By Maxim Gorky
Originally printed in the U.S.A. about 1930
Reprinted by Red Star Publishers, 2014
DAYS WITH LENIN
By Maxim Gorky
Vladimir Lenin is dead. That in him the world has lost a surpassing genius, one far greater than any of his great contemporaries, even some of his enemies have had the courage to admit. The following words form the conclusion of an article on Lenin, which appeared in the Präger Tageblatt, a German bourgeois newspaper published in Czechoslovakia – an article whose dominant note is one of awe and reverence for his colossal figure: “Great and terrible and beyond our comprehension, even in death – such is Lenin.” It is clear that the feeling behind this article is not one of mere gloating, not the feeling which finds cynical expression in the saying that “the corpse of an enemy always smells good”; neither is it the feeling of relief which comes from the departure of a great but restless spirit. It is unmistakably the pride of humanity in a great man.
The Russian émigré press had neither the moral courage nor the good taste to express, on the occasion of Lenin’s death, the respect which the bourgeois papers showed in appreciating the personality of a man whose life was one of the greatest examples of fearless reason and resolute will to live.
It would be a difficult task to paint the portrait of Vladimir Ilyitch1 Lenin. His words were as much a part of his external appearance as scales are of fish. The simplicity and straightforwardness of everything he said were an essential part of his nature. The heroic deeds which he achieved are surrounded by no glittering halo. His was that heroism which Russia knows well – the unassuming, austere life of self-sacrifice of the true Russian revolutionary intellectual who, in his unshakable belief in the possibility of social justice on the earth, renounces all the pleasures of life in order to toil for the happiness of mankind.
What I wrote about him directly after his death, when I was overwhelmed with grief, was hastily written and inadequate. There were things which I could not write then because of considerations of tact, which, I hope, are fully comprehensible. He was a man of piercing vision and great wisdom and “in much wisdom there is much grief.”
He could always see a long way ahead, and in discussing people in the years between 1919 and 1921 he often gave an accurate forecast of what they would become in the course of several years. These forecasts were not always flattering, and one did not always want to believe them, but unfortunately in many cases his skeptical remarks have been justified.
The First Meeting
The unsatisfactory character of my former reminiscences was increased by the presence of many bad gaps and inconsistencies. I ought to have begun with the London Congress,1 when the figure of Vladimir Ilyitch stood out in strong relief against a background of doubt and mistrust, of open hostility and even of hate.
I still see vividly before me the bare walls of a wooden church on the outskirts of London, unadorned to the point of absurdity, the lancet windows of a small, narrow hall which might have been a classroom in a poor school.
Any resemblance to a church was restricted to the outside of the building. Inside there was no trace of anything ecclesiastical and even the low pulpit, instead of standing at the far end of the hall, was placed at the entrance, midway between the two doors.
I had never met Lenin before this, nor read as much of him as I ought to have done. But what I had managed to read, and above all the enthusiastic accounts of those who knew him personally, had attracted me strongly towards him. 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. I 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, did not give the impression of being a leader. As a literary man, I am obliged to take note of such little details, and this necessity has become a habit, sometimes even an irritating habit, with me. G. V. Plekhanov, at our first meeting, stood with folded arms, looking at me with the severe, slightly bored expression with which an overworked teacher regards an additional pupil. Nothing that he said has remained in my memory except the extremely trite remark: “I am an admirer of your work”; and neither of us, during the whole time of the Congress, felt any desire to have a heart-to-heart talk with the other.
Before me now stood a baldheaded, stocky, sturdy person, speaking with a guttural roll of his “r’s,” and holding my hand in one of his, while with the other he wiped a forehead which might have belonged to Socrates, beaming affectionately at me with his strangely bright eyes.
He began at once to speak about the defects of my book Mother – evidently he had read it in the manuscript which was in the possession of S. P. Ladyzhnikov. I was hurrying to finish the book, I said, – but did not succeed in saying why. Lenin with a nod of assent, himself gave the explanation: Yes, I should hurry up with it, such a book is needed, for many of the workers who take part in the revolutionary movement do so unconsciously and chaotically, and it would be very useful to them to read Mother. “The very book for the moment.” This was the single compliment he paid me, but it was a most precious one to me.
