Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, better known as Maxim Gorky, had a fabulously successful career as a wealthy and famous writer, with friends in high places, but he very likely died on orders given by one of those friends. The friend’s name was Josef Stalin.
Now known mainly for his play The Lower Depths, an early example of social realism in drama, and his autobiography My Childhood, Gorky was honored by having his picture on cigarette boxes, postcards, and a Russian postage stamp, and his name affixed to numerous city streets, Russia’s main literary institute, the world’s largest airplane (at the time), and his own hometown itself. But his leftist political activism got him trouble not only with Tsarist authorities, but also with Vladimir Lenin, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his on-again, off-again pal Stalin.
Born March 28, 1868, in Nizhni Novgorod (which changed its name to Gorky in 1932), Gorky himself best chronicled his early life in a résumé sent to an editor who requested some biographical information:
1879--Apprentice to a designer, painting ikons.
1880--Cabin boy on a Volga steamer (where the ship's cook taught him to read).
1883--Worked in a biscuit factory.
1886--Dummy in a village theatre.
1890--Clerk to an advocate (learned to write).
1891--Operative in a salt mill; later vagabond.
1892--Wrote his first novel, "Makar Chudra."
1903--Celebrity and riches.
He used the pen name of “Maxim Gorky,” which means Maxim the Bitter. As in his writing, which typically conveys the plight of downtrodden workers, his new name reflected his anger at the Tsarist regime and his proletariat revolutionary tendencies. His seditious utterances forced him into exile in Italy, but he returned to Russia in 1913 when the Tsar granted amnesty. He allied himself with the Bolsheviks but fell out with Lenin and again went into exile in 1921. All the while his fame as a writer increased. He finally returned to Russia in 1928, at the personal invitation of Communist Party leader Josef Stalin, who, after organizing extravagant celebrations of Gorky’s reunion with his native land, then placed him under virtual house arrest.
Gorky was married (sort of) three times. He left his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna Peshkova, after a short while, but owing to intricacies in Russia law, neglected to divorce her. He took up with an actress name Maria Fydorovna Andreyeva, but living openly with her in that era caused such a scandal that the two of them were barred from New York hotels, William Dean Howells canceled a dinner party in Gorky’s honor, and Mark Twain withdrew his support from one of his humanitarian causes. From 1920 until 1933 he and his secretary, Moura Budberg, lived as common-law husband and wife. Budberg was later the mistress of H. G. Wells and a double agent for the Russian secret police and British intelligence.
One of those who might be called “spiritual but not religious,” Gorky rejected organized religion, but despite his Marxism in social matters, he was not an atheist or materialist. When asked to express his views on religion by the French journal Mercure de France, Gorky said that he opposed the religions of Moses, Christ, and Mohammed, but he acknowledged the value of religious sentiments, which he described as an awareness of a harmonious link that joins man to the universe.
Frail from repeated bouts of tuberculosis, which had plagued him since the age of twenty-one, Gorky was living in a dacha outside Moscow in 1936, grieving the sudden and unexpected death of his son two years earlier. Attacks against his reputation began to appear in the principal Soviet newspaper, Pravda, but Gorky was spared seeing them since a special edition, of which only one copy was printed, was prepared for delivery to him. Under treatment for his pulmonary problems, he was visited by Stalin early in June. On June 18, 1936, Gorky died, quite unexpectedly, at the age of sixty-eight.
In 1938 the chief of Russian secret police, Genrikh Yagoda; Gorky’s secretary, Petr Petrovich Kryuchkov; Gorky’s doctor, Lev Levin (who also was Stalin’s personal physician), and two other doctors were convicted of conspiring to murder both Gorky and his son. In Gorky’s case they were accused of repeatedly administering excessive doses of pulmonary medicines, including camphor, digalen, caffeine, and cardiosol. It was alleged that Gorky’s assassination had been carried out on orders from Stalin’s arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky. Yagoda and Kryuchkov were executed. Later evidence suggests that Stalin himself ordered the assassinations.
Gorky was given an elaborate state funeral, at which the principal honored pallbearers were Stalin and Molotov. His ashes were buried in the Kremlin wall.