Maxim Gorky 1907

England and the Russian Revolution

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 7 July, 1907, pp. 420-424;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The following letter from Maxim Gorky appeared in “The Nation”: –

Sir, – You ask for my opinion concerning the intended entente cordiale with Russia, and the desire of the Russian Government to borrow money in England; you also wish to know what I consider would be the effect of such an entente on civilisation in Russia.

I should like you to consider these questions from the point of view of men who are convinced that human reason will finally triumph over animal instinct, still far too powerful in contemporary European society. That point of view cannot surely be foreign and incomprehensible to England, a nation of an ancient civilisation, and to Englishmen so proud of their love of justice.

Conceive the following situation; You have a neighbour, the controller of a great undertaking and the head of a large family; but he is a degenerate, as egotistic as an animal, and equally ignorant of the very principles of justice. He is incapable of work, and is guided solely by the instinct of self-preservation. Apart from this instinct, he has neither aim nor idea of duty. And, behold, his business is in disorder and on the verge of bankruptcy every day he seems to be approaching nearer and nearer to ruin. He is a tyrant in his home, a cruel and sensually diseased man, hated by and repugnant to all. But a crowd of people spiritually alive and eager to adorn life with their creative work stands around him, and yet he is hindering them from living, and crushing their lawful desires by his blind despotism. Incapable of high aims, lost to all human feeling, he is still physically strong. The knowledge of his approaching annihilation is no secret to him; on the contrary, it arms him with the courage of despair. He has no scruples, and fights like a wild beast. He already shows, however, signs of weariness, and the end, which he has so well deserved, is drawing near.

And, lo! in this crisis, the man turns to you with a cry for help, He hopes, with your aid, to bring a little order into his affairs, and to postpone the hour of his final destruction. He asks you for money, and offers any interest you demand, well knowing that it is not he who will be called upon to pay the debt.

Will you help such an odious individual, a man who sows cruelty and crime on earth; who oppresses all with his brutality, whose only desire is to prolong an irresponsible and infamous existence?

I cannot imagine any circumstance which would allow you to support a diseased tyrant in order that he may have further opportunities for oppressing the hundreds who depend upon him. The best thing that you could do for such a man would be to assist him to Bedlam, and the sooner the better. To preserve society from the madness of its abnormal members – this, I take it, is your duty.

The Russian Czars, from Paul onward, have, I think, been greater fanatics for power than any other individuals who have been destined by the “ grace of God “ to guide the fates of nations.

I would have you note, too, that the confidence of the Czars in their right to the throne has been shaken. As you know, Paul I., the ancestor of the present rulers of Russia, who was murdered by the nobles of his Court, was the son of an unknown father. That thought tormented him all his life, and finally drove him to madness. Alexander I. also suffered from the same doubt – whether he was entitled to his throne or not. In Nicholas I. that uncertainty found expression in the cruelty with which he crushed every movement against autocracy. These children of a father murdered by his nobles, could not but dread conspiracies, and that fear could not but be reflected in their mental attitude. The vacillation of Alexander II. between Liberalism and autocracy, I explain by that same doubt whether he were the Czar by right – by that same fear of losing his crown which dogged his father’s footsteps. Alexander II. weakened his power by introducing village and municipal self-government; but he had hardly taken this step before he began to strengthen it again, so terrified was he at his own act.

Alexander III. was a limited being, but in his own way an intelligent degenerate who understood the task before him. During the whole of his reign he strengthened the autocratic power, but he failed to grasp the fact that this form of government had had its day, and that such a form was a hindrance to progress and hurtful to the Russian people. What are the years of his rule but the acts of a maniac for power against right and law and everything which we call civilisation?

And Nicholas II., who slavishly follows the hard, foolish, and pernicious policy of his father, is an individual with the evident marks of cruelty, This is patent from his declarations concerning the numerous murders during his reign. Hysterical and feeble, his reign began with the catastrophe on the Chodinsky field; it continued with the incidents of January 9, with the Insurrection of Moscow, with the Field Courts-martial, and with numberless other acts contrary to civilisation, which have degraded society and destroyed thousands of Russians.

I am drawing your particular attention to the personal psychology of the last Romanoffs because, in my opinion, it plays a very prominent part in Russian history. The cruel obstinacy of Nicholas II and his struggle for power can only be explained in this way. And the contest is for ever driving him back into retrograde conservatism, in spite of the evident necessity for political freedom, for popular education on a broad and intelligent basis, so all-important for the spiritual and economic progress of Russia.

