The Night Train for Naples: Gorky in Italy
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.
While in Capri, Lenin stayed with Gorky at Villa Blaesus, happy that as an honored guest Gorky had given him a bedroom with a splendid view of the sea. He spent his time seeing the tourist sights in the island, including the ruins of Emperor Tiberius’ Villa Jovis, eating scialatelli alla ciamurra (a local dish of pasta with an olives and anchovies sauce), another dish of squids cooked with potatoes, and drinking plenty of local white wine.
One night during dinner, someone in the house played a trick on Lenin by yelling, “Police coming!” Lenin blanched and had started to get up from the table when it became evident that it was a joke. In fact, the sole police officer in Capri, a certain Tiseo, knew who Lenin was and where he was staying there but preferred to keep him under observation.
Lenin also played chess with Bogdanov, getting upset and churlishly childish when he lost, and got into an occasional theoretical argument, which Gorky managed to keep within bounds. In 1923, when Lenin was the head of the new Russian state, Bogdanov was arrested as a counter-revolutionary but released in 1924. He died in 1928 as a result of attempts at rejuvenation through self-administered blood transfusions when he injected himself with the tainted blood of a younger man.
Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, who had not gone to Capri with her husband, wrote later: “Gorky’s place was filled with a crowd of noisy bustling people playing chess or boating. Ilyich did not have very much to say about this trip. He spoke mostly about the beautiful scenery, the sea, and the local wine, but was reticent about the talk on painful subjects that had taken place there.” Gorky himself was to write that, “…there was another Lenin, too, in Capri – a splendid comrade, a cheerful person with a live unflagging interest in everything in the world, and an astonishingly kind approach to people.”
On April 29 or April 30, the sources are unclear, Lenin left Capri for Naples, accompanied by Gorky. They got rooms in a local pensione and Gorky took Lenin to Pompeii, climbed Mount Vesuvius, and visited the National Archeological Museum. Lenin then returned to Geneva by train.
Lenin returned to Capri a second time by ship from Marseille, again to relax from his hectic 18 hours a day schedule, for a fortnight in late June – early July 1910. Once again, he stayed with Gorky, who had by now moved Villa Spinola, where he and his acolytes continued running a school for Communist Party leaders and agitators.
Lenin’s stay was a reprise of his previous sojourn. He played chess with Bogdanov, argued with Lunacharsky, disapproved of the party school, went fishing with the Spadaro brothers, and during the evening listened to Neapolitan and Russian songs sung by a local tenor, who by error one night sang God Save the Czar to Lenin. He then returned to France and by July 22 joined his wife Nadya and her mother Elizaveta on the beaches on the Bay of Biscay.
In Capri Andreyeva ruled the household as well as Gorky, scheduling his valuable time and activities. She negotiated with landlords, supervised the servants, relaxed her lover by playing the piano, and made sure that he reserved time to write. After working at his desk for hours Gorky liked to relax listening to Maria playing the works of Grieg or Beethoven. A strong personality, Andreyeva also fought frequently with the wives of the other Russian revolutionaries attending or teaching at Gorky’s party school.
Sometimes Gorky would go to Naples, often went fishing with the locals, and always tried to learn as much as he could from the local people. As he spoke only a few words of Italian, this was often difficult. He apparently made no effort to learn the language; he “did not like the vivacity of the Italian language, stressed by the artistic gesticulation of these excellent mimics; he liked their many songs and the company of guitar and mandolin players.” Gorky fell in love with Capri and wrote to his friend Andreyev: “The Gulf of Naples – and Capri above all – is more achingly beautiful and more profound than love itself or women could ever be. With love, you work it all out right at the beginning…”
Occasionally, Gorky would travel to Tuscany or Liguria. He kept a voluminous correspondence not only with many Russians, but also with Italian authors Edmondo De Amicis and Grazia Deledda. Ettore Settanni, the son of one of Gorky’s landlord, who later became a writer, recalled his impressions of Gorky during the period. He “strode, shoulders hunched, like a vagabond who devoured infinite distances.” He had, Settanni wrote, a “sibilant yet soft voice, which came out in bursts or whispers, and which could caress you or cut like a knife.”
Not everyone, however, welcomed Gorky on the island. Some Capresi believed that the presence of Gorky and his revolutionary school was scaring away tourists of ample means, and bringing heightened police attention to the island. Thus on May 15, 1908, a motion introduced in the city council asked that, “ The revolutionary Gorky be made to leave Capri as his presence prevents the visit of richer and more tranquil foreign tourists.” The motion failed to carry.
