Carnegie Mellon University

Enlightenment and the People: Gorky’s Warring Faiths in My Universities

Katharine Carlson
Carnegie Mellon University – Russian Studies

Pre- and early post-revolutionary Russia continued on the artistic path of its forebears, a path dedicated to finding national identity. Russian minds plumbed the depths of the land through works of art, music and thought, all in service of examining what is Russia, and how one can find, celebrate, and perhaps save her soul. How to find and define home. Maxim Gorky was a powerful figure in this search for identity. In the third installment of his autobiographical work, Gorky’s My Universities grapples with the hard life of a passionate youth, eking out meaning and identity in the darkest corners. Gorky wrote from post-revolution exile about his pre-revolutionary self, a young man both idealistic in his pursuit of truth and increasingly realistic in his appraisal of humankind. He flourished under the sunshine of pre-soviet humanism and enlightenment knowledge, contended with his personal and visceral knowledge of the darkness and banality of the human spirit, and wrestled to find a place for himself within society.

Maxim Gorky was adrift in his youth spiritually and physically, too poor in means and opportunity to truly find a home as an academic, and yet too impassioned and intellectual to be accepted as a member of the worker’s class. His search for meaning brought about what would in a different era have been great religious fervor. Two great modern religions warred in Gorky’s soul. The first was bright: revolutionary humanist intellectualism, kindled by his intimate knowledge of the honest nobility of labor and the plight of the working poor, and by the spiritual ecstasy such literature and discussion brought about in him. The second was darker: class revolution in truth, complexified by the ignobility and mean pettiness Gorky witnessed around him, the reality of what such a revolution would be. Neither of these ‘faiths’ was sufficient alone to content Gorky, but when spiritually abandoned by both, he withered until born again. Maxim Gorky’s My Universities tells of a young man caught between two worlds and belonging to neither, an itinerant monk faithfully devoted to the parsing of Russia’s harsh realities and grand higher spirit.

Gorky’s epic coming-of-age tale deals with a question common to all young people with unquiet minds: from where passion derives, and from passion can meaning be traced. Gorky’s course was somewhat prescribed; he finds his squalid home in Khazan by the design of Nikolai Yevreinov, a friend who has noticed Gorky’s brilliance. Yevreinov guides him towards Lenin’s University of Khazan as an opium dreamer guides one towards peace of mind: with grand naïve promises of learning to come, Yevreinov unwittingly brings Gorky into the brutal “universities” of common city living, starvation, and death (My Universities 11).

Yet in amongst putrefaction and hunger, Gorky meets the first and most constant priests of his religions: academia, and the Volga river. For Gorky, Volga was both a physical artery of Russia’s lands and trades, and the main access point to the reality of human nature: “Here I looked upon a whirling world in which men’s instincts were coarse, their greed naked and undisguised. I was attracted by these people’s bitterness against life… their attitude of mocking hostility towards everything on earth, and carelessness towards themselves” (ibid 15). The Volga was Gorky’s retreat and his sustenance, where visceral humanity could be celebrated, and where he first worshipped “labor’s heroic poetry” working amongst the stevedores. In this scene, Gorky takes his reader through his first instance of great spiritual passion arrived at through camaraderie, hard physical work, and the nobility of even the meanest human soul. His writing here is indulgent, transcendent: “I tasted a joy… never before experienced. My heart flamed… in such semi-insane ecstasy of labor” (ibid 44 – 46).  It is through this labor, and through the shared experience of desperation and physical strain, that the seeds of Gorky’s religion of popular revolution are planted.

Gorky’s second faith is that of revolutionary philosophical humanism, and the academics with whom he persistently seeks company are its acolytes. He was already a supplicant to this faith of intellectualism in his coming to Khazan, and in this company he found both wondrous opportunity for worship, and the beginnings of internal conflict. Gorky describes being with these intellectuals as would a disciple: “all the beauty, all the power of intellect were embodied precisely in these speakers, who concentrated in themselves, kept burning in their hearts, a warm and beneficent will to live, to build freely in accordance with new canons of love for humanity” (65). However, the subject of these great speaker’s reverence was the self-same people Gorky was coming to know well. Gorky both listened wonderingly to the students and struggled with their philosophy wherein ‘The People’ embodied the highest good, “wisdom, kindness and spiritual beauty… godlike, the source of all that is lofty, just, sublime” (64). The purity and grace humanism offered to Gorky grated against what he witnessed outside of intellectual circles. Nevertheless, this idealized revolutionary thought with The People as god and peasants as martyrs contained an earnest benevolence and a height of thought through which Gorky sought to find life’s significance. In this philosophy, Gorky can be of spirit more than of body, and pursue a kind and loving revolution.

Gorky’s greatest moment of philosophical rapture took place at the secret revolutionary reading he attended. The contents of the reading are secondary to the experience in that darkened room huddled amongst fellow devotees: “I felt like a true believer at the early services in the temple of his faith” (128). For Gorky, intellectual revolutionary thought was a religion of mysticism. It was amorphous, up for debate and change, highly political, and yet very holy. This euphoric experience of rhetoric continued as he drew closer to academic circles. In witnessing the debate of the Catholic professor and the Tolstoyan Klopsky, he “grew drunk with words” and passion itself (156). This was not a contented state of being for Gorky, but a fervent one which drove him to spiritual sickness when it failed.