The position in Russia to-day is as follows: Your future ally, oh! you English, you who are so proud of your ancient civilisation, is drenched from head to foot in the blood of the Russian people, He is struggling with all his might, and without discrimination, to attain complete autocratic power, and to uphold a form of government which has clearly grown old. Spiritual and economic progress are at a standstill in the land. The autocratic form of government is only useful and convenient to the Czar, because it gives him unlimited power, and to the bureaucracy, because it enables them to rob without limit and without control.

The people have very little education, but they begin to understand the value of knowledge, and are greedy for it. The people are struggling for freedom to learn; the Czar for freedom to rule, and the bureaucracy for freedom to steal. The worn-out, the old, and the sick are contending with the young, who promise to invest their all in the peaceful treasury of mind and spirit. The struggle is of general European importance. If the Government temporarily conquers, a hearth will exist at your doors round which all sorts of catastrophes will gather, the moral influence of which will undoubtedly be hurtful to the development of civilisation in Europe.

Britons! you have a choice to make. Will you support the tyrant with his satellites and their anti-civilising plans, or will you support the growing young democracy, capable of life and rich in the strength of its spirit?

The struggle will undoubtedly last long, and will end either in the formation of a great Russian democracy, or in the complete ruin of Russia as a political entity. I am, of course, aware that the cause of the people will not be espoused; such a thing, it seems, has not yet occurred in history, and is not likely to occur. Indeed, Governments help each other to keep the people in subjection.

Has not even France, who has but lately emerged from her gigantic fight against autocracy, in the person of her bankers – her masters – stretched out her hand to aid the Russian Czar; and does she not thereby foster barbarism rather than civilisation? This is one of those acts which history will most assuredly condemn. And very probably you Englishmen will also contribute money to accommodate the Czar, and so uphold the hand of tyranny.

But right will triumph in the end. I myself believe in the victory of justice; I believe in the power of the Russian people; and Russia will, I think, either become the best democracy in Europe, or she will crumble and break in pieces, like unhappy Poland.

But I hear you exclaim: “You have your Duma; you have a constitution, and it is now surely possible to attain your ends by legitimate means.”

It seems to me hardly worth while to talk seriously about this. In the first place, the Duma is crippled, impotent, and powerless, and will undoubtedly be soon dissolved. When the Emperor a few weeks ago received a deputation of the Black Hundred, he said to one of the delegates who had earned an unenviable reputation for himself on account of his indiscreet behaviour in the Duma: “I wish all the deputies in the Duma were like you.”

And, again, no sooner had the Government, compelled by persistent demands of the more intelligent part of the population, decided to summon the Duma, than they immediately organised the less intelligent (those whom we call hooligans), and established the “Union of the Russian People,” an organisation designed to fight against any limitation being set to the rights of the Czar.

Of the activity of the “Union of the Russian People” you have already heard through the murders of Herzenstein and others; and you will hear of other murders.

These facts give every unprejudiced man the right to accuse the Russian Government of artificially stirring up anarchy in order to defend its own position.

The psychological influence of these pogroms, planned as they have been by the Government, must react on the sensitive spirit of contemporary Europe, and must tend to degrade mankind. You have heard that not long ago five priests, members of the Duma, were ordered either to resign their position or to leave the party to which they belonged.

This fact demonstrates the views of the Government on the liberty of the individual. It is impossible to talk in the same breath of a constitution and of courts-martial, of special laws, of torture, and of the other numerous violations of law committed by the Government itself. How can all these things be reconciled?

No do not let us talk about a Russian constitution. In this respect, even Persia seems to have anticipated Russia.

I would ask those Englishmen who are in favour of this alliance: With whom do you wish to make an alliance? There are two Russias. The one, the Emperor Nicholas, the bureaucracy, and the “Union of the Russian People” – some ten thousand of the lowest classes, led by evil and ruthless people; the other, about a hundred million Slays, and about fifty millions belonging to the other nationalities which compose the Russian Empire. All this mass with one accord hates the Czar, and all those who are with him and those who are for him.

Which Russia do you consider to be the real Russia, capable of life, of work, and of that civilisation which you so love and cherish?

May 30, 1907.