In March 1909, Gorky and his entourage moved into the larger Villa Behring, then owned by Emil von Behring, the first winner in 1901 of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Gorky stayed there until February 1911, when he moved to the still more commodious Villa Pierina.
From time to time Gorky’s wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna, with whom he had remained in cordial relations, would come to Capri from Russia with their two children for a visit. These visits always sparked a silent, ominous war between the two women, his real wife and his live-in “wife.” When this enmity erupted in into violence, one or the other left, with “Marussia” going to Finland where her children lived. In any case, before Ekaterina would move in, Maria Riola, Gorky’s housekeeper and the cook, Cataldo, took care to make the photos and personal mementos of the rival temporarily disappear.
While in Capri, Gorky creative output was enormous: there he wrote the novels A Confession (1908), Okurov City (1908), The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin (1910), the stories in Tales of Italy (1911–1913), and the first volume of his autobiography, My Childhood (1913-14).
On December 28, 1908, a strong earthquake, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, followed by a tsunami hit the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria, leveling more than 90% of the buildings in both cities, and killing over 100,000 people. Russian ships in the vicinity were the first to arrive to render assistance to the survivors, followed by British and the American ships of the White Fleet, then in the Mediterranean. Gorky quickly traveled to Messina and took part in the recovery and relief efforts. He was not only a witness intent on writing newspaper articles, but rolled up his sleeves and joined the relief efforts. From his observations and experiences he co-authored a book, In Destroyed Messina, together with scientific author Max Wilhelm Meyer.
In December 1913, to celebrate the third centenary of Romanov rule in Russia, Czar Nicholas II declared a general amnesty, and in early 1914 Gorky returned to Russia. Shortly after Maria Andreyeva left him and returned to the theater.
Gorky openly opposed Russia’s entry into World War I and was attacked in the press for being unpatriotic. However, he felt that a German/Austro-Hungarian victory would be disastrous for Europe, so – despite the fact that he was forty-six and not in the best of health – he enlisted in the army as a private and served for a while at the Galician front.
In 1915 he founded the political-literary journal, Letopis (Chronicle) and assisted in establishing the Russian Society of the Life of the Jews, an organization that protested against the persecution of Jews in Russia.
When in March 1917, as a result of continuous reversals at the front, Nicholas II abdicated, Gorky became a supporter of the nascent provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky. Gorky wrote: “We won not because we are strong, but because the government was weak. We have made a political revolution and have to reinforce our conquest. I am a social democrat, but I am saying and will continue to say, that the time has not come for socialist-style reforms.” He started a newspaper, New Life, and campaigned publicly against the Bolsheviks conspiracy to overthrow the Kerensky government.
After the October Revolution (November 7, 1917) and the assumption of dictatorial powers by Lenin, Stalin attacked Gorky in Workers’ Road. Gorky did not take the attack meekly and replied in New Life the same day: “Lenin and Trotsky and their followers already have been poisoned by the rotten venom of power. The proof of this is their attitude toward freedom of speech and of person and toward all the ideals for which democracy was fighting,” and on November 10 by calling Lenin and Trotsky in a follow-up article the “Napoleons of Socialism” who were involved in a “cruel experiment with the Russian people.”
During the long civil war, Gorky agreed to mute his public criticism and support the Reds and as a quid pro quo Lenin allowed him to start a new literary publishing company. Privately, however, Gorky continued to criticize the Bolsheviks. Lenin was personally gracious and never failed to see him, but Gorky’s continuous intercessions on behalf of writers, artists, intellectuals, and others who were able to gain Gorky’s ear, must have tried the patience of the single-minded Lenin, who stopped at nothing to achieve his vision of the dictatorship of the proletariat, of course with him in charge. As historian Louis Fischer put it, “Gorky was a one-man civil liberties union; Lenin was the final court of appeal.”
Still, despite the political and philosophical difference with the new ruling elite, Gorky agreed to use his worldwide fame to collect funds to ameliorate the Russian Famine of 1921. The famine, which began in the spring of 1921 and did not stop until the end of 1922, is estimated to have killed about 5 million persons, mostly in the Volga-Ural regions.
Despite his help to the government in these dire circumstances, Gorky’s freedom of expression was further circumscribed and in October 1821, he left Russia for Germany where about 600,000 Russian émigrés had found refuge. Officially, he was going abroad to obtain medical care, but in fact he was leaving because of his running disagreements with the ruling elite.
Although Gorky longed to return to Capri and the comparatively dolce vita, the Italian government, which was having its own problems with Socialist labor and the nascent Fascist Party, temporized. Gorky was not granted permission to enter Italy. Thus, he stayed in Germany for two and half more years.
After Benito Mussolini was solidly installed in power, eyeing a propaganda advantage against Communism in having a prominent Soviet writer in the country, Gorky was granted permission to enter Italy and told that he could live in Sorrento, on the Mediterranean coast about 20 miles south of Naples. He stayed there on and off for the next nine years, living first at the Hotel Cappuccini, and then during the summer of 1924 to Villa Il Sorito, on the heights above the town.
Gorky came to admire aspects of Mussolini’s character, particularly his energy and said (claiming to quote Trotsky): “Mussolini has made a revolution; he is our best student.”
In Sorrento Gorky continued to exhibit his deep interest in Russian literature, promoting the careers of new talents, interceding for exit visas on their behalf, and providing hospitality when they got to Sorrento. Among these were Isaac Babel, Vsevold Ivanov, Konstantin Fedin, poet Vladislav Khodasevich and his wife Nina Berberova.
While living in Sorrento Gorky was not idle – Italy once again proved a source of creative inspiration. In addition to several plays, wrote the novels The Artamonov Business, The Bystander, The Magnet, Other Fires, and the memoirs Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev, and V.I. Lenin.
His life in Sorrento, mostly free from political pressures and intrigue, was both productive and regular, and pleasant. Poet Nikolai Aseev who visited Gorky in 1927, described him as, “a big tree, well chiseled, towering over the small shoots of post-war humanity.”
Of course, the Italian police watched Gorky while he lived in Sorrento, and their last report to Rome, now declassified, details that prior to his return to Russia in May 1933, both his wife Ekaterina Peshkova and his “secretary” (and lover) Moura Budberg lived with him, as well as his son Maxim Peschkov, his wife, Nadine Vvedensky Peschkova and their two children, and various other Russians. The police reported that while Gorky seldom went out, his son frequently traveled to other Italian cities by car, either with his wife or with other Russian visitors. The police lamented that as Gorky’s villa was about a mile and half outside the city it was difficult to maintain constant surveillance without being noticed. Therefore, on Gorky’s return to Sorrento, which they expected by the winter, they were planning to rent a vacant building near the villa to set up closer surveillance from there.
In 1926, Gorky also lived for a while in Naples at Villa Gallotti on the slope of the Posillipo Hill overlooking the bay. There, he kept rather secluded, devoting himself to writing, and the occasional visitors or curious persons were often turned away at the gate by the Neapolitan custodian who informed them: “’O russo nun vo’ vede’ a nisciuno” (The Russian doesn’t see anyone).
Stalin, as had Mussolini when he granted Gorky permission to live in Sorrento, foresaw a tremendous publicity coup for the Soviet Union and for himself if he could lure Gorky back home. Thus, Gorky was invited through emissaries, including his wife Ekaterina, to return home, if only temporarily, for the celebration of his 60th birthday, which occurred in March 1928, and went back to Russia on May 20, 1928. In addition to being feted by Stalin, who asked him to write his biography (Gorky never did), he had been honored by the issuance of a set of postage stamps bearing his portrait, an honor never before accorded to a writer. On this occasion, as he had done with Lenin prior to his going abroad, Gorky interceded with Stalin for writers and intellectuals then being persecuted by the authorities.
He left Moscow once more to return to Sorrento on October 12, 1928. In May 1929 he visited Russia again and in June was asked to visit the first Gulag, the Solovky Prison Camp, located on the Karelian Solovetsky Islands on the shores of the White Sea, near Finland. The islands had been remade into a prison in which inmates were often tortured and many died of starvation, exposure to the elements, or sadistic treatment. Gorky visited it (after the camp had been made suitably presentable) and wrote a favorable essay praising the Soviet enlightened methods by which delinquents were being turned into productive members of society.
