Maxim Gorky’s novel The Confession embodies the philosophy of the “God-building” movement that arose in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century. The Confession expresses Gorky’s belief in humanity when strong individuals are connected to each other. It also reflects Gorky’s disgust with injustice, hypocrisy, and conditions that degrade human dignity, and his faith in human potential. The Confession gives insight into some compelling Russian and wider human themes explored by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorky himself. These include the roles of the church, the state, and individuals, ubiquitous human questions of love, fear and death, and the responsibilities people have for one another.
Maxim Gorky’s The Confession
Maxim Gorky’s 1909 novel The Confession caused great distress to the Russian Orthodox Church, to Leo Tolstoy and to Vladimir Lenin – a remarkable distinction for a major Russian literary work. The Confession is the story of Matvei, who becomes a wanderer through Russia seeking a philosophy to live by. Its historical interest is the insights it provides into the Bogostroitelstvo or “God-building” movement that emerged in Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The immediate precursor to the God-Building philosophy was the Bogoiskateli or “God-seeker” movement. This was founded after the failure of the 1905 Russian revolution by, among others, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev. The God-seekers sought a synthesis between God and man, heaven and earth, spirit and flesh (Kaun, 1932).
In contrast to the God-seekers, the God-builders considered Christ to be nothing more than a focus of collective human energy and regarded early Christianity as collective God-building. They rejected orthodox Christian tenets of a God in heaven, a divine Christ, and a sacred church that could interpret God to man. They also rejected atheism and dialectical materialism that denied all validity in religious belief. The God-builders contended that human will and collective spirit in effect “created God”, that is that people could create, through their willpower, a God concept that was powerful, transcendental and yet ultimately human. The God-builders shared with many Gnostic sects a view of inner spirituality, that is that “the Kingdom of God was within.”
Maxim Gorky was born Alexei Peshkov in Nizhni-Novgorad in 1868 and died in 1936. He published his first story, Makar Chudra, in 1892 and was encouraged by writers such as Chekhov and Korolenko. Gorky grew up in a Russia dominated by an autocratic Tsarist system, the Russian Orthodox religion, and a culture that often involved violence, drunkenness and misogyny. Some of Gorky’s finest pieces exposed violence against women and the Jewish minority. Gorky was politically active in anti-Tsarist movements leading up to the failed 1905 revolution and then through World War One and the Bolshevik revolution. The Confession anticipates later debates in Bolshevism and in the early Soviet Union about the role of religion and what might replace it.
Gorky had an uneven relationship with the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Government and retained his intellectual independence despite their patronage. In his 1930s diaries Gorky compared Stalin to a “monstrous flea” that propaganda and mass fear had enlarged out of all proportion (Spiridonova, 1995). It is almost certain the NKVD murdered Gorky’s son, Maxim Peshkov, in 1934 and very possible that Gorky himself was murdered by them.
The Confession’s political and literary context
Religious belief in Russia had pagan and Gnostic as well as Orthodox roots and was often entwined with political challenges to Tsarism. In the Gnostic tradition there are links between Satanism and the powers of the state and of the church itself. Russian Orthodox Church reforms in the seventeenth century triggered “the Great Schism” between reformers and the Old Believers. Hundreds of thousands of Old Believers committed suicide or fled to remote regions rather than conform. They resisted Tsarism and the reformed Church and were prominent in supporting rebellions led by Cossack leaders such as Razin and Pugachev. Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a ferment of competing philosophies, religions and political movements and these played out in Russian literature of the time, including in the works of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Gorky.
Very commonly Russian literature (overtly or covertly) adopted a political, religious or philosophical stance on economic and social problems Russian people were facing. Writers “took sides” among the movements that were addressing Russia’s problems. For example, the Doukhobors were Russian Gnostic communitarians who rejected the church and state, refused to pay taxes or serve in the military. Tolstoy was sympathetic to them and developed his own Christian pacifist philosophy that challenged Tsarism and saw him excommunicated from the Orthodox Church.
