June 19, 1936
Maxim Gorky Dies At Moscow Villa
Special Cable to THE NEW YORK TIMES
MOSCOW, June 18.--Maxim Gorky, most famous of contemporary Russian novelists, died shortly before noon today of heart disease, the result of pulmonary congestion following grip. He had been ill for two weeks. His heart weakness had already given rise to anxiety, which was greatly accentuated yesterday. He died in his country villa, about thirty miles from Moscow, at the age of 68.
Gorky had become one of the most popular figures in the U.S.S.R. in recent years as he gradually passed from a sympathizer to one of the warmest supporters of the Soviet regime. He played a leading role at the International Writers Congress in Moscow in the Summer of 1934. His photograph in the congress hall was nearly as large as Stalin's.
Although he did not participate in politics directly and was not a member of the Bolshevist party, he championed the Soviet cause unequivocally. Tverskaya Street, one of the leading thoroughfares of Moscow, was named Gorky Street in his honor.
There will be a great public funeral on Saturday or Sunday and the body will lie in state in Moscow for twenty-four hours previously.
Gorky had become a close friend of Lenin during the 1900s, so when the Bolsheviks came to power, he was able to advocate for many writers and poets who were being persecuted by the regime for one reason or another.
Lenin eventually grew tired of Gorky’s interventions on behalf of these out-of-favor intellectuals and persuaded Gorky to go abroad to improve his health. After leaving Russia in 1921, Gorky and his family traveled through Europe, before finally settling in the Italian town of Sorrento.
Meanwhile, Lenin passed away in the USSR, and Stalin took over the reigns of government. The new leader was determined to use artistic endeavor as a means of shaping society, and he sought an acclaimed writer to justify his policies. He chose Gorky.
In 1932, the writer returned to the USSR, where he received many honors. He was elected president of the newly created Soviet Writers’ Union, and his birthplace, Nizhny Novgorod, was renamed Gorky.
As the 1930s drew on, Gorky’s position within Soviet society became more conflicted. He led the propaganda campaign for the White Sea Canal, which was built with heavy loss of life by prisoners of the Gulag. In his book “The Gulag Archipelago,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn characterizes Gorky’s actions during this period as “material self-interest” rather than delusion.
The first congress of the Union of Soviet Writers was scheduled for the summer of 1934, and Gorky was asked to give the opening speech. However, in May of that year the writer’s son, Maxim Peshkov, died days after returning from a binge with Genrikh Yagoda, the Soviet Interior Minister.
There was speculation that Maxim had been killed to frighten Gorky and prevent him from making unwanted comments or inflammatory speeches during the congress. Whatever the truth, Gorky was devastated, and the congress had to be postponed until August. The writer did ultimately appear, giving a seminal speech on the future of Soviet literature.
The strain between Gorky and Stalin continued to grow, until relations broke down completely in June 1935. Gorky pulled out of the First International Congress of Writers in Paris at the last minute, citing health problems.
Although Gorky really was very ill with tuberculosis, Stalin took it as an unpardonable betrayal, particularly as Russia had organized the event itself. Gorky was forbidden from communicating with foreign writers and was placed under constant surveillance, hardly leaving his luxury mansion in the center of Moscow.
Rumor has it that in Gorky’s last years Stalin asked him to write his biography, but the writer firmly refused. The Russian historian Arkady Vaksberg claims that Gorky did not die from heart disease as the official version states but was poisoned on Stalin’s orders. However, this is unproven, and in any case the writer was a very sick man by this late stage in his life.
When the Maxim Gorky finally died, his brain was surgically removed within a couple of hours. It is still held in the Neurological Institute in Moscow, along with the brains of Mayakovsky, Lenin, and many other Russian thinkers, writers and politicians.