Then he went on to ask in a businesslike way, if it was being translated, whether it had been mangled much by the Russian and American censorship. When I told him that the author was to be prosecuted, at first he frowned, then threw back his head, closed his eyes and burst into an unusual laugh. This laugh attracted the workers and F. Uralsky, I think it was, came up, and three other people.
I was in a festive mood. I was in the midst of three hundred picked Party men, who, I learnt, had been sent to the Congress by one hundred and fifty thousand organized workers. Before my eyes were all the Party leaders, the old revolutionaries, Plekhanov, Axelrod, Deutsch. My festive mood was quite natural and will be understood by the reader when I add that I had become extremely low-spirited during the two years I had spent away from my native country.
With the German Social-Democrats
My dejection began in Berlin where I met almost all the leading Social-Democrats, and dined with August Bebel, with Singer, a very stout fellow, beside me, and other distinguished people around.
We dined in a spacious and comfortable room. Tasteful, embroidered cloths were thrown over the canary cages and embroidered antimacassars were fastened on the backs of the armchairs so that the covers should not get soiled from the heads of the persons sitting in them. Everything was solid and substantial. Every one ate in a solemn manner and said to each other in a solemn tone, “Mahlzeit” This was a new word for me, but I knew that “mal” in French meant “bad,” and “Zeit” in German meant “time” – “bad times.”
Singer twice referred to Kautsky as “my romanticist.” Bebel, with his aquiline nose, seemed to me somewhat self-satisfied. We drank Rhenish wine and beer. The wine was sour and tepid. The beer was good. The Social-Democrats spoke sourly and with condescension about the Russian Revolution and Party, but about their own party, the German Party – everything was splendid! There was a general atmosphere of self-satisfaction. Even the chairs looked as though they delighted in supporting the honorable buttocks of the leaders.
My business with the German Party was of a rather delicate nature. A prominent member of it, afterwards the notorious Parvus, had received from Znaniye1 an authorization to collect author’s royalty from the theaters for my play The Lower Depths. He received this authorization in 1902 in Sebastopol, at the station, whither he had come on an illegal visit. The money which he collected was to be divided up in the following way: 20 per cent of the total sum to him, and of the rest, I was to receive one quarter, while three quarters went to the funds of the Social-Democratic Party. Parvus knew these conditions, of course, and was even delighted with them. For four years the play had been going the round of all the theaters in Germany, in Berlin alone it had been performed more than 500 times, and Parvus must have collected a hundred thousand marks. But instead of the money, he sent to Znaniye, to K. P. Piatnitsky, a letter in which he good-humoredly informed him that he had spent all the money on a trip with a young lady to Italy. As I was concerned personally with this doubtless very pleasant trip only to the extent of a quarter of the money, I considered myself justified in writing to the Central Committee of the German Party about the remaining three-quarters. I communicated with them through S. P. Ladyzhikov. The Central Committee remained quite unmoved by Parvus’ trip. Later I learnt that he had been degraded by the Party; frankly speaking, I would have preferred to see his ears pulled for him. When I was in Paris some time later, an extremely pretty young woman was pointed out to me as Parvus’ companion on his Italian trip. “A very dear young lady,” I thought, “very dear.”
I met many people in Berlin – writers, artists, patrons of art and letters, and others. Their complacency and self-esteem differed only in degree.
A Trip to America
In America I had seen a lot of Morris Hillquit, whose ambition it was to become mayor or governor of New York. I had seen many people and many things, but I had not met a single person who could understand the whole significance of the Russian Revolution, and I felt everywhere that it was regarded generally as “a mere incident in European life” and a usual occurrence in a country “where there was always either cholera or revolution” in the words of one “beautiful lady” who “sympathized with Socialism.”
The idea of a journey to America to collect money for the Bolshevik funds came from L. B. Krassin. V. V. Vorovsky was to go with me as secretary and organizer of meetings. He knew English well, but the Party gave him some other work to do and N. E. Burenin took his place. He did not know the language and began to learn it on the way and when he arrived in the country.
The Socialist-Revolutionaries became childishly interested in my journey when they learnt its purpose. Tchaikovsky and Zitlovsky came to me while I was still in Finland and suggested that money should be collected not for the Bolsheviks, but for “the revolution in general.” I refused to collect money for any “general revolution.” Then they sent “Babushka”1 there also, and so two people appeared in America, who, independently of each other and even without meeting, began to collect money, apparently for two different revolutions.
