The Genius and the Laborer

The troubled friendship of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

By Aaron Lake Smith

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy from a wood engraving by T. Johnson, c. 1895–1905; cover of Articles and Pamphlets by Maxim Gorky, from In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part, 1969–1970. British Museum.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy from a wood engraving by T. Johnson, c. 1895–1905; cover of Articles and Pamphlets by Maxim Gorky, from In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part, 1969–1970. British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


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Let me tell you my life; it won’t take much of your time—you ought to know it.
I am a weed, a foundling, an illegitimate being.
—Maxim Gorky, 1908

As a writer, I am not “great”; I am simply a good worker.
—Maxim Gorky, 1928

Attempting a friendship with one of your heroes is always a risky undertaking. Some cherished illusions have to be sacrificed to reality, some disenchantment unavoidable. Maxim Gorky was thirty-two when he befriended Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who was seventy-two and well into his heretical-prophet phase after a prolonged spiritual crisis decades earlier. The first night they met in 1900, Tolstoy took him into his study, criticized his stories in a torrent of expletives (while arguing that fifteen was the age of consent), and then gave him a hug and kiss, declaring: “You’re a real muzhik! You’ll have a hard time rubbing elbows with our writers, but don’t let anything intimidate you. Always say what you feel—if it comes out crudely, don’t worry.” Gorky left the encounter with mixed feelings. “It was as if I had met not the author of The Cossacks, ‘Strider,’ and War and Peace, but rather a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’ and this tended to upset my idea of him.”

Gorky had recently become famous after the publication of his first fiction collection, Stories of the Steppe, which depicted the hobos and tramps, itinerant populists, and lumpenprole dregs he had encountered during his youth. He had tried to meet Tolstoy years before, when he was just a vagrant with a distinctive face that one commentator noted stuck out among intellectuals but blended in with a group of workers. Back then he had made a pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polanya to ask the prophet for a small plot of land—any foundation upon which to build the stable foundations of a life. Leo Tolstoy was not around, but Sonya Tolstoy fed him tea and buns, complaining that all kinds of sketchy individuals had been asking for favors from her husband, before sending him on his way.

Gorky was acutely aware that his fame was less a result of what he had written than what he represented. Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, his parents died young, leaving him in the care of his newly declassed maternal grandfather, a ruthless and abusive disciplinarian. When he won a book prize at age nine, he sold it to buy food for his ailing grandmother. His grandfather forced him out of school at eleven, and kicked him out of the house soon after. He wandered and worked all kinds of jobs—shoe clerk, icon-maker’s apprentice, cook’s assistant—eventually falling in with revolutionary populists and becoming a writer. The orphan autodidact, the populist revolutionary with an arrest record, the bard of the underworld, became a token for Russia’s highborn literary elite. They could believe they had discovered a new type of Russian writer, that the sphere of cultural production was diversifying. “Here was a writer who actually emerged from ‘the people’ who wrote of and for them with none of that pious sympathy for suffering traditional among the intelligentsia,” the scholar Donald Fanger noted in a brilliant introduction to his fine translations of Gorky’s literary sketches and ephemera, Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences.

Gorky and Tolstoy were at crosscurrents, representing separate and opposed phases of Russian political radicalism. The aristocrat Tolstoy was a great romanticizer of peasant and country life, along with the late nineteenth-century populists and Narodniks who moved to rural villages to organize and agitate. After his well-documented spiritual crisis, he fled the salons and renounced his class, reinventing himself as an ascetic peasant and heretic. Gorky grew up bathed in the populist and Socialist Revolutionary milieu but became disenchanted with the dogmatic, peasant-fetishizing populists who tokenized him as a “man of the people.” He drifted from job to job, eventually becoming a Marxist not from reading Marx but from actually working, as a baker’s assistant in Kazan. There he met locals who “spoke with hatred about life in the countryside, thus contradicting his mentors, the populists,” Tovah Yeldin wrote in Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. After despair over the death of his beloved grandmother led him to attempt suicide, he gave small-town agitation one last try, moving to the tiny village of Krasnovidovo to work at a radical store where proto-Maoist populists were organizing around issues of police brutality. The experiment was an unmitigated disaster. The local authorities and kulaks burned the store to the ground. Gorky was driven out of town and nearly killed, according to Yeldin. For the rest of his life, he loathed the peasantry and the countryside. He spent the next five years writing short stories and wandering, surveilled and periodically arrested for propagandizing among students, before landing a job at the Samara Gazette in 1895. The position allowed him to write commentary and polemics—often against the populists—from within the populist fold. Gorky’s stories and commentary garnered him cult status among the young Marxists and the attention of important editors, critics, and writers. In 1902 the thirty-four-year-old iconoclast was nominated to the Imperial Academy of Sciences, to stand alongside Gogol and Pushkin. It was a cultural coup on par with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tsar Nicholas II personally annulled the nomination, writing, “He is under police surveillance. And the academy is allowing, in our troubled times, such a person to be elected!”


