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Of Maxim Gorky's Capri

 (RIA Novosti / Guriyanov) / RIA Novosti
Maxim Gorky (RIA Novosti / Guriyanov) / RIA Novosti
Italy has always been one of the most popular destinations for work and leisure among Russian aristocrats and the country’s creative industry. It’s hard to say whether Russians have been so attracted by the endless blue caressing its shores, or by the majesty of its mountains, which seem to be holding the country together, protecting it; or both. As for the isle of Capri, this is a special case. 

Even mainland Italy can hardly compete in its attractiveness with a picturesque tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean, the only place in the world to squeeze so much fame and history into such a fraction of space. Capri is truly a heaven set in the sea, a den for everyone who wants to escape the hassles of the world. More than two thousand years ago, the second Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar Augustus, was among the first who abandoned Roman political life and fled to Capri to hide himself in its exotic gardens and emerald waters.

Later on in history, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Bay of Naples transformed itself into an important political centre, hosting leading figures of Russia’s Soviet era. Even decades later, Capri’s citizens preserve these memories, carefully passing down from one generation to another. Thousands of kilometers away, in Russia, the tiny emerald island will be forever associated with Lenin and Gorky, as the rightly named “cradle of the Russian revolution”. 
Villa Behring on Capri
Villa Behring on Capri, where Maxim Gorky lived from 1909 to 1911 - by Davide Barbieri and Antonella Borghi

In 1905, one of the most internationally famous Russian writers of the time, Maksim Gorky, enters the Socialist party, to become the richest of the Bolsheviks. It was his money that was used to arm people for the December uprising in Moscow. Then, after the first revolution the writer decides to leave Russia. Gorky kept close ties with his Bolshevik colleagues however, reassuring them of his constant financial help.
Then on 26th October 1906, Gorky disembarks on the transatlantic liner “Princess Irene”, which takes him to Naples. Gorky, accompanied by his lover, a famous Russian actress Maria Andreeva, chooses the most luxurious hotel in the city, the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, overlooking the sea and the dangerous magnetic volcano, Vesuvius. This was his stopover, before leaving for Capri to live there for another six years.
Hotel Quisisana
Hotel Quisisana (author)

He travels to Capri on November 2nd of 1906 where he and Maria Andreeva, along with Nikolai Burenin are warmly received by Capri's riendly citizens, who embraced them at Umberto I Square, refusing to let the trio proceed. Upon his arrival the famous Bolshevik refugee stayed at the most luxurious hotel on the island, Quisisana (above), where he was accompanied by a merry crowd of simple Italians. A few days later one Italian newspaper based in Naples, Il Mattino, wrote: “Maksim Gorky walked around the fascinating island, where he is planning to stay until after Christmas” [“Il Mattino, 5-6 novembre 1906, p.4]

Of Capri, Gorky was planning only a brief visit to the emerald island, but “attracted by its poetic beauty and tranquility” he finally decided to stay through the winter of 1906-1907. And while the writer himself was enjoying the heavenly views, Soviet propaganda pictured him as a suffering refugee in a forced exile. Gorky reveled on Capri though, on a little Italian island where nothing pleased his heart but the memory of Russian landscapes and the desire to be a part of the suppressed working class.
From Villa Krupp - Jerry Lai
From Villa Krupp - Jerry Lai

On November 22nd of 1906 Gorky moves into Villa Blaeseus, named after a Greek poet (years later it was turned into a hotel, named Villa Krupp, which is still open today). Despite the majestic views over the Marina Piccola, Garden of Caesar Augustus – named after the emperor who, like Gorky, found his second home on this little island, and the famous Faraglioni which nowadays attract tourists from all over the world – Maxim Gorky and Maria Andreeva didn’t seem greatly impressed. As Andreeva pointed out in one of her letters to A.V. Amfiteatrov: “Villa Blaeseus is nothing but a very simple little house with three little windows overlooking Marina Piccola” [Maria Fedorovna Andreeva. Perepiska, Moscow 1968, p.144]. And that’s exactly how history will remember Gorky, as a refugee who fled from his beloved country against his will, a Russian soul who never ceased dreaming of the Volga surrounded by vast forests.
Rainy day Capri - Diana Robinson
Rainy day Capri - Diana Robinson

Gorky didn’t show any particular interest in Italian everyday life. “In six years of his life on Capri, he never learnt a single word in Italian”, Costanzo, the owner of a wonderful restaurant “Scialapopolo”, tells me.  “Everyone knew him, of course. It’s a small island but it’s also a living island. People love chatting and everyone ends up knowing everything about their neighbours”. Having settled on Capri, while having no contact with the real world, admiring the beauty but barely brushing up against it, Gorky kept his mind occupied with groundbreaking projects for Russia. He managed to keep close ties with other Bolshevik leaders, frequent visitors to his villa. Among them were Bodganov, Lenin, Lunacharsky, Bazarov, the writer Bunin and the famous singer Shalyapin (who had a villa in neighboring Sorrento, on the coast). Calm emerald waters washing over the island turned into a massive political storm three thousand kilometers away. Soviet communism fermented under the warm Italian sun.

