Maxim Gorky (A. M. Peshkov) is considered the founder of Soviet literature.
All in that city was strange, incomprehensible. Churches in great number pointed their many tinted steeples toward the sky, in gleaming colours; but the walls and the chimneys of the factories rose still higher, and the temples were crushed between the massive façades of commercial houses, like marvellous flowers sprung up among the ruins, out of the dust. And when the bells called the faithful to prayer, their brazen sounds, sliding along the iron roofs, vanished, leaving no traces in the narrow gaps which separated the houses.
They were always large, and sometimes beautiful, these dwellings. Deformed people, ciphers, ran about like grey mice in the tortuous streets from morning till evening; and their eyes, full of covetousness, looked for bread or for some distraction; other men, placed at the crossways, watched with a vigilant and ferocious air, that the weak should, without murmuring, submit themselves to the strong. The strong were the rich; everyone believed that money alone gives power and liberty. All wanted power because all were slaves. The luxury of the rich begot the envy and hate of the poor; no one knew any finer music than the ring of gold; that is why each was the enemy of his neighbour, and cruelty reigned master.
Sometimes the sun shone over the city, but the life therein was always wan, and the people like shadows. At night they lit a mass of joyous lights; and then famishing women went out to the streets to sell their caresses to the highest bidder. Everywhere floated an odour of victuals, and the sullen and voracious look of the people grew. Over the city hovered a groan of misery, stifled, without strength to make itself heard.
Every one led an irksome, unquiet life; a general hostility was the rule. A few citizens only considered themselves just, but these were the most cruel, and their ferocity provoked that of the herd.
All wanted to live; and no one knew or could follow freely the pathway of his desires; like an insatiable monster, the present enveloped in its powerful and vigorous arms the man who marched toward the future, and in that slimy embrace sapped away his strength.
Full of anguish and perplexity, the man paused, powerless before the hideous aspect of this life; with its thousands of eyes, infinitely sad in their expression, it looked into his heart, asking him for it knew not what — and then the radiant images of the future died in his soul; a groan out of the powerless of the man mingled in the discordant chorus of lamentations and tears from poor human creatures tormented by life.
Tedium and inquietude reigned everywhere, and sometimes terror. And the dull and sober city, the stone buildings atrociously lined one against the other, shutting in the temples, were for men a prison, rebuffing the rays of the sun.
And the music of life was smothered by the cry of suffering and rage, by the whisper of dissimulated hate, by the threatening bark of cruelty, by the voluptuous cry of violence.
In the sullen agitation caused by trial and suffering, in the feverish struggle of misery, in the vile slime of egotism, in the subsoils of the houses wherein vegetated Poverty, the creator of riches, solitary dreamers full of faith in Man, strangers to all, prophets of seditions, moved about like sparks issued from some far-off hearthstone of justice. Secretly they brought into these wretched holes tiny fertile seeds of a doctrine simple and grand — and sometimes rudely, with lightnings in their eyes, and sometimes mild and tender, they sowed this clear and burning truth in the sombre hearts of these slaves, transformed into mute, blind instruments by the strength of the rapacious, by the will of the cruel.
And these sullen beings, these oppressed ones, listened without much belief to the music of the new words — the music for which their hearts had long been waiting. Little by little they lifted up their heads, and tore the meshes of the web of lies wherewith their oppressors had enwound them.
In their existence, made up of silent and contained rage, in their hearts envenomed by numberless wrongs, in their consciences encumbered by the dupings of the wisdom of the strong, in this dark and laborious life, all penetrated with the bitterness of humiliation, had resounded a simple word:
It was not a new word; they had heard it and pronounced it themselves; but until then it had seemed to them void of sense, like all other words dulled by usage, and which one may forget without losing anything.
But now this word, strong and clear, had another sound; a soul was singing in it — the facets of it shone brilliant as a diamond. The wretched accepted this word, and at first uttered it gently, cradling it in their hearts like a mother rocking her new-born child and admiring it.
And the more they searched the luminous soul of the word, the more fascinating it seemed to them.
“Comrade,” said they.
And they felt that this word had come to unite the whole world, to lift all men up to the summits of liberty and bind with new ties, the strong ties of mutual respect, respect for the liberties of others in the name of one’s own liberty.
When this word had engraved itself upon the hearts of the slaves, they ceased to he slaves; and one day they announced their transformation to the city in this great human formula:
“I will not.”
Then life was suspended, for it is they who are the motor force of life, they and no other. The water supply stopped, the fire went out, the city was plunged in darkness.
The masters began to tremble like children. Fear invaded the hearts of the oppressors. Suffocating in the fumes of their own dejection, disconcerted and terrified by the strength of the revolt, they dissimulated the rage which they felt against it.
