Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) has been called the father of Soviet literature and was the founder of the school of socialist realism. However, he had several sides to his personality. From his youth, he combined a love of romantic tales with an intense sympathy for humanity. Of peasant background, he had to be self-educated but eventually became a major supporter of intellectual interests in post-Revolutionary Russia. The culmination of his literary career is his uncompleted four-volume novel, The Life of Klim Samgin. His work combines realism and a strong sense of social justice with a poetic strain of expression.
Less well known is the fact that Gorky also had a strong sense of spirituality and was deeply influenced by Theosophy and the writings of Madame Blavatsky, as shown in “Maksim Gorky and the Decline of Bolshvik Theomachy” by Mikhail Agursky, in Christianity and Russian Culture in Soviet Society, ed. Nicolai N. Petro (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990). “Theomachy” (literally “a battle against God”) is, in this context, opposition to the churchy concept of a personal god. The following extract concerning Gorky’s spirituality and Theosophical influence is from pages 81-86 of the essay just cited:
Gorky was introduced to Theosophy quite early; his interest in occult phenomena and in theurgy formed only part of his Theosophical views. He had evidently read Blavatsky at least as early as 1899 because he criticized her. But later his attitude changed, and in 1912, for example, he requested all her writings published in Russian. Taking into consideration that Theosophy never claimed it was a religion but only knowledge, one can understand how Gorky could reconcile with it.
Actually, Theosophy categorically denies the existence of a personal, transcendental, anthropomorphous God, whom it regards as only a giant shadow of man. This was repeated often by Gorky. Theosophy denies categorically the physical resurrection of the dead and—even more important for our purposes—it identifies matter and energy.
Blavatsky set the following three main objectives for Theosophy: (1) the creation of a universal human community with no racial and religious discrimination; (2) the study of esoteric traditions; (3) the study of nature’s secrets (an alias for occult phenomena) [Key to Theosophy, p. 39]. These were all shared by Gorky.
Gorky was also introduced to ancient gnosticism which was part and parcel of modern Theosophy. This was also early on, some time between 1893 and 1895, and was carried out by the prominent mystic Anna Schmidt, who worked in Nizhnii-Novgorod as a journalist on the same paper where Gorky began his literary career. Schmidt decided to convert the young Gorky to her esoteric creed and took several hours to explain her credo:
But it was a stranger who sat facing me, talking in a strictly professional way, ornamenting the speech with quotations from the Fathers of the Church, mentioning gnostics, Vassilides and Aennoia. The voice sounded dictatorial and powerful, the blue pupils of the eyes had widened and gleamed at me in the same new way as did the words and thoughts. Gradually everything commonplace and comical in this stranger disappeared, became invisible, and I well remember the glad and proud amazement with which I observed how the flame of thoughts on the evil of life, on the contradiction between flesh and spirit, were born and burst out from under the grey outward shell, with what firm assurance resounded the ancient words of the searchers of perfect wisdom, of implacable truth.
She did not succeed in making Gorky her personal disciple, but she had a lasting influence.
A most important exposition of gnosticism can be found in The Life of Klim Samgin, written in 1930. The protagonist of gnosticism is Marina Zotova, the spiritual leader of a Russian gnostic sect, who was presented by Gorky with great sympathy. She asks Samgin:
“You want to know if I believe in God. I do. But in the god who in ancient times was called Propator, Proarch, Aeon—are you acquainted with the Gnostics?”
“No. That is—”
“You are not. Well, now—they taught that Aeon had no beginning, but some saw the beginning in the community of thought about it, in the urge to understand it, and out of that urge sprang up the thought Aennoia, coinherent with Aeon. That was not reason, but the reason-impelling force springing from the depths of the parent spirit divorced from the earth and flesh. . .”
“You are a most interesting character,” exclaimed Samgin with genuine surprise. “How can you combine mysticism with. . .”
“In the first place gnosticism is not mysticism, and in the second place, there is a saying: ‘A big bag is not a hard clay pot; what’s put in with care will stay safely there; now around you can take it—all right, but don’t shake it.’”
“I loathe priestly Christianity. My mind is working for the fusion of all our communes, and such as are kindred to them, in one union. I don’t like Christianity—that’s all! If the people of your caste, if I may say so, could understand what Christianity is, how it affects the will power. . .”
Semen Frank, a prominent Russian religious philosopher, pointed out that Gorky’s outlook is a mutation of gnosticism.
Gorky had a very keen interest in medieval theosophy, alchemy, and all kinds of secret doctrines. His favorites were Paracelsus and Swedenborg, from whom he took, for example, his view of man as a microcosm—a typical theosophic doctrine. Gorky liked Paracelsus so much that he succeeded in including his biography in the prestigious Soviet biography series, and it was published in the USSR in 1935. He also liked the theosophic works of Fabre d’Olivet and Eduard Schure, and their influence on him can be clearly seen. For example, Gorky subscribed to d’Olivet’s harsh criticism of the idea that there had ever been a golden age in the history of humanity.
A look at Schure will help us understand why Gorky tried so hard to conceal his real views, which we are now trying to reconstruct. It is a matter of principle for Schure that profound truths may not be disclosed to those who are unprepared for them. The revelation of Truth is only a process, which starts from Rama and ends in Schure’s book on Christ. “Philosopher-initiates,” Schure claimed, “never wished to reveal these profound ideas to the people, for the latter would have understood them only imperfectly and would abuse them.”
Let us also look at Schure’s interpretation of the Last Judgment. According to him:
The Last Judgment . . . means the end of the cosmic evolution of humanity or its entry into a definitive spiritual condition. This is what Persian esotericism called the victory of Ormuzd over Ahriman, or spirit over matter. Hindu esotericism called it the complete reabsorption of matter by the Spirit, or the end of a Day of Brahma.
In the light of Gorky’s theosophy one can better understand his famous involvement in the so-called God-Building trend [a belief in human creative potential rather than an external deity] among left-wing Bolsheviks. However, Gorky’s commitment to God-Building differs greatly from that of his contemporary allies, Lunacharsky or Basarov. For Gorky, it is first of all a theurgical action [the expression of the divine in the phenomenal world], the theurgical creation of the new Nature and the annihilation of the old, and therefore God-Building coincides fully with the Kingdom of the Spirit. God is for Gorky a theurgical outcome of a collective work, the outcome of human unity and the negation of the human ego. God can become a reality as a result of occult concentration. This idea of the creation of God was expressed by Gorky for the first time in 1901:
Now, God is slipping away from the shopkeepers, and the sons of bitches are left without a shelter. That’s how it must be! Let them jump about in life naked with their empty little souls and moan like cracked bells. And when they die from cold and spiritual salvation we’ll create a God for ourselves who will be great, splendid, joyous, the protector of life who loves everyone and everything. So be it!
Certainly Gorky was here also influenced by the religion of humanity which he inherited from Vasily Bervi-Flerovsky whom he knew personally, and which the latter took in his turn from Auguste Comte. For Comte it was, however, a philosophical concept; for Gorky it became theurgy.
The main exposition of Gorky’s God-Building is to be found in his novel The Confession, written in 1908. For Gorky, the real theurgists are people, and the most important manifestation of popular theurgy is early Christianity before it was distorted by the church. “Christ was the first true people’s God, born from the soul of the people like the phoenix from the flames.”
However, when popular occult energy had weakened, Christ died; but the people-theurgists can resurrect him:
The time will come when the will of the people will again converge to one point, and then, again, the unconquerable and miraculous power will arise and the resurrection of God will take place.
Gorky’s God-Building was not a passing attraction. In 1927 he published, for example, an article in Pravda in which he once again subscribed to his earlier idea, though in veiled form:
There was a time, during the gloomy years of reaction, 1907-1910, when I called him a “god-builder,” meaning by this that both within himself and on earth a man creates and embodies the capacity to perform miracles of justice and beauty, and all the other miracles which idealists attribute to a power that supposedly exists outside of man. Man’s labor tends to convince him that, except for his reason and will, there is no miraculous power apart from the forces of nature, and that these he must master so that they may serve his reason and will. and thus lighten his labor and life. He believes that “only man exists—all else is thought and deed.”