The Americans of course had neither the time nor inclination to consider which was the better and the more substantial. “Babushka” apparently was already known to them – she had been well advertised in the past by her American friends – and the tzarist embassy prepared a scandal for me.1 The American comrades also regarded the Russian Revolution as a “local” and abortive affair and treated somewhat “liberally” the money which I collected at the meetings, and on the whole I collected very little money, less than $10,000. I decided to get some money by writing in the newspapers – but there happened to be a Parvus in America as well, and the American tour was on the whole a failure. However I wrote Mother there – a fact which accounts perhaps for its faults and defects.
After that I went to Italy, to Capri, and plunged into reading Russian books and newspapers – this also increased my low spirits. If a tooth could feel after being knocked out, it would probably feel as lonely as I did. I was full of amazement at the acrobatic skill and agility with which well-known people jumped from one political platform to another.
“Everything is lost,” they said. “They have crushed, annihilated, exiled, imprisoned everybody!”
Much of it was ludicrous, but there was no ray of cheerfulness. One visitor from Russia, a talented writer, said that I had been playing a role similar to that of Luke in The Lower Depths – had come and charmed the young people with amiable words, they had believed me, had got some knocks on the head, and I had run away. Another declared that I was eaten up by “tendencies,” that I was a “played-out” man, and denied any significance to the ballet only because it was “imperial.” On the whole they said a lot of stupid and ridiculous things, and I often felt as if a pestilential dust were blowing from Russia.
Then suddenly, as though in a fairy tale, I found myself at the Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party. Of course it was a great day for me!
At the London Congress
But my festive mood lasted only until the first meeting when they began wrangling about “the order of the day.” The fury of these disputes at once chilled my enthusiasm, and not so much because I felt how sharply the Party was divided into reformers and revolutionaries – I had realized that in 1903 – but because of the hostile attitude of the reformers to Lenin. It oozed and spouted out of their speeches like water under high pressure out of an old hose.
It is not always what is said that is important, but how it is said. When Plekhanov, in a frock coat, closely buttoned up like a Protestant pastor, opened the Congress, he spoke like a preacher confident that his ideas are incontrovertible, every word and every pause of great value. Way above the heads of the delegates he skillfully weighed out his beautifully rounded phrases, and whenever any one on the Bolshevik benches uttered a sound or whispered to a comrade, the venerable orator made a slight pause and sent his glance into him like a needle. One of the buttons on his frock coat was a great favorite with Plekhanov; he stroked it caressingly all the time with his finger, and when he paused, pressed it like an electric bell – it seemed to be this pressure which interrupted the flowing current of his speech.
Once at a meeting Plekhanov, rising to answer some one, folded his arms and gave a loud and contemptuous “Ha!” This evoked a laugh among the Bolshevik workers. Plekhanov raised his eyebrows and his cheek grew pale. I say his cheek, for I was sitting at the side of the pulpit and could see the orator’s face only in profile.
While Plekhanov was speaking at the first meeting, the person who did the most fidgeting on the Bolshevik benches was Lenin. At one time he hunched himself up as though he were cold, then he sprawled as if he felt hot. He poked his fingers in his armholes, rubbed his chin, shook his head, and whispered something to M. P. Tomsky. When Plekhanov declared that there were no “revisionists”1 in the Party, Lenin bent down, the bald spot on his head grew red, and his shoulders shook with silent laughter. The workers sitting next to him and behind him also smiled, and from the back of the hall a voice called out loudly and morosely: “And what about the people sitting over there?”
Little Theodore Dan spoke like a man whose relationship to the authentic truth is one of father and daughter – he has begotten and fostered it, and still fosters it. He is Karl Marx incarnate, and the Bolsheviks – half-educated, ill-mannered children, a fact which is quite clear from their relations with the Mensheviks among whom are to be found, he said, “all the most eminent Marxist thinkers.”
“You are not Marxists,” he said disdainfully. “No, you are not Marxists” – and he thrust out his yellow fist. One of the workers asked him: “When are you going to tea again with the Liberals?”