The phantom of famine rose up before them, and their children wailed plaintively in the darkness.
The houses and the temples, enveloped in shadow, melted into an inanimate chaos of iron and stone; a menacing silence filled the streets with a clamminess as of death; life ceased, for the force which created it had become conscious of itself; and enslaved humanity had found the magic and invincible word to express its will; it had enfranchised itself from the yoke; with its own eyes it had seen its might — the might of the creator.
These days were days of anguish to the rulers, to those who considered themselves the masters of life; each night was as long as thousands of nights, so thick was the gloom, so timidly shone the few fires scattered through the city. And then the monster city, created by the centuries, gorged with human blood, showed itself in all its shameful weakness; it was but a pitiable mass of stone and wood. The blind windows of the houses looked upon the street with a cold and sullen air, and out on the highway marched with valiant step the real masters of life. They, too, were hungry, more than the others, perhaps; but they were used to it, and the suffering of their bodies was not so sharp as the suffering of the old masters of life; it did not extinguish the fire in their souls. They glowed with the consciousness of their own strength, the presentiment of victory sparkled in their eyes.
They went about in the streets of the city which had been their narrow and sombre prison, wherein they had been overwhelmed with contempt, wherein their souls had been loaded with abuse, and they saw the great importance of their work, and thus was unveiled to them the sacred right they had to become the masters of life, its creators and its law-givers. And the life-giving word of union presented itself to them with a new face, with a blinding clearness:
There among lying words it rang out boldly, as the joyous harbinger of the time to come, of a new life open to all in the future — far or near? They felt that it depended upon them whether they advanced towards liberty or themselves deferred its coming.
The prostitute who, but the evening before, was but a hungry beast, sadly waiting on the muddy pavement to be accosted by someone who would buy her caresses, the prostitute, too, heard this word, but was undecided whether to repeat it. A man the like of whom she had never seen till then approached her, laid his hand upon her shoulder and said to her in an affectionate tone:
And she gave a little embarrassed smile, ready to cry with the joy her wounded heart experienced for the first time. Tears of pure gaiety shone in her eyes, which, the night before, had looked at the world with the stupid and insolent expression of a starving animal. In all the streets of the city the outcasts celebrated the triumph of their reunion with the great family of workers of the entire world; and the dead eyes of the houses looked on with an air more and more cold and menacing.
The beggar to whom but the night before an obol was thrown, price of the compassion of the well-fed, the beggar also, heard this word; and it was the first alms which aroused a feeling of gratitude in his poor heart gnawed by misery.
A coachman, a great big fellow whose patrons struck him that their blows might be transmitted to his thin-flanked, weary horse; this man, imbruted by the noise of wheels upon the pavement, said, smiling, to a passer by:
He was frightened at his own words. He took the reins in his hands, ready to start, and looked at the passer by, the joyous smile not yet effaced from his big face.
The other cast a friendly glance at him and answered, shaking his head:
“Thanks, comrade; I will go on foot; I am not going far.”
“Ah, the fine fellow!” exclaimed the coachman enthusiastically; he stirred in his seat, winking his eyes gaily, and started off somewhere with a great clatter.
The people went in groups crowded together on the pavements, and the great word destined to unite the world burst out more and more often among them, like a spark:
A policeman, bearded, fierce, and filled with the consciousness of his own importance, approached the crowd surrounding an old orator at the corner of a street, and, after having listened to the discourse, he said slowly:
“Assemblages are interdicted. Disperse.”
And after a moment’s silence, lowering his eyes, he added, in a lower tone:
The pride of young combatants was depicted in the faces of those who carried the word in their hearts, who had given it flesh and blood and the appeal to union; one felt that the strength they so generously poured into this living word was indestructible, inexhaustible.
Here and there blind troops of armed men, dressed in grey, gathered and formed ranks in silence; it was the fury of the oppressors preparing to repulse the wave of justice.
And in the narrow streets of the immense city, between the cold and silent walls raised by the hands of ignored creators, the noble belief in man and in fraternity grew and ripened.
Sometimes in one corner, sometimes in another, the fire burst out. Soon this fire would become the conflagration destined to enkindle the earth with the ardent sentiment of kinship, uniting all its peoples; destined to consume and reduce to ashes the rage, hate, and cruelty by which we are mutilated; the conflagration which will embrace all hearts, melt them into one — the heart of the world, the heart of beings noble and just — into one united family of workers.
In the streets of the dead city, created by slaves, in the streets of the city where cruelty reigned, faith in humanity and in victory over self and over the evil of the world, grew and ripened.
And in the vague chaos of a dull and troubled existence, a simple word, profound as the heart, shone like a star, like a light guiding toward the future: