionary mechanic Peter Zalomov, who marched with a banner and made an impassioned speech at his trial, inspired Gorky’s Pavel Vlasov, and his mother became the novel’s eponymous heroine.

Lenin called it “a very timely book,” but Aplin, the translator, argues that The Mother is “not so much about politics” as about the Christian self-sacrifice of the mother herself. Although the novel became an icon of literary socialist realism, it is full of stylized scenes: pasting leaflets on fences, reading worthy, historical books about slavery and fervently plotting around the samovar. There are powerful evocations of factory life, from the “greasy square eyes” of the building itself to the cruelty and cynicism of its owners.

The workers’ trials and political campaigns are mediated through the mother’s introspective vision; her emotional transformation, from frightened confusion to blazing certainty, is a central theme. Pavel tells her early on: “those who give us orders exploit our fear.” Towards the end, as she listens, transfixed, to her son’s climactic courtroom speech, she feels the greedy eyes of the judges “soiling his supple, strong body”, but his “star-like” belief inspires her own final revelation.

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