Creatures that Once Were Men

Gorky in exile

Ask the average fan of literary fiction to list their favourite Russian writers, and I suspect the answers would break down into three general categories.

You’d have the major nineteenth century writers, starting with Pushkin and Gogol and ending with Chekhov and Tolstoy, the Soviet believers and dissidents from Teffi, Platonov, and Bulgakov to Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, and the contemporary late- and post-Communists like Sorokin, Petrushevskaya, and Ulitskaya. But if you asked who the big names in Russian fiction were on the eve of the revolution, during the tumultuous decade between the Revolution of 1905 and Russia’s disastrous entry into World War I, I’m not sure you could count on getting an answer.

Which brings me to the point of this post: the thorough and rather bizarre erasure of Maxim Gorky from the Anglophone canon of twentieth century world literature.

It’s not much of an overstatement to say that Gorky, born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, was the most significant people of his generation. Gorky (“bitter” in Russian) spent his childhood and youth travelling aimlessly across the Russian Empire, working odd jobs up and down the Volga, the Black Sea coast, and the Caucasus mountains. In his twenties he began writing stories and polemics about the dislocated and restless underclass of peasants and proletarians who had been formally liberated with the abolition of serfdom, but not provided with the means to rise from poverty—the very demographic providing nascent support for the overlapping Marxist movements agitating for power.

Gorky had a sharp nose for politics, and by the end of the century he had adopted strong democratic Marxist and anti-Tsarist views. Between stints in prison, he befriended everyone from Chekhov and Tolstoy to Stanislavski and Lenin. He also published a volcanic stream of stories, plays, novels, and essays that earned him an international reputation as a writer of the first rank ( has thoughtfully archived some of his non-fiction from this period).

In ’05 he was finally imprisoned in Saint Petersburg’s infamous Peter and Paul Fortress, and when he got out he headed to the U.S. to fundraise for the Bolsheviks. This was the beginning of nearly twenty years in exile in Italy, first under the Tsar and then under Lenin (he became disgusted with the way the Bolsheviks wielded power once they had it) before being rehabilitated and returning to the Soviet Union under Stalin. He spent the last decade of his life championing a series of increasingly heinous causes, a willing apologist for the regime that would devour him just as it devoured so many old revolutionaries.

This is all very interesting as literary biography and historical morality play; but does all this pamphleteering actually hold up a hundred years down the line? Judging the question purely by book sales, it would seem that Gorky has fallen terminally from favour with readers. Only a handful of his books are still in print in English, and based on what my partner tells me he’s not that hot in Russia, either.

I wanted to see for myself what the (self-styled) “stormy petrel” of Russian literature was like as a writer, so I downloaded an electronic copy of Creatures That Once Were Men and Other Stories in an early twentieth century translation by J.M. Shirazi with an introduction by G.K. Chesterton from Project Gutenberg. Much as it’s a cliché to say so, I couldn’t put it down.

Alexander Bogdanov and Lenin play chess at Gorky’s home in Capri before the revolution.

Creatures That Once Were Men (1897) is set in a dosshouse managed by a retired army Captain named Aristid Kuvalda. Kuvalda runs his operation out of an old converted blacksmith’s shed on the property of a collapsing house rented out by Petunikoff, a prosperous local merchant. Kuvalda’s business model involves luring the down-at-heel in with his straight talk and comradely attitude before using his inhuman capacity for drink to keep them in a state of state of riotous poverty.

But Kuvalda has a human side, and his favourite tenant is a sensitive, scholarly teacher-come-journalist—the only one of his dissolute boarders Kuvalda feels is on his intellectual level. Despite his affection, the relationship is straightforwardly co-dependent. Whenever things start going well for the teacher, Kuvalda is always there to pour the drink that will ensure he never makes his way back into polite society. “‘In the majority of cases it is impossible to fight against fate,’” Kuvalda says, “as if trying to justify himself before someone.” It doesn’t take long to figure out that this is not the kind of story that has a hero.

The main drama of the novella turns on a conflict between Kuvalda and Petunikoff over the fate of the dosshouse the titular “creatures that once were men” call home. Petunikoff and his ambitious son want to tear it down to extend their candle factory, and Kuvalda cooks up a variety of ultimately frustrated schemes to keep it standing and under his control. You can see the tragedy coming a mile off, and by the end of the story the teacher is dead, Kuvalda has been arrested for assault, and Petunikoff is taking measurements for his new factory.

As a story, it’s pretty entertaining. But there is a quality of recklessness in the prose that makes it difficult to categorize. Chekhov dealt with very similar material in his novella Peasants, published the same year, but with Chekhov you always know where you stand: namely, outside the action. Chekhov never had to live in a dosshouse, so he could write about people who did with an artist’s sympathy, attending to the details, distilling the pathos, applying the famous humanist eye for which he is so rightly loved. With Gorky it’s all electricity, uncertainty, and violence—the claustrophobia and hatred, the filth and hangovers, the sick lust and animal cunning.

Which is to say that it is artless: too raw to have depth, too disgusted to be subtle.

This artlessness manifests itself everywhere. The story opens with a fairly standard nineteenth century description of place and character (would you be surprised to learn that Kuvalda has “a crooked red nose” and “large and wolf-like yellow teeth”?), and it closes with a description of the heavens that doubles as an invocation of apocalypse:

In the lowering gray clouds, which hid the sky, there was something hard and merciless, as if they had gathered together to wash all the dirt off the face of this unfortunate, suffering, and sorrowful earth.

The “meaning” of the story is apparent from the first page; it is affirmed in every repetition of the phrase “creatures that once were men” (it crops up three times in twice as many lines at one point). Absolutism and capitalism have so thoroughly crushed the humanity of these characters that they can hardly be considered human anymore, and if you’re horrified by how they behave, look to the conditions that have created them. Historically speaking it’s hard to argue with as an assessment of Russia under Nicholas II, but it makes for rather heavy-handed fiction.

And yet obvious as it might be, I am thrilled by Gorky’s prose. He has an incredible sense for the morbidly comic that manifests itself on every page (“We are not good people, merchant!” one of Kuvalda’s tenants responds indignantly when Petunikoff addresses him as such), and his knack for unlocking his characters’ essential characteristics is uncanny. He understands that contradictory beliefs and moral inconsistency are the rule rather than the exception. He knows that sweaty labour and the din the industrial age can be as beautiful as a moonlit night on open water.

Given the politics that inevitably shapes who we read and who we forget, it is not particularly surprising that Gorky has fallen out of favour. And few writers are guilty of such an obscene betrayal of the humble worker as he: his championing of the senseless blood-letting that underwrote the construction of the Baltic-White Sea Canal alone lends a poetic justice to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. But a hundred and fifty years on from his birth, it seems unquestionable to me that Gorky’s prose animates some of the most terrifying questions around what it means to be a writer engaged with politics and active in the struggle to make the world more dignified and less cruel.

So perhaps it would be fitting to end with a once-famous passage that follows the climax of Creatures that Once Were Men:

Petunikoff smiled the smile of the conqueror, and went back into the dosshouse, but suddenly he stopped and trembled. At the door facing him stood an old man with a stick in his hand and a large bag on his back, a horrible old man in rags and tatters, which covered his bony figure. He bent under the weight of his burden, and lowered his head on his breast, as if he wished to attack the merchant.

“What are you? Who are you?” shouted Petunikoff.

“A man…” he answered in a hoarse voice. This hoarseness pleased and tranquillized Petunikoff, he even smiled.

“A man! And are there really men like you?” Stepping aside he let the old man pass. He went, saying slowly:

“Men are of various kinds…as God wills…There are worse than me…still worse…Yes…”

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