Tolstoy’s religious beliefs are recounted in a number of his writings including his A Confession and The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. The latter is infused with Gnostic themes and was popular with early revolutionaries, including Lenin’s wife Krupskaya. Tolstoy reacted badly to Gorky’s The Confession and when reading it is reported to have emitted sounds of shock and alarm. In a letter to Chekhov, Gorky gave his view on Tolstoy’s beliefs:
“I have always felt he was an atheist although I could never believe it. But when I heard him speak of Christ and saw his eyes – too intelligent for a believer – I knew he was indeed an atheist and a very profound one.”
(Holtzman, p. 190).
Tolstoy professed strong Christian beliefs and yet was morbidly obsessed with death. He once told Chekhov: “Once a man has learned to think, no matter what he may think about he is always thinking of his death.” (Kaun, p. 301). In contrast, for Chekhov life was the only reality and death merely an irrelevant “non-life”. He was drinking champagne in the last moments before his death. However, Chekhov was socially conscious rather than a self-centered hedonist. He exposed the terrible conditions of convicts and their families in the Sakhalin and campaigned for penal reform. When Gorky’s election to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in March 1902 was overturned by the Tsarist authorities Chekhov and Korolenko resigned in protest from the Academy.
Dostoevsky sought to reconcile his Christian philosophy with the harshness of Russian life. At times he seemed to question fundamental Christian tenets and there are agnostic threads in his work. He wrote in The Possessed that “God is the synthetic personality of the whole people”, a view resonant with God-building. However, in The Karazomov Brothers Dostoevsky argued the need for a higher God and canonical law that told men how to behave and what was and was not permitted.
In The Heavenly Christmas Tree Dostoevsky writes of a little boy of about six whose mother has died at Christmas time. He has no one to look after him and wanders through the city looking through windows at wealthy families enjoying their Christmas parties. He is shunned by all around him, bullied, and ends up lying down to sleep and dying of cold and malnutrition. Dostoevsky then writes in a dream-like way of the child finding a Christmas party where he is welcomed in the company of other orphans around a heavenly Christmas tree with love and warmth around for all who have perished from a lack of love on earth. The story finishes: “as for Christ’s Christmas tree, I cannot tell you whether that could have happened or not” – leaving open whether the story ends with another dead child or one in heaven.
Gorky was not prepared to accept social conditions leading to children dying and to then idly speculate on the possibilities of heaven. His response to The Heavenly Christmas Tree was his story About a little boy and little girl who did not freeze to death. This depicts two children begging for money on Christmas Eve. Gorky assures us that, unlike in other popular stories, these children will not freeze to death at Christmas – rather they will die in a far more ordinary way…
The Tsarist system, Orthodox religion and challenges to it
The Tsarist system conflated economic and political power and was strengthened by the Orthodox Church’s spiritual validation and the illiteracy and conservatism of the Russian peasantry. Social revolutionary movements of the time, including Marxism, were commonly disparaging of religion, treating it as superstition, an “opium of the masses” and means of social control.
However, Marxism, Bolshevism and their later expression in the Stalinistic system drew on religious imagery and psychology. In the eyes of some Russian Gnostic and spiritual writers the Bolshevik revolution had eschatological significance, portending the arrival of a new form of Christianity. Nikolai Klinev (1887 – 1937) and Sergei Esenin (1895 – 1925) were among those who welcomed the revolution in such terms. Ironically, Klinev died on the way to a labour camp in 1937 and Esenin committed suicide in 1925, believing that “dark forces” had usurped the revolution.
Alexander Blok (1880 – 1921) was a student of Gnosticism who supported the Bolsheviks and whose poem The Twelve had an invisible Christ leading a revolutionary march. Gorky and “left Bolsheviks” such as A. V. Lunacharsky (1875 – 1933) were convinced socialism could have the force of a human religion and inspire individuals to work for a higher good. Significantly, it was Lunacharsky and V. D. Bonch-Bruevich (1873 – 1955), a scholar of Russian Gnostic sects, who are credited with the “cult of Lenin” that played such a dominant role in Soviet life after Lenin’s death in 1924.
The Bolshevik philosopher Alexander Bogdanov (1873 – 1928) in his three volume work Empiriomonism (1904 – 06) contended that the socialist party of the future would demand a new approach to the relationship between the individual and society and to ethics, science, human values and art. Bogdanov’s work included some God-building themes. Lenin’s response was his 1909 book Materialism and Emperio-criticism which argued that human perceptions reflected an objective material reality.
Gorky’s views had been shaped by his wanderings through Russia, his hostility to Tsarism and the Russian Orthodox Church and his dislike of Russia’s wealthier classes, including the rising capitalist class. His views as they developed started to conflict with those of Lenin. Lenin explicitly attacked God-building in letters to Gorky in February-April 1908 and again in November-December 1913. In 1913 a debate had been triggered by a play based on Dostoevsky’s The Possessed being staged in a Marxist-aligned theatre. In response to the “God-seeking” flavour in this work, Gorky in the journal Russkoye Slovo argued:
“As to God-seeking, it is best to let it go for a while … why seek what isn’t?…One does not seek Gods, one creates them.”
This God-building argument (that man can “create God”) infuriated Lenin who wrote a vituperative letter to Gorky attacking God-building and linking his attack to The Confession. Gorky replied:
“God is a complex idea worked out by a tribe, or a nation, or humanity, which awaken and organize social feelings, aiming to link the individual with society, and to bridle zoological individualism.”
Lenin’s thinking was that of a rational materialist who believed in the creation of a new secular man. In 1907 the Mercure de France had sent out a questionnaire on famous writers’ religious beliefs. Gorky’s reply was to attack mainstream religions and advocate a “new man” rather than subordination to a God that lay beyond man. This seemed consistent with Lenin’s views. However, Lenin and Gorky came into conflict when Gorky developed in The Confession the view that a “new man” also required the creation by humanity of something higher than the individual, even if this “higher authority” or “God” was itself a human creation.
The Confession and its major themes
The Confession is a first person account of Matvei, who is abandoned soon after his birth. He is adopted by a sexton, Larion, and later by Titoff, an employee on an estate of serfs owned by an absentee landlord. Matvei, like Gorky himself, is a seeker for truth who learns as he travels. He meets other kindred souls on his way, including a young boy who tells him “I’m not a tree, I don’t have to live my whole life on the same spot.” An old pilgrim he meets says “it is not right to say to man, ‘stand here,’ but always, ‘go farther and farther.’”
In his journeys Matvei meets many people of different religious and philosophical suasions and is shocked by the poverty and lack of human dignity he sees. Most overtly religious people he meets are hypocritical, self-serving and greedy. They are instrumentalist in their relationships with others and even with God. Matvei compares monks arguing over money to crows squabbling with each other in a cemetery. He hears a man praying to God to heal his wounds and says to himself: “Here was a man who had mistaken God for a doctor.” Matvei notes that religious people at night “creep before their God, while in the day they walk pitilessly over the breasts of men…They walk upon earth like spies of God and judges of men…”
Even monks themselves are often disdainful of Christian beliefs. An openly sinful monk, Father Anthony, tells Matvei that man is an accident in life and that “the soul is made of blood”. Matvei encounters several atheists, including one who tells him that:
“ …there are no Gods. It is a dark wood – religion, churches and all such things are a dark wood, where robber barons live. It is a hoax.”
Matvei meets admirable characters, including wise humanistic wanderers, threadbare philosophers, prostitutes and working people in whom Matvei perceives future potential if they can overcome their isolation from each other and create collective power. From his interactions with such people and his own self-awareness Matvei develops the philosophy that God is a concept created by man. In the same way that God is seen as all-powerful so too can man be, given the right conditions. However to do so people must become strong individuals and understand themselves.
Individualism and connection with others
Gorky believed that individuals must stand up for themselves rather than depend on others for their security. In his story Cain and Artem a weak, victimized Jew nurses back to health a big, strong bully. The bully is grateful for a time, and then forgets his gratitude. The story’s theme is that a relationship based on gratitude cannot be relied on, any more than King Lear could buy loyalty by giving away his lands. People, especially the vulnerable, must take care of themselves and not depend on others for protection. The strongest characters in Gorky’s works are individuals who think for themselves, who refuse to adopt uncritically the views of others, who see things as they are, stand up for themselves and do what it takes to survive in a harsh world. Matvei meets a woman, Christa, who he later fathers a child with. He reflects that for the first time in his life he has met someone who has no fear in her soul and is ready to fight for herself with all her strength.