The campaign to lure Gorky back to the motherland permanently had been orchestrated by NKVD (secret police) chief Genrikh Yagoda, who insured that thousands of letters from” common folk” begging Gorky to come back home for good were sent to Sorrento. Yagoda also used Dr. Lev Levin, a physician beholden to him, to try to convince Gorky to return. Levin had started to visit Gorky in Sorrento every winter from 1928 on to offer Gorky his personal medical care and be a visible sign on how much the Motherland cared for its foremost writer. Both Yagoda and Levin were executed on Stalin’s orders in 1938.
According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a major reason why Gorky finally decided to return to Russia to live was the fact that his stream of royalties had started to dry up and he was finding himself in financial difficulties. For years Gorky had also been receiving money from Alexander Lvovich Parvus, a Marxist Russian living in Germany where he was active in the Social Democratic Party (and may have been a German secret agent). When Parvus died in 1924, the payments stopped, creating difficulties for Gorky, whose literary popularity and book sales were decreasing.
Gorky finally left Italy for good aboard the Soviet ship Jean Jaures from Genoa on May 9, 1933 and arrived in Odessa on May 17. From there, he proceeded to Moscow by train. In Moscow, he had already been given as a residence in the turn-of-the-century Art Deco mansion that had belonged to business tycoon Pavel Ryaboshinsky, and he enjoyed having a country dacha near Moscow and a vacation villa in the Crimea. All these houses were fully staffed with servants (who were also secret police agents) and thus the coming and goings of visitors, most of the intellectuals who still felt safe visiting a kindred soul, were minutely recorded and observed.
The Soviet leadership, from Stalin down, also frequented Gorky’s Moscow house and his country dacha: Foreign Trade Commissar Anastas Mikoyan, army chief Kliment Voroshilov, and Stalin’s henchman Yagoda were familiar figures there.
Gorky’s considerable vanity was appeased by all these signs of respect, and by his ready access to Stalin. The honors heaped upon him were without precedent: he stood with other Soviet leaders on top of Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square during celebratory parades, was awarded the Order of Lenin, given the title of Great Proletarian Writer, and the largest Russian aircraft, as well as his city of birth, a major Moscow Street, innumerable factories, theaters, and many other public venues were named after him, honors that Stalin had not even bestowed on himself. In all this the Soviet dictator had his own sly motives, of course; Stalin told an official, “Gorky is a vain man. We must bind him with cables to the Party.”
Gorky, for whatever reasons, perhaps to maintain his influence and hope to be able to moderate Stalinism’s worst excesses against intellectuals, or perhaps out of that plain vanity, worked within the system, and provided support for the agricultural collectivization and the extermination of the Kulaks, by penning an article in which he wrote, “…If the enemy does not surrender, he should be destroyed.” Stalin ordered three million copies printed and distributed. Estimates, including one by Winston Churchill, put the number of victims who died of starvation or were killed when they did not cooperate with the collectivization campaign, at about 10-12 million persons.
Similarly Gorky was one of the editors of the lengthy White Sea Canal Report. This 141 miles long canal, which connects Leningrad with the White Sea to the north, was dug by about 100,000 convicts (of whom about 10 % died in the effort) in less than two years between 1931 and 1933. Gorky organized a trip of over 100 writers to the canal and wrote in the book they wrote on the trip that it showed the “successful rehabilitation of enemies of the proletariat.” Solzhenitsyn later wrote that in The Gulag Archipelago that he used material by the “thirty-six writers, headed by Maxim Gorky, authors of the disgraceful book on the White Sea Canal, which was the first in Russian literature to glorify slave labor.”
On October 26, 1932, while he was on a visit to Russia, Gorky had hosted a meeting of some fifty writers to discuss literary trends and decide how writers could best support the Soviet regime. The meeting, attended by Stalin and several other Politburo members, was the beginning of Socialist Realism in culture, and writers were spurred to glorify the revolution and portray its worker and their accomplishments as heroic. Language should be simple, easily understood, and devoid of speculative fantasies. Stalin spoke of the writers as “engineers of the soul” and before the meeting adjourned Gorky was elected as head of the Writers Union. Henceforth in the Soviet Union you could only be published by official publishing houses and then only if you belonged to the union. Deviancy from the norms of Socialist Realism or criticism of government policies was more often than not cause for termination of membership, inability to publish, and with increasing frequency banishment to a labor camp or even execution.
