Gor′kij’s Italian Fairytales and Gogol′’s Rome

In 1906-1917 Gor′kij was particularly attracted to the genre of “fairytales” (“skazki”) writing both his Skazki ob Italii and his Russkie skazki. The latter are satiric tales in the grotesque tradition of Saltykov-Ščedrin’s fairytales and Dostoevskij’s “Bobok,” i.e., not “realistic.” The former never introduce any fantastic elements, yet present larger than life characters ruled by superhuman passions, as well as a land drenched in golden sunlight. Also at that time, Gor′kij wrote the cycle of sketches Po rusi. Očerki are by definition realistic, but these contain many (hidden) fairytale elements. Thus he seems determined at this time to blur the borderlines between the real and the ideal, as also the epigraph to the Italian Fairytales indicates. Taken from H. Ch. Andersen, it states that the “best fairytales are those created by life itself.” In short, we see Gor′kij working on the principles of socialist realism which, when wedded to Stalinism, promised “to make fairytales come true.”

However, why are the Russian Fairytales so somber, as are most of the sketches from All Over Russia, while the Italian fairytales are so colorful and festive (and even if at times tragic, always in a heroic, or picturesque, way)? Is not Socialist salvation to come from Russia? Is not Italy part of the doomed West? To answer these questions it is worthwhile recollecting Gogol′’s novel fragment Rome (1842) with its idealized presentation of an ancient Italian culture and superhumanly beautiful people that compare favorably with Parisian modern civilization and superficial socialites. Gogol′, as it were, transfers the Slavophile-Western dichotomy to Europe itself, making ancient Italy the “true Europe” in the midst of “European decay.” As such, Italy also becomes the cornerstone of a future European cultural renaissance to be inspired by Russia (which as “The Third Rome” had preserved an ancient genuine legacy). Gor′kij does something similar in regard to his island of Capri, transforming it into a kind of remnant of a lost “beautiful world” (Schiller) that was destroyed by a capitalist northern Europe. Gor′kij’s Italy may be part of the declining West, but it yearns for redemption (as its strong Socialist movement proves) and it welcomes Russian “bear strength.”

It is true that Russia still needs purification and the satiric tales point to this need. Yet, Russia is the country where there is “faith” in the miracles of labor, as there is faith in life’s beauty in Italy. When the (feminine) festivity of Italian culture (Gogol′’s Annunciata) merges with the heroic Socialist East and its (masculine) philosophy of labor, all of Europe will be reborn and resurrected (Gor′kij’s writing at this time is permeated with rebirth-resurrection imagery). The Resurrector (Socialist Russia) and the resurrected (Italy) will join in building a future life of joy in the entire world. Already they have in common their strong faith in the “life-giving mother”—be this Capri’s Madonna of Catholic-pagan ceremonies (Italy, like Russia, has the “double faith”), or the Mat′ of Socialism (Gor′kij’s novel was also written at that time). Italy is dear to Russia as the prototype of a beautiful world that Europe lost and Russia will restore to an even greater glory. The “light comes from the East” indeed and the new Socialist light from Russia surpasses even the ancient sunshine of Italy in its power to transform all it touches. (Sologub, by the way, offers a quite similar message in his Legend in the Making).

Thus Gor′kij uses Gogolian elements of romantic nostalgia for a lost Europe and Slavophile visions of a future great Russia to create a Socialist myth in which Russia recreates the European past while elevating itself to arbiter of world culture.