There is a romantic idea that certain editors or literary people have of the “true” self-contained genius who spends all his or her time alone writing one brilliant novel after another, floating like a snowflake above the vulgar world of politics, petty journalism, and reviews. But Gorky was immersed in the battles of his time, too contrarian and idiosyncratic to be fully contained by a party and periodically lashing out at all factions to remind them that intellectual vanguards were worthless compared to the will of the people. First a partisan for the populists, he eventually fell in with the Marxists, and soon thereafter the nascent Bolshevik faction. Perhaps more than with any other writer, Gorky’s life paralleled the rise and spread of Marxism in Russia, his fate intertwined with those of his contemporaries who would eventually come to power in 1917. Yeldin wrote that Gorky was referred to as “the herald of the coming storm,” adding that “it was as if Gorky and the Russian proletariat had been born at the same time.”

While Tolstoy fled to the countryside, away from the world of culture that was his birthright, Gorky, an outsider and a poor kid, crashed the literary party uninvited, charmed everyone, and became the guest of honor. He cherished culture with a zeal that only someone not born into it can possess, perhaps accurately sensing that it was all he had. In the late 1920s he wrote in a half-finished draft letter to an unknown correspondent, “For me, culture is something dearer and more intimate than it is for you. For you it’s a habit of yours, something into which you were born and as necessary as trousers.”

Gorky avoided both introspection and narcissistic self-disclosure in his writing. In all of his memoirs and sketches, he appears as a roving eye, a distant first-person voice without internality. He viewed literature as a vocation and himself as an industrious, if not particularly talented, worker. This sense of himself as a laborer fit in with his later Bolshevism and his professed belief that art was not only for the elect and that all people had talent. Yet there was a harder side of his personality that could write off whole groups in defense of the regime, calling for the “enemy to be exterminated ruthlessly and without pity, paying no attention to the gasps and groans of the professional humanists.” (He also was responsible for the literary whitewashing of the White Sea Canal, Stalin’s notorious Great Pyramids–like forced-labor project.) His life and work were eaten through with still-unresolved contradictions—hating and resenting the intelligentsia while wanting to be part of it, he was both the humanist Bolshevik and the anti-Bolshevik Bolshevik. He was also the writer who ignored his own genius to support and even save the lives of other writers, the gulag lover who was always the first to weep at poetry readings. Fanger quotes Anna Akhmatova’s comment from the 1960s: “It is customary these days to curse Gorky. But without his help at that time we would all have died of hunger.” In his work, he occasionally could be masterful in depicting moral gray areas. But the constant suppression of his own internality and soul led to accusations that he was a shrewd operator and opportunist. He was ultimately more interested in communication in service of an ideal than in individualistic self-expression, a primary tenet of the socialist realist literary tradition he helped found. At one point, the poet Alexander Blok confronted him for sacrificing his idiosyncratic artistic vision in order to build socialist realism: “You hide yourself. You hide your ideas about the spirit and about truth. What for?” Gorky had no good answer. Fanger quotes the scholar Shentalinsky, who concluded: “Gorky’s constant waverings between the desire to preserve his spiritual independence and the fear of falling behind the locomotive of revolution…these are the contradictions that run through his whole life and constitute his tragedy.” Late in life, when Gorky gave in to the decadent act of scribbling down a few fragments explicitly about himself, he wrote, “Sometimes I feel an urge to write a critical article about Gorky as artist. I am convinced that it would be the most malicious and the most instructive article ever written about him.”


In 1900 Gorky was invited into the inner circle of writers centered around Tolstoy, which included Anton Chekhov, Leopold Sulerzhitsky, and Leonid Andreyev. He saw himself as the omega wolf of this tribe, receiving none of the doting love and affection that Tolstoy showered on Chekhov and especially Sulerzhitsky. Once again understanding his position clearly, he wrote that Tolstoy’s “interest in me is an ethnographic interest. To him I belong to a tribe he doesn’t know very well—that, and no more.”