Villa Krupp
Lenin monument at Villa Krupp - Alberto Alfredo Tristan

It is on Capri that Gorky finishes writing his main literary work, the novel “Mother”, the primary goal of which was to draw even more enthusiasts to join the Bolshevik party. “Mother” is a portrayal of the Russian working class before the revolution of 1905. The key figure, Pavel, is a collective image of a simple factory worker who, just like his father, is destined to slave for money and find little relief in drinking. After his father’s death, Pavel strives for truth and starts educating himself to understand how the system actually works. In the novel he will lead the working class to its better future, while his “Mother” Pelagea Nilovna will help him and all of the other comrades, becoming the “Mother” of all the working class. Suffice it to say, Pavel will symbolize a working-class Jesus, while his mother is a Madonna figure, mother of Jesus and of all communism.

Faraglioni - Mark Peters
Faraglioni - Mark Peters


Defined by Lenin himself as “very timely”, the novel was far from being plausible. In some circles it was called “nonsense from Capri” but that, however, doesn't stop Gorky from putting his well-fermented ideas into action. He would teach the working-class – from his home in one of the world’s most exclusive and beautiful places – to turn a simple brutal drunk factory worker into a proletarian Jesus, teaching people a new religion “proletarian Christianity”. Together with the philosopher Bogdanov and writer Lunacharsky, Gorkyestablishes a school for factory workers. Just like in a real school, the working class are taught political economy, the history of social democracy, the relationship between the state and Orthodox Church, Russian literature, etc. The ambitious project doesn’t stop there. The workers come to Capri with a higher purpose willed by Gorky – the building of a God inside them. None of those factory workers are naturally aware of their Godly nature, so Gorky’s mission is to liberate their inner slaves and so become proud Bolshevik Gods.

Inspired by the idea, Anatoly Lunacharsky even proposes a prayer in honour of the “holy” working-class. The “holy” working class (most of them are abroad for the first time in their lives and are completely taken by the surrounding beauty), however, aren’t as enthusiastic about the compulsory studies, their wives - even less so. Gorky together with Lunacharsky make their last attempt and decide to take their “students” to the mainland to visit the architectural gems of Naples, its National Archaeologic Museum, Pompei and Herculanum, all in the hope that art, history and beauty can transform a simple Russian man and make of him a God. Despite all his effort and money invested in hosting the school, nothing seems to work. None of the “students” responds to hopes projected on them or becomes a leading political figure back in Russia. Later Gorky will be excluded from the party for his heretical views, which won’t stop him from sticking to his beliefs until his death.

In 1911, the writer moves to another lodging in the elegant “Villa Pierina” and here he remained until his comeback to Imperial Russia in 1913.

Maxim Gorky
Russian opera bass singer Feodor Chaliapin (third from the right) talking to writer Maxim Gorky (third from the left) with Skitalets, Andreyev, Chelekov, Chirikov and Bunin - Creative Commons
More than a century after his departure from the heavenly island, Maxim Gorky is still remembered here. No-one on the island had forgotten the name of his most famous friend and one the most significant political figures of the epoch, Vladimir Lenin. The Gardens of Caeser Augustus still keep a memory of him engraved on a simple white slab with a dedication “To Lenin. Capri”. And there it is, quietly overlooking the astonishing beauty of Marina Piccola (below) and Faraglioni (above), and the precious emerald blue of the Mediterranean sea. While multilingual tourists enjoy the adjoining park, its garden and sculptures, the memories of Gorky waft in the air, like a soft sunset veil, setting down on water. We no longer wonder how in a place like this he could invent his working class Jesus, simply because, living in a paradise made him feel like God himself.
Marina Piccola
Marina Piccola - Laurel Heske
About the author: Anna Novikova is an economics PhD and writer, fluent in 5 languages, who has a passion for travel, the arts, music, Russian history and literature. She has lived, studied, and worked as a translator and interpreter throughout Europe, in London and Washington D.C.