I don’t remember if it was at the first meeting that Martov spoke. This amazingly attractive man spoke with the ardor of youth and was evidently especially deeply affected by the tragic drama of the dissension and split. He trembled all over, swayed backward and forward spasmodically unfastening the collar of his starched shirt and waving his hands about. His cuff fell down from under the sleeve of his coat, he raised his arm high up and shook it to send the cuff back again to its proper place.
Martov did not give so much the impression of arguing as of urging and imploring: we must put an end to the split, the Party is too weak to be divided, the workers must get freedom before anything else, we mustn’t let them lose heart. At times, during the first part of his speech he sounded almost hysterical; he became obscure through abundance of words, and he himself gave a painful impression. At the end of his speech, and without any apparent connection with it, he began in the same “militant” tone and with the same ardor, to shout against the militant group and against all work directed to the preparation of an armed uprising. I remember distinctly that some one from the Bolshevik benches cried out, “Well, there you are!” and Tomsky, I think it was, said: “Have we got to cut our hands off for Comrade Martov’s peace of mind?”
Again, I do not remember exactly if Martov spoke at the first meeting. I only mention it in order to describe the different ways in which people spoke.
After his speech there was a gloomy discussion among the workers in the room which led into the hall of the meeting. “There’s Martov for you; and he was one of the ‘Iskra’ group!”1 “Our intellectual friends are changing their color!”
Rosa Luxemburg spoke eloquently, passionately and trenchantly, using irony with great effect.
But now Vladimir Ilyitch hurries to the pulpit, and cries “Comrades!” in his guttural way. He seemed to me to speak badly, but after a minute I and everybody else were absorbed in his speech. It was the first time I had heard complicated political questions treated so simply. There was no striving after eloquent phrases with him, but every word was uttered distinctly, and its meaning was marvelously plain. It is very difficult to pass on to the reader the unusual impression which he made.
His arm was extended with the hand slightly raised, and he seemed to weigh every word with it, and to sift out the remarks of his opponents, substituting them by momentous arguments for the right and duty of the working class to go its own way, and not along with the liberal bourgeoisie or trailing behind it. All this was unusual, and Lenin seemed to say it not of his own will, but by the will of history.
The unity, completeness, directness and strength of his speech, his whole appearance in the pulpit, was a veritable work of classic art: everything was there, and yet there was nothing superfluous, and if there were any embellishments, they were not noticed as such, but were as natural and inevitable as two eyes in a face or five fingers on a hand.
He gave a shorter speech than the orators who spoke before him, but he made a much greater impression. I was not alone in feeling this. Behind me was an enthusiastic whispering: “Now, he has got something to say.” It really was so. His conclusions were not reached artificially, but developed by themselves, inevitably. The Mensheviks made no attempt to hide their displeasure at the speech and more than displeasure at Lenin himself. The more convincingly he showed the necessity to the Party of the utmost development of revolutionary theory so that the practice might be thoroughly surveyed in the light of it, the more exasperatedly did they interrupt him.
“A Congress isn’t the place for philosophy!” “Don’t act the teacher with us, we’re not school-boys!”
One tall, bearded individual who looked like a shopkeeper was especially aggressive. He jumped up from his seat and stuttered: “Little p-plots – p-playing at little p-plots! Blanquists!”
Rosa Luxemburg nodded her head in approval of Lenin. She made a neat remark to the Mensheviks at one of the later meetings. “You don’t stand on Marxism, you sit on it, rather lie down on it.”
A malevolent, burning wave of irritability, irony and hatred swept over the hall. The eyes which reflected Lenin showed a hundred different expressions. These hostile thrusts had no noticeable effect on him. He spoke on warmly but deliberately and calmly. I learned what this external calm had cost him a few days later. It was strange and sad to see that such hostility could be roused against him by such a natural thought as that “only by the help of a fully developed theory would the Party be able to see the causes of the dissension in its midst.”
The impression formed itself in my mind that each day of the Congress added ever greater power to Vladimir Ilyitch, and made him bolder and more confident. With each day his speeches sounded firmer and the Bolshevik element in the Congress grew more and more uncompromising and inflexible. Next to Lenin, I was moved most of all by the eloquent, vigorous speech of Rosa Luxemburg against the Mensheviks and the crushing, sledge-hammer blows of M. P. Tomsky’s speech against the idea of a Labor Congress.