Pursuing two modes of being – member of the people and intellectual devotee – Gorky belonged to neither. An early example of this spiritual homelessness and conflict of revolutionary thought arrives with his rescue of George, the near-frozen disowned priest’s son. George offers Gorky another paradigm of faith: that progress is impossible without slavery, and that ascetic simplicity is the only path to freedom. This is a difficult theory for Gorky to incorporate, especially as George contends that the goal of The People is not enlightenment and betterment, but ease (89). The dissonance of this for Gorky highlights that he cannot claim to be or to think like a worker, and that in fact his intellectualism bars him from any true class solidarity.

In Gorky’s subsequent conversation, a worker and friend tells him “you reason like an intellectual. You’re not one of us anymore – you’ve been poisoned. Ideas mean more to you than a little thing like people… You’re with us, but you’re not one of us.” The worker continues in his lampooning of intellectualism: “the whole intellectual order rebels for the sake of utopia… [whereas] the workers – they rebel for the revolution” (My Universities 90).  He explains to Gorky that the bonds of progress which construct want and prevent redistribution are all thought up by intellectuals (ibid 91). Gorky, an orphan belonging neither to the intelligentsia nor the proletariat, is left adrift. This worker has just laid out a destruction of Gorky’s intellectual philosophical faith deeper than Gorky could trust his own intuition to prove, yet while doing so he declared Gorky to be an outsider so far as the Russian working people were concerned.

The religion of ‘the people’s just revolution’ rang true for Gorky even as it was disproved. George’s critique caused Gorky to ponder whether a people’s revolution could be so noble when “in their heart of hearts, they cherished the hope of ridding themselves of labor? A minimum of toil and a maximum of pleasure” (ibid 91)? Yet having seen the true and unbearable harshness of life thrust on the Russian people, Gorky affirms his devotion nevertheless to their right to revolution regardless of fruit by quoting Ibsen’s Deluge. Even allowing that the truth of all great revolutions were in ends both fraudulent and false, bringing about neither progress nor freedom but simply a shift of power, nevertheless the cause of revolution is just: “Let us try again, friends radicals. / And to do that, let us have fighters, orators… I’ll gladly torpedo the Ark” (93). Gorky as author quoted this line from abroad, having seen the starting fruits of the people’s Revolution in 1917-18 and the terror it had already wrought. Even still, he held its principle cause as just, and the right of the people to pursue it.

 This idealism and fervor in search for identity and home stretched thin for Gorky over his time in Khazan. He must contend with the problems of his dual faiths: the Tolstoyan whose words he admired was a false prophet, performing the role of apostle while eating from a silver spoon (157). His disillusionment grew with both the reality of people’s nature, and with the philosophy which sought to elevate it. “All that I saw around me in actual life was alien, in almost every detail, to the idea of compassion” (160-162) Gorky’s world grew full of cruelties and filth. His homelessness from either population intensified as he grappled spiritually with a dearth of meaning: that the majority of people were termites and beasts, laboring uselessly, and that the intellectuals who spoke of love stopped, more often than not, with speech rather than action (162). The height of Gorky’s despair culminated in all inner truth deserting him, and with it his will to live (166). For a true believer like Gorky, this might be called the dark night of the soul. Even after surviving a suicide attempt, he finds his means to faith and significance have been stripped away: when the local workers announce their intent to beat the academy students, Gorky finds he can no longer defend the students’ benevolence to the workers, nor can he appeal to the workers’ own dignity to persuade them to stay their hands (175). Both of Gorky’s religions are cold to him, devoid of meaning. What meaning has revolution when its proponents are so devoid of merit?

Gorky’s spiritual rebirth comes with the spring, with a new town, and with a return to the Volga. When Romass insists on caring for him through this transportation, Gorky is metaphorically plunged back into the lifeblood of Russia by travelling down the Volga river to Kraznovidovo and to life amongst the peasantry. At Romass’s shop-salon, he once again has access to his other means of religious fervor: new books, and therein new philosophies (191-193). This is no romantic idyll; the strife amongst the peasants is extremely granular yet startingly violent, and any class division whatsoever or hint of intellectualism can result in outright murder. Gorky is presented with the idea of the teacher as a saint (262), but has just seen first-hand through Izot’s murder that these peasant-martyrs easily make martyrs of the best of themselves, their ‘saints’ (260), and Gorky repeatedly describes this group in bestial terms. Nevertheless, Gorky is able to find himself again – grow intellectually strong and committed once more to his religions of humanism and people alike. He ends My Universities on a melancholy note by leaving us with a metaphor: the steersman, bestial in the extreme, runs away to save his soul when confronted with a conflict too great for his faith and moral compass. So too did Gorky flee Russia at the time of Revolution. When the goal of his dual faiths became real and manifest, it was yet another deluge.

Gorky’s spiritual and physical homelessness find home through the movement of Russian blood, as shown through his devotion to the river. He finds home through itinerancy, through writing and striving and keeping the faith even from afar, through pushing further towards philosophical truths and coming to know the people more deeply even in their meanest state. Gorky came of age as Russia rewrote itself, and a faithful wanderer he would stay for the rest of his life.

Gorky, Maxim. My Universities, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1952. E-Book, Internet Archive,