Do Russians love to suffer, or do they simply find ways to cope with the difficulties that tribe and geography have subjected them to? One cannot but entertain the idea that Russians, perhaps unwillingly but certainly sometimes enthusiastically, tend to revel in their own difficulties. Lev Gumilev called it “passionarity”, the best description of which might be “Russian capacity for suffering as their special contribution to world order.” The French have philosophy, the Germans have industry, the English have law – the Russians have suffering.
That is certainly, at least, what Putin believes.
Maxim Gorky is Soviet Russia’s most important writer. The inventor of the genre of “Socialist Realism” – ‘Tractors of the world unite!!’ “My Apprenticeship” is the middle book in his three-part autobiography. The coming of age story of a young man trying to find his way in a backwater part of Tsarist Russia beside the Volga. And how he was saved by books.
There is something tremendously compelling in Gorky’s writing. I, who have read a tremendous amount of Russian literature, would place “My Apprenticeship” at the top of the pile. Like all Russian literature, but maybe more so, this book was full of humanity. It bleeds with the suffering people forced to work for nothing; it sorrows for the prostitutes of Gorky’s home town with no better option – and it seethes with contempt against the feckless moneyed classes. In short, it is perfect literature upon which to build a revolution. Stalin knew this, as did Beria and Lenin and the others. Though Gorky died early into the Soviet Russian experiment, he had a fundamental role in setting the tone that still exists today.
It is nihilistic, Gorky’s Russia. It has religion, but that faith does not provide answers. It has royalty, but to live for the pleasure of the Kings and the Tsars is not something that any longer motivates turn of the 20th century Russia. Sartre would be happy in Gorky’s world, as would Nietzsche – Camus would object to its joylessness. To be honest, I found it compelling. The powerless fight against the forces of darkness – never really hoping to win but knowing you have to fight anyway. The sadness at a life that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The frustration at the all-to-apparent rewards for wickedness. These also affect me, bolstered by my own experiences in a world that does not seem to care (read “I, Charles, From the Camps” – my finest novel about Ugandan poverty and rebellion, a novel I believe Gorky would have loved).
I’m sure Gorky would have been tremendously disappointed by Stalin’s Russia. He died just one year before the purge (who knows, maybe had he lived he could have protected Osip Mandelstam and Gurgen Mahari and so many others from the Gulag). Yes, Gorky would have been heartbroken by Stalin’s brutality. But he would have understood it – it would have seemed to him the most natural thing in the world.