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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 34, New Delhi, August 7, 2021

An Enigma Called Gorky | M R Narayan Swamy

Saturday 7 August 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


by M R Narayan Swamy

Was Maxim Gorky a Stalinist stooge? Did he embrace Bolshevism fully? Was he an apologist for Stalin’s crimes against fellow Russians? The questions have dogged the eminent and controversial Soviet writer for long. More than 150 years after his birth, there are no clear answers.

Satyanarayan Sinha, an Indian revolutionary who went to Moscow to learn how to oust the British but quickly became disenchanted with the Soviet realities, met Gorky in southern Italy where the latter was living in exile. Gorky greeted the Indian like an old friend, eager to know more about an Italian man Sinha had befriended so that the writer could characterize him in a novel.

Sinha told Gorky that he wanted to learn how to drive out the British from India. “Only in Soviet Russia you will be able to master that technique,” said the Russian. Gorky added that until a Soviet vessel was found to take him to Moscow, Sinha must go to Berlin and contact a “League against Imperialism”.

In his book “Adrift on the Ganga” (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan), first published in 1964, Sinha quotes Gorky as saying: “I must help you to come forward in your life’s battles so that you may prove helpful in making India free. That may create a better world, worthy of a real man.”

In Berlin, Sinha met Virendranath Chhattopadhyaya, called ‘Chatto’ by his colleagues. However, relations between the two Indians soured fast. Chatto viewed Mahatma Gandhi as “a slave of Indian mill owners”. When Sinha argued that he did not agree, Chatto accused him of leading “a bourgeois life” in Berlin and said his understanding betrayed “degenerated bourgeois philosophy”. Chatto, a brother of Sarojini Naidu, was a member of the German Communist Party. He later lived in Moscow for many years. Arrested during Stalin’s Great Purge in July 1937, Chatto was executed on September 2 that year.

One of the first Russians Sinha befriended while sailing to Leningrad was Tanya, who worked on a ship and who generously introduced him to her friend Vera, a tourist guide. But before the friendship could deepen, Soviet authorities took away Tanya for interrogation to the GPU Headquarters at Lubyanka in Moscow. A panicky Vera explained what had happened: “She had got perhaps too friendly with you... You are a foreigner and, in the eyes of our State secret police, every foreigner who sets his foot on Soviet soil must be an imperialist spy.”

Sinha immediately took a midnight train to Moscow.

At KUTV, the University for the Workers of the East, Sinha got into trouble and was questioned by the Soviet secret service, which let him go on the condition that he spies on other students. A worried Sinha knew that Gorky was also in Moscow and quickly traced him. Gorky, Sinha wrote, “had aged a lot since I saw him last at Sorrento (in Italy) several years ago.”

When a bitter Sinha briefed Girky about all the happenings, the writer stunned the Indian by saying: “My desire was to put you in Lenin’s Russia. Unfortunately, the very soul of that Russia is getting wounded by the present ruler. If I speak frankly, I feel I will become the first victim of his liquidation list. However, in spite of all you have suffered, do not hate the Russian people. They have nothing in common with the present Soviet dictator who is after the blood of millions of unfortunate people simply to safeguard his power over the Kremlin throne.”

Gorky, however, promised Sinha that since it was he who told him to go to Moscow, “it is my responsibility to get you to return home safely.” He promised to speak to a senior officer in the GPU. Gorky’s intervention worked. Sinha was never again called to the interrogation centre.

Sinha managed to meet up later with Tanya, who had found a job in a school. Tanya told him not to feel guilty for the troubles she had to endure. She said that when she took him to a Soviet building in Leningrad, in anger she murmured, unfortunately loudly, that Soviet bureaucrats were worse than those in capitalist countries. “This was reported (to an) officer by his doorman. The officer in turn informed the GPU and they had to take action.”

Tanya added: “No crime is considered worse in the Soviet Union than criticizing its officials and the leader. Thousands, hundreds of thousands have been tortured and shot dead on the mere suspicion that they were anti-Stalin.”

Sinha writes that Johnson, a trade union worker from Madras, was sent to a GPU ‘hospital’ where he died — after being accused of “anti-Stalin activities”. Another Indian who suffered similarly was known as Levin, who Sinha says was actually a Sikh from the Gaddar party. Levin was sent to Siberia condemned to hard manual labour. Sinha successfully made it back to India.

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