Throughout The Confession there is a contrast between extreme forms of individualism (and associated obsession with one’s own soul) and connectedness between people and with nature. Disconnected individualism is associated with fear, hypocrisy, and instrumentalist attitudes to others.
In The Confession fear is seen as somehow untruthful or illusionary. A lame soldier tells Matvei that “where ever there is less fear there is more truth”. Gorky’s thesis is that people must be connected with one another such that individual selfishness is replaced with a concern for others and a merging of individual consciousness into that of the whole. The darker characters in The Confession are concerned only for their own individual selves, are dependent on themselves alone and therefore are lonely. This loneliness leads to fear, including a fear of death that results from these individuals seeing nothing enduring beyond themselves. Such people believe only they truly exist and others only exist in relation to them. Their relationship to others therefore becomes instrumentalist. When such disconnected individuals contemplate their death they see the world dying with them. In contrast, for the outward-centered and connected one’s own life is a small part of something wider.
Man’s “creation of God”
Gorky in The Confession seeks to replace belief in a higher God that created man with the view that God is itself created by individuals who achieve spiritual power by collectively acting together in ways that transcend individual limitations. This collective “creation of God” overcomes individual fear because it links individuals to a wider sea of humanity and to future human potential. This is the heart of what Gorky and others were seeking to build in the God-building movement.
A more contemporary way of interpreting Gorky’s thinking could draw on memetic theories of consciousness developed by Dawkins (1989), Daniel Dennett and especially Susan Blackmore (Blackmore,1999). This contends that human consciousness is a creation of memes (that is ideas, beliefs and so on that are passed on from person by person by imitation), and that memes cluster together into “memeplexes.” These memes and memeplexes reinforce each other and dominantly or wholly create our sense of self. The sense of “I” is a creation of memes rather than the “I” reflecting a locatable and tangible “soul”. In this theory, the sense of a self or soul that is autonomous and mortal is an illusion that leads to fear of death. In contrast, when individuals are part of a wider connected fabric linked to others and to future generations fear diminishes or disappears.
The role of God-building concepts in helping mankind come to terms with mortality is an important theme within The Confession.
Mikhail, an older man who Matvei meets argues that God:
“…is created from the flames of the sweet consciousness of the spiritual relationship of each towards all. Temples are not created from gravel and debris, but from strong, whole stones. Isolation is the breaking away from the parental whole. It is a sign of the weakness and the blindness of the soul, for in the whole is immortality and in isolation inevitable slavery and darkness and inconsolable yearning and death.”
In The Confession Matvei meets an old man who is obsessed with death. The old man tells Matvei:
“Death is all powerful. Even Christ could not escape it. ‘Let this cup pass from me,’ He said, but the Heavenly Father did not let it pass. He could not. There is a saying: ‘Death appears and the sun disappears,’ you see.”
Matvei reflects on the old man’s obsession with death and observes:
“I have seen many such people who run away from death and foolishly play hide-and-seek with it…they are all Godless; their souls are black within, like the pipe of a stove, and fear whistles through them even in the fairest weather…They have the name of God on their lips but they love no one and have no desire for anything. They are occupied with only one thing. To pass on their fear to others…”
In contrast with the old man’s death obsession Matvei contrasts the abundant nature around him where “all life surged.” A theme within the novel is the contrast between the beauty of nature and the ugliness of human conditions of life. Admirable characters in The Confession are close to nature. Larion loves birds while a wise old pilgrim Matvei meets is solicitous even of insects. Matvei muses that horses are intelligent enough to sense the sadness of the human condition. At one stage he compares the beauty of the surrounding countryside with the dark lives led by monks in a monastery, where:
“…black men in long garments hid themselves and rotted away, living empty days without love, without joy, in senseless labour and in mire.”
Underlying God-building is the view that man’s powers become inexhaustible and unlimited when fearless and self-aware individuals are connected to others. This resonates with a theme in The Karazamov Brothers that people are ultimately responsible for one another, and even for the crimes others commit. This connection to others allows individuals to overcome their limits through collective will.