Lenin and the Workers
His free minutes or hours Lenin spent among the workers, asking them about the most petty details of their lives.
“What about their wives? Up to the neck in housework? But do they manage to learn anything, to read anything?”
Once in Hyde Park a group of workers who had seen Lenin for the first time at the Congress was discussing his conduct there. One of them made a striking remark:
“For all I know there may be other fellows as clever as he in Europe on the side of the workers. But I don’t believe you’ll find another one who could get you on the spot like that fellow!”
Another one added with a smile, “He’s one of us all right.”
“Plekhanov’s just as much one of us,” some one replied. The answer I heard just hit the mark – “You feel that Plekhanov’s always teaching you, lording it over you, but Lenin’s a real leader and comrade.” One young fellow said jokingly: “Plekhanov’s frock coat is too tight for him.”
On one occasion we were on our way to a restaurant, when a worker, a Menshevik, stopped Lenin to ask him a question. Ilyitch dropped behind while the party went on. He entered the restaurant frowning, five minutes later, and said: “Curious that such a simpleton should have got into the Party Congress. He asked me, what was after all the real reason for the discussion. ‘This is what it is,’ I said to him. ‘Your friends want to get into Parliament, while we believe that the working class has got to prepare for a struggle.’ I think he understood.”
Several of us always had our meals together in the same cheap little restaurant. I noticed that V. Ilyitch ate very little – two or three fried eggs, a small piece of ham, and a mug of thick, dark beer. He obviously took very little care of himself and his amazing care for the workers struck one all the more.
M. F. Andreyeva looked after the canteen, and he would ask her: “What do you think, are the workers getting enough to eat? No? H’m, h’m. Perhaps we can get more sandwiches?”
Once when he came to the inn where I was staying, I noticed him feeling the bedding with a preoccupied air.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m just looking to see if the sheets are well aired.”
At first I didn’t understand. Why should he want to know what the sheets were like in London? Then, noticing my perplexity, he explained, “You must take care of yourself.”
In the autumn of 1918 I asked a worker from Sormovo, Dmitry Pavlov, what he thought was Lenin’s most striking feature. He answered: “Simplicity. He is as simple as truth itself.” He said this as though it had been thought out and decided long ago.
It is well known that one’s severest critics are those who work under one. Lenin’s chauffeur, Gill, a man of great experience, said: “Lenin is quite unique. There are no others like him. Once I was driving him along Myasnitskaya Street when the traffic was very heavy. I hardly moved forward. I was afraid of the car getting smashed and was sounding the horn, feeling very worried. He opened the door, reached me by standing on the footboard, meanwhile running the risk of being knocked down, and urged me to go forward. ‘Don’t get worried, Gill, go on like every one else.’ I am an old chauffeur. I know that nobody else would do that.”
It would be difficult to make the reader realize how easily and naturally all his impressions flowed in the same channel. With the invariability of a compass needle his thoughts turned in the direction of the class interests of the workers.
On one of our free evenings in London a small company of us went to a Music Hall.
V. Ilyitch laughed gayly and infectiously at the clowns and comedians and looked indifferently at the rest. He paid special attention to the timber-felling by the workers of British Columbia. The little scene at the back showed a forest camp and on the ground in front two young fellows hewed through the trunk of a tree about a meter in thickness in the course of a minute.
“That’s for the public, of course,” said Ilyitch. “They couldn’t work as quickly as that in reality. But apparently they use axes there also, and cut up a lot of wood into useless chips. There’s British civilization for you!”
He began to speak about the anarchy in production under capitalism, the great percentage of raw material which is wasted, and ended by regretting that no one had as yet thought of writing a book on the subject.
The idea wasn’t quite clear to me, but I didn’t manage to question V. Ilyitch. He was already making some interesting remarks about the pantomime as a special form of the art of the theater. “It is the expression of a certain satirical attitude towards generally accepted ideas, an attempt to turn them inside out, to distort them, to show the arbitrariness of the usual. It is a little complicated, but interesting!”
Two years later in Capri, when he was discussing the Utopian novel with A. A. Bogdanov, he said, “If you would write a novel for the workers on the subject of how the sharks of capitalism robbed the earth and wasted the oil, iron, timber and coal – that would be a useful book, Signor Machist!”1