Aleksey Ivanovich Saveliev, “At the Prepared Grave,” 1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Pierre Apraxine, 2010.

Nine years after the master died, Gorky published a remarkable sketch of his difficult, Janus-faced friendship with Tolstoy, made up of fragmentary notes and scenes. Fanger’s beautiful translations of Gorky’s sketches of Tolstoy, Andreyev, Chekhov, and Sulerzhitsky offer a fresh way of looking at a writer who was one of the twentieth century’s towering literary figures but has since fallen into relative oblivion. His essay on Tolstoy is one of the most complex depictions of the love and hate that intertwine within a friendship that I have ever read (I wish all magazine profiles—of celebrities, politicians, writers—could be so good). Such portrayals run against the popular conception of Gorky as a black-and-white zealot who sought to erase all human complexity.

Nowhere is he more complex and self-honest than in this sketch, with its delicate handling of the class and power dynamics. Gorky’s evident awe and respect for his hero are undercut by his descriptions of Tolstoy’s rampant sexism—“He speaks about women readily and at length, like a French novelist, but always with the crudeness of a Russian muzhik, which in the beginning used to bother me extremely”—and unabashed cultural appropriation. Tolstoy informed Gorky, “I am more of a peasant than you, and can feel things the way peasants do better than you can.” In the essay, Gorky protested, “My God! He shouldn’t boast of that! He mustn’t!”

Gorky “never tires of marveling” at Tolstoy, but the elder writer also evokes

something close to hatred for me, much like an oppressive burden on my soul. His hypertrophied personality is a monstrous thing, a thing almost deformed…He has often struck me as a man who is fundamentally, in the depth of his soul, indifferent to people, being so much higher and more powerful than they that they all seem like midges to him, and their frantic concerns ludicrous and pitiable…It’s difficult to see him too often, and I could never live in the same house—let alone the same room—with him. That would be like trying to live in a desert where everything has been burned by the sun, while that sun itself is also burning down, threatening a dark night without end.

When the sketch was published in 1919, it irreparably damaged the posthumous sanctification of Tolstoy as a morally perfect artist too good for this world by portraying him as both a deeply flawed, arrogant, and self-deceptive man and a genius.

Gorky’s stories often portrayed poor people and hoboes philosophizing around campfires or while wandering out on the steppe. Tolstoy immediately made it clear that he preferred Gorky’s spoken narratives to his written ones. The subtext is that people from the lower class should be folksy, natural, not too complex, not too overwrought. When Gorky asked him to read his short story “The Bull,” his feedback was critical: “All your peasants talk very cleverly. In real life their speech is stupid and awkward, it’s hard to see what they’re getting at. That’s done on purpose; the stupidity of their words is designed to get the other man to say what’s on his mind.” Gorky remembered the master holding court, doling out writer’s workshop nuggets to his students, telling Sulerzhitsky, “Lyovushka, you read nothing and that is bad because it’s arrogant, whereas Gorky here reads a lot and that is bad, because he does it out of self-mistrust.”

Gorky was known for being almost pathologically polite, unable to be blunt or to destroy anyone’s illusions. Critics and friends remarked on the way he read every manuscript that was handed to him, encouraged younger writers, and did favors for everybody, especially people who had nothing to offer him. He valued good relations and was shrewd about initiating and maintaining friendships with important people from Rilke (whom he found poorly read) to Yagoda, the chief of the Russian secret police. Tolstoy’s very different demeanor—imperious, confrontational—was perhaps a remnant of his class upbringing. Gorky wrote,

He likes to ask difficult and malicious questions:


“What do you think of yourself?”


“Do you love your wife?”


“What do you think, is my son Lev talented?”


“Do you like my wife?”


It is impossible to lie to him. Once he asked, “Do you like me, A.M.?”…He’s testing, constantly probing, as if getting ready for a fight…He is the devil, and I am still a babe, and he should leave me alone.

