Maxim Gorky was trumpeted as ‘the great proletarian writer’ by Soviet critics, who considered his novel The Mother one of the most significant books of the 20th century. Completed in 1906, after Gorky had already been recognised internationally, it is based on the events of 1902, when the workers of Sormovo, a factory settlement near Gorky’s native city of Nizhny Novgorod, held what we’d now call a ‘mass anti-capitalist protest’. The demonstration was brutally dispersed and, after a trial that stirred Russia, six of its organisers were sentenced to life in exile. The October Revolution was still 15 years away.
The book starts with a description of the settlement’s bleak life, filled with hard work and hard drinking. Pavel Vlasov, a young worker living with his mother, Nilovna, wants to find a way out. To him, that means learning: the facts about the world and, ultimately, the truth. When his friends begin gathering at the Vlasovs’, to read books and talk about the injustice of the existing order (their self education being ‘a step in a long... staircase leading to somewhere in the distance and slowly taking people higher’) Nilovna is worried. Her son and his comrades are socialists; the same people who, she’s heard, killed the Tsar. Yet she soon realises that theirs is a just cause, and starts helping them in their work.
The Bolsheviks praised the novel as a paean to socialist ideals, but its message encompasses more than mere class struggle. It is full of Biblical allusions: the revolutionaries are portrayed as saints, ready for martyrdom; Pavel speaks with ‘the ardour of a disciple’; the Gospels are quoted to convey ideas about truth-searching. ‘They’ve deceived us with God too!’ says one of the characters before leaving the factory to go around villages, determined to open people’s eyes to the way they are being exploited: by the priests, the authorities, the ‘gentlefolk’. ‘People won’t believe the naked word — suffering’s needed, the word has to be washed in blood,’ he warns, his words sounding especially ominous now, after a century of revolutions.
The book’s central theme is the mother’s awakening from a life of fear and ignorance: ‘Everything’s evidently been beaten out of me, my soul’s been boarded up tight, it’s gone blind and can’t hear...’ Among the best scenes are those in which Nilovna stealthily teaches herself to read again, remembering the letters she once learned as a child. Listening to Pavel’s incendiary speech at the trial, she sees in it ‘the pure word’ that has to be brought to the people. In a powerful final scene, when gendarmes arrest her, she finds her own voice and the courage to cry out: ‘They can’t drown reason with blood!’
Rereading The Mother in Hugh Aplin’s new translation, I found it surprisingly topical. The eternal themes aside, two things are particularly striking. First, that Nilovna, perceived by everyone (including herself) as an old woman, is 40. Second, that the word ‘socialism’, which Pavel and his comrades did their utmost to consecrate with blood, recently emerged as Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary’s most searched-for term.