Literature became a business and writers received a regular salary with assignments suggested by the union, thus ensuring total conformity to the dictates of the party. While most writers expressed approval of the new system of literary “production,” a few, at their real peril, disagreed. Viktor Shlovskii opined that if Dostoevsky had been at the congress he would have been condemned as a traitor, and Isaac Babel derisively said that he had “invented a new genre, the genre of silence.” Only four writers declined to take the oath of loyalty to the party: Mikhail Bulgakov, Andre`Platonov, Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akmatova.
In December 1934, Gorky started having second thoughts about his cooperation with the regime and soon found himself a prisoner in his own home. Allegedly for his own protection against attempts on his life, he was put under guard. Not only persons wanting to see him at home had to have special passes, but he could not even go out unless he had permission from his doctors and the head of his security detail. He knew by then that he was in a trap and told one of his collaborators he could still trust, I.S. Shkapa, “ They have surrounded me… hemmed me in…I can’t go forward or backward. And I can’t adjust to it!” It was a long way from the gentle sunlight of Sorrento.
He knew and told a writer friend that he was under house arrest and tried to escape from such suffocating environment. He applied first for a passport to return to Italy and then to attend a conference in Paris, but both times permission to travel was denied on the basis that his health was poor.
His son, Maxim Peshkov, had also died suddenly in May 1934, and rumors soon circulated that he had been done away on the orders of Yagoda, the head of the NKVD, who was then having an affair with his wife.
Gorky got progressively morose and in early June 1936 took to his bed ill with pneumonia. While he lay dying at his dacha 30 miles from Moscow, he read the draft of the new Constitution of the Soviet Union he had been pushing Stalin to proclaim. The irony of the high sounding, liberal language of that document, compared with the reality of the one-man dictatorship, was not lost on him.
During his short illness Stalin came to visit him twice. The first time he came with Molotov and Voroshilov and got to talk with Gorky. A few days later Stalin called again, again with his two sidekicks, but Gorky was too sick to see them and Stalin left a written note for the writer. But it was too late. Gorky died on 18 June 1936.
After a period of lying in state in the Moscow’s Hall of the Columns, when his body was viewed by thousand of mourners, his remains were cremated. On June 29, eminent pallbearers carried the funeral urn containing his ashes to Red Square. The pallbearers included Stalin, Yagoda, Molotov, Zhadanov, and Kaganovich. French writer Andre Gide`also attended the funeral and English playwright George Bernard Shaw telegraphed his condolences. Shaw, when he found out Gorky had died, commented; “I dare say it’s time for all us nineteenth century writers to clear out. You’d better prepare my obituary. You never know.”
In total, Gorky spent about sixteen years in Italy, a lengthy period with a marked influence on his pattern of thinking and his writings. He wrote warmly of the country and people that had given him ready hospitality, even though he never learned to speak Italian (or any other foreign language) and made very few friends among the Italians.
Gorky wrote only one book of short stories on an Italian subject, Tales of Italy, while in Capri in 1906-13. He wrote:
I have called these scenes ‘Tales’, because both the landscape of Italy and the customs of its people, indeed their entire way of life, is so different from Russia that to the ordinary Russian reader they might indeed seem like tales…In essence, these are not ‘tales’, that is to say the product of the imagination of a person whom harsh reality or the heavy boredom of life has exhausted and who therefore consoles himself and others by drawing on his imagination, to create a new life that is brighter, and more festive, gentler, or, perhaps, more frightening; nor are these tales ‘inventions’ of a writer concealing a moral or some cutting truth as the wonderful wise stories of the famous Voltaire, Laboulaye, Saltykov, Shchedrin and other writers.
The 27 wonderful stories in the book deal with Italy as he came to see and know it as an outsider, albeit a keenly observant one. They are stories of simple people, mothers, children, family and social struggle in an Italian context, of their deep humanity and aspirations for a better future and their bitter humor. Although his surroundings may have been the beautiful Capri and the Sorrentine peninsula, Gorky’s heart and soul remained in the snowy wide-open steppes of Russia in winter, the lazy banks of the Volga River, and the rush of the cold winds in the enormous birch forests. Southern Italy was only a temporary blurred background, a facade where he had been transplanted for a while by life’s circumstances but the real world to which he belonged and pained to live in was the one he had left behind in Russia.
Luciano Mangiafico is a retired U.S. diplomat who served, among many postings abroad, as consul in Milan and Consul General in Palermo.
NOTE: This article has been excerpted from an unpublished book the author has written on prominent foreigners who resided in Italy.