For all their differences in temperament and background, nowhere did the two writers differ more than on religion. As with his politics (and nearly everything else), Gorky was a contrarian on the question of spirituality. Tolstoy’s heretical religiosity both fascinated and repelled him; he was deeply skeptical of its sincerity, suspecting that it was not an actual heartfelt belief but rather a kind of intellectual escape from existential dread. “I know that he is indeed an atheist, and a profound one. Don’t you think so?” he wrote to Chekhov. Gorky spent his life interested in spirituality and religious people, wanting to believe but by temperament a nonbeliever. He was, as Yeldin wrote, “unable to see the need for a Christ in a society where the policeman was the ruler,” but he could not bring himself to be a strict materialist either. His spirituality took a dark shape, eventually evolving into the idea of socialism as a kind of replacement for religion. Of Tolstoy he wrote, “He advised me to read the Buddhist scripture. About Buddhism and Christ he always speaks sentimentally; and he speaks especially badly about Christ. His words show no enthusiasm, no strong emotion, his heart is not in them.”

In turn Tolstoy needled him about his lack of religion. One day he asked Gorky directly why he didn’t believe. The answer: “I have no faith, L.N.”

Tolstoy replied, “That’s not true. You are a believer by nature, and you can’t get along without God. You’ll feel that soon enough. As for your having no faith, that comes from stubbornness: you’re offended that the world is not arranged as you would have it…You need to tell yourself ‘I believe’; then all will be well.” Yet despite those reassurances, in 1909, just before he died, Tolstoy wrote in his diary that Gorky was, “like Nietzsche, a harmful writer; a major gift and the absence of any religious convictions at all.”

When Gorky ended up in jail again over his involvement with the student movement in 1901, it was Tolstoy who helped bail him out. But they clashed over politics during the 1905 revolution. Tolstoy grumbled that the movement wasn’t legitimate, that people were being spurred on by a vanguard of agitators, while Gorky provided sanctuary for Father Gapon after Bloody Sunday and turned his Moscow apartment into a bomb-making lab and armaments depot. He reprimanded Tolstoy for his intransigence: “Can a man occupy himself with his moral perfectibility at times when men and women are being shot in the streets of our cities and it is forbidden to gather up the wounded?” But his letter never reached Yasnaya Polanya. Lenin blamed the failure of the 1905 revolution on the “revolutionary flabbiness” of nonviolent Tolstoyanism, excoriating “the ‘Tolstoyan’…who publicly beats his breast and wails: ‘I am a bad wicked man, but I am practicing moral self-perfection; I don’t eat meat any more, I now eat rice cutlets.’ ”


In 1902 Gorky was exiled from Nizhny Novogorod and settled in a nearby small village called Arzamas, where he was kept under police surveillance. The town made an indelible impact on him—he saw it as a kind of black hole, a drain into which the horror of all things receded, writing decades later that in Arzamas “thoughts are accidental. They are like the birds tortured by little boys that sometimes fly, half-plucked and terrified, into dark rooms only to smash themselves to death against the impenetrable deception of windowpanes.” By a strange historical confluence, when Tolstoy had spent the night at a hotel in Arzamas in 1869, he had been gripped by a crushing feeling of fear and melancholy—a certainty of death. Gorky referred to the episode as Tolstoy’s “Arzamas horror” and wrote that for the rest of Tolstoy’s life, the thing he experienced in Arzamas “flickered at the edges of his consciousness.”

Alice Boughton, “Maxim Gorky and Zena Peschkoff, His Adopted Son,” ca. 1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Elma Loines, 1961.

One stormy night during Gorky’s time in Arzamas, he received an unexpected visit from a dusty, gray-bearded heretical priest called Father Fyodor Vladimirsky, who had been so keen to meet Gorky that he violated the authorities’ prohibition on visitors. Gorky found him to be “a remarkable man whose life I will try to write someday,” and the outlines of this Joe Gould–like figure reappear over and over in many of his future writings.

The specter of the radical priest was central to his hallucinogenic 1908 first-person novel, The Confession—the second book title he had appropriated from Tolstoy, the first being My Childhood. The Confession reads like a blend of Huck Finn and the mystic George Gurdjieff. The book follows an orphan named Matvei on his tramping voyage of spiritual discovery across the steppe, where he flees from evil monks running corrupt monasteries and spends three days on the frontier talking about God and the nature of history with an itinerant priest. The priest then sends him to a nearby village where a mysterious cell of radicals are organizing the workers. They inform him:

This vile life…began on that day when the first individual tore himself away from the miraculous strength of the people, from the masses, from his mother, and frightened in his isolation and weakness, pitied himself and grew to be a futile and evil master of petty desires, a mass of which called himself “I.” It is this same “I” that is the worst enemy of man.