Gorky associates the separation of individuals from each other with the social problems Russia was facing. Observing the misery around him Matvei comments:
“…with unspeakable horror I saw that there was no room for God in this chaos which separated man from man. There was no room to manifest His strength, no spot to place His foot.”
Gorky sees collective human will and relationships of individuals with each other as political as well as spiritual in nature and as challenging to wealthy and powerful Russian people. Matvei notes that powerful people feel and fear the mood of “the people”:
“They have a fine ear for this, like thieves who hear the careful movements of the awakened owner whose house they have come to rob in the night, and they know that when the people shall open its eyes life will change and its face turn toward heaven. The people have no God so long as they live divided and hostile to one another.”
Matvei speculates that the creation of God was the eternal will of the whole people and it is this “centralization of the will of the people into one thought which arouses the anxiety of the guardians of the law and makes them fear.”
The power arising from humans working together
The argument developed in The Confession is therefore that when people think and act collectively they “create God” and that God is created by man to “illumine the darkness of their existence.” However when people are divided by class lines “into slaves and masters, into little bits and pieces; when they lost their thought and their will-power, God was lost, God was destroyed.”
Matvei meets a wise old pilgrim who says:
“Man…is divided into two classes: the first are the eternal creators of God; the second are forever slaves of an overpowering desire to master the former and reign over the earth. They have captured power, and it is they who maintain that God exists outside of man; that He is an enemy of the people, a judge and a master of the earth…the real Christ is against them, and is against the mastering of man by his neighbour.”
The old pilgrim argues that “the creators of God are the people…They are the great martyrs – greater than the ones the church has praised.”
Throughout Gorky’s writings is the theme of man’s inexhaustible ability to overcome all troubles and limitless capacity for creation and mastery. Gorky’s poetic essay Man and other pieces such as the fairy tale Death and the girl (where love conquers death) epitomize this view. Gorky’s views resonate with a Marxist pamphlet written before 1917 and later reissued by the Soviet government declaring that man was destined to “take possession of the universe and extend his species into distant cosmic regions, taking over the whole solar system.”
Gorky attributes to people’s collective will the ability to create a God-like force that has material effects in the world. People effectively “make God up” in order to fulfill social or spiritual functions that require validation by a higher authority. Gorky was impressed by research into thought transference, wrote often of the “miraculous power of thought” and expressed hope that one day reason and science would end fear. He wrote “the time will come when all popular will shall once again amalgamate in one point. Then an invincible and miraculous power will emerge and God will be resurrected.”
At one stage in The Confession Matvei speaks to a small crowd of about fifty people and is struck by how the faces seemed to merge into:
“…one long, sorrowful face, thoughtful and strong-willed, dumb in words but bold in secret thoughts, and in its hundred eyes I saw an unquenchable fire related to my soul…”
In a later scene a crowd’s collective will power restores a crippled girl’s ability to walk. Having observed this miracle, Matvei sits in a forest above a lake exulting in feelings of human power and uplifting nature. Towards the end of The Confession there is an image of the beauty of the earth and man as master of it. Matvei says:
“I saw the earth, my mother, in space between the stars, and brightly she gazed out with her ocean eyes into the distance and the depths. I saw her like a full bowl of bright red, incessantly seething, human blood, and I saw her master, the all-powerful, immortal people.”
Matvei resolves then to teach people the one and true path to the cause “of the universal creation of God.” The final section of The Confession refers to “the immortal people” as:
“… my God, the creator of all Gods…There shall be no God but you, for you are the one God, the creator of miracles”.
The Confession was widely read at the time yet has now faded to become one of the least known of Gorky’s works. It alienated the religious authorities of the time, Lenin and atheistic Bolsheviks. The Soviet authorities popularized those Gorky writings that exposed the miseries of Tsarist times and suppressed or let fall out of print those that did not serve their cause. Gorky never compromised his views or failed to express them in what were dangerous times. His reputation endures because of his vivid portrayals of Russian life, his love of truth, and his belief in a human life that goes beyond the narrow concerns of individuals who are isolated from one another; a life that also has a higher spiritual content.
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