Written in exile on the island of Capri, the novel became a foundational document for a heretical Bolshevik faction started by Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and Alexander Bogdanov known as the God-Builders. Lunacharsky and Bogdanov had joined Gorky in Capri to help open a school for the group. The God-Builders sought to catalyze humanity’s natural impulse toward spirituality and creativity into building socialism. Lenin found this approach to be intolerable heresy, however. He reluctantly came to visit them in Capri, at Gorky’s urging. The trip turned sour, with Bogdanov and Lenin nearly getting into a vicious argument after Lenin announced that he would be writing something against the group and in defense of orthodox materialism. The resulting book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, made Bogdanov—a co-founder of the Bolshevik party—an intellectual and political pariah. A famous photo shows Lenin beating Bogdanov at chess during the visit—Lenin’s mouth is wide open, screaming, “Check and mate!” Bogdanov looks chagrined, and behind them is Gorky is smiling. While Gorky’s expression seems to say, “We’re all friends here,” he also appears to be throwing a little shade at Lenin. Always one to iron out relations, Gorky went with Lenin back to the mainland, where they hiked Mount Vesuvius and ate local seafood. He ultimately didn’t suffer much for his political deviation. Lenin retained a soft spot for Lunacharsky as well, allowing him to rejoin the Bolsheviks and even continue his God-building. After 1917, he became the first Soviet commissar of education.


Chekhov predicted, “A time will come when people will forget Gorky’s works, but he himself will hardly be forgotten even in a thousand years.” Yet Maxim Gorky’s life is now forgotten and his books are only infrequently available in the English language. Even Mother and The Lower Depths, his most famous works, are rarely encountered in the best bookstores. Fanger was one of the only American scholars doing interesting work on him, but he is now in his late eighties and has retired. No definitive critical biography of Gorky exists in English. Gorky’s work is so unavailable that it’s almost suspicious, as if there might still be a wizened Cold Warrior clanking away in a basement office somewhere in Washington—after all, the CIA-funded Congress of Cultural Freedom’s “Freedom Manifesto” was written to counterbalance and refute Gorky’s socialist realism. I had to search the collections of several (good) university libraries before I found translations of Gorky’s four-volume opus on the development of Russian radicalism from 1877 to 1917, Forty Years: The Life of Klim Samghin—they were shelved offsite, and no one had checked out these dusty books for a long while. Each was individually titled, with different translators, and lacked volume numbers. There was no information online in English about the reading order of the tetralogy. Only one offered a hint in the front matter: The Magnet follows in sequence Maxim Gorki’s Bystander, published by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith in April 1930. A translation of The Confession is most easily found as a PDF on HathiTrust. Why have there been no reissues? In Russia, he is better known, of course—his name used to be everywhere, just behind Lenin’s and Stalin’s. Nizhny Novgorod used to be called Gorky, and his name still adorns small towns and streets and parks, but even at home his legacy has been overtaken by a kind of fog, widely depoliticized and misunderstood, resigned to a historical sculpture garden of bad memories with the old Stalin heads.

Gorky was utterly devastated when he learned of Tolstoy’s death. They were almost like two different species of animals, but the friendship had been real. He howled, “overwhelmed with despair, and wept the whole day—never before so agonizingly, so inconsolably much…It is a blow to the heart.” As long as Tolstoy had been alive, he felt that there was someone who understood him; without that symbolic father, he wrote, “I feel myself an orphan.” Every time he tried to tell anecdotes to friends, he started crying. It took him seven years to start working on a remembrance. A decade after its publication, he was still thinking about Tolstoy and jotted down a few final thoughts:

At a certain moment in his life L.N. Tolstoy imagined himself to be capable of the greatest sins, and became terrified. That is why he wasted himself all his life with one woman, respecting but no longer loving her, and why he wore a peasant blouse so as not to have to order any particular tailcoat or kaftan, etc. Quite capable of preaching the greatest antihumanistic heresies, he preached, utterly without imagination, the most naïve Christianity, making thin gruel of the Gospels. A rationalist…he basically hated his own rationalism and suffered from it; it was like a thorn in his side.

Despite such critiques, the reader can still feel Gorky’s underlying affection and love for Tolstoy: “I remember his keen eyes—they saw through everything—and the movements of his fingers, which always seemed to be sculpting something from the air; and his conversation, his jokes, his favorite peasant words, and the indeterminate timbre of his voice.” Gorky always seemed to be circling around the complex thing he wanted to say about his friend but could not find the words. “One wants to talk about Tolstoy constantly, but all of Tolstoy cannot be put into words. The last true Russian.