The Mother by Maxim Gorky

The Mother by Maxim Gorky   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

“Seas of blood won’t extinguish the truth”

Eric Segal, Kent Socialist Party

We’ve all got mums haven’t we? We all take them for granted, don’t we?

What happens when life turns bad? When dad drinks and beats his wife?

What happens when dad dies and the son goes to work in the factory, where his father worked for many years? How does the son react to working long hours, in horrendous conditions, and when his pay is cut?

How does a mother react when her son takes a different path to that of his dead father, a path that leads to confrontation with the state and revolutionary struggle?

This confronted Maxim Gorky when he set out to describe the struggle of the working class in Russia in the early 1900s.

His challenge was to describe the significant part that women played in building the workers’ movement that led to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

Gorky bases his powerful novel, The Mother, around the actual events of what began as a peaceful May Day demonstration on 1902 in Sormovo, and the subsequent violent reaction by police and army that concluded with the arrest, imprisonment, trial and deportation of the socialist leaders.


Gorky, which means ‘bitter’ in Russian, was not the writer’s real name. Born Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov in 1868, he chose the pseudonym when he was 24 and his first story was published, to underscore the bitterness he felt at the plight of Russia’s poor.

The Mother describes the struggle in the early 1900s to organise and build a party of the working class, the poor, the dispossessed and the peasantry

Palageya, ‘The Mother’, watches in disbelief as her teenage son, Pavel, refuses to emulate the violent, drunken ways of her dead husband and other workers. Pavel begins to study and read books that are forbidden under the Tsarist regime.

He brings other workers from the factory and some intellectuals together in a study group at his home. His mother overhears the word socialist, which terrifies her – wasn’t it socialists who assassinated the Tsar?

Palageya is initially suspicious of her son’s new friends and feels out of her depth listening to new ideas and words that they use during their discussions. But soon she becomes part of the discussion group.

They are particularly interested in the changing mood of workers at the factory where Pavel works and which dominates the town.

They write and print leaflets, which Pavel and other workers circulate in the factory, calling for better wages and terms and conditions for the workers.

The boss at the factory announces his intention to deduct a percentage of each workers wage to clear a large swamp overgrow on the factory premises “for the sake of improving living conditions for the workers”.

This announcement, without any negotiation with the workers, and with the help of leaflets produced by the socialists, increases the growing anger in the factory. Pavel leads the workers’ agitation against the factory management and gets arrested.

Palageya realises that now that her son has been arrested, the leaflets are not being distributed in the factory. The authorities could use this as evidence to prove that her son is the main activist.

Palageya decides to take responsibility. She asks a friend for work helping to sell soup at the factory gate.

The leaflets are hidden in her clothes. She distributes them as she sells the soup to workers. Pavel is released once the authorities think that others are smuggling the leaflets into the factory.

The discussion group makes arrangements for an illegal May Day demonstration. They leaflet the factory and make a banner.

The demonstration is a success but the authorities call out the troops who violently disperse the demonstrators and arrest the leaders, including Pavel who was holding the banner.

Palageya decides that she must support Pavel and help to build the movement. She takes socialist books and newspapers to the peasants in villages, and meets up with a group of peasants in the forest who make tar and charcoal.

They live in desperate poverty but are thirsty for ideas and organisation. They grab the books, pamphlets and newspapers.

Lives and freedom

Palageya returns home to find that Pavel is still in jail awaiting his trial. She says: “If our children, the dearest parts of our hearts, can give their lives and their freedom, dying without a thought for themselves, what ought I to do, a mother?”

At his trial Pavel says: “We are against the society whose interests you judges have been ordered to defend.

“We are its uncompromising enemies, and yours too, and no reconciliation between us is possible until we have won our fight.

“All of you, our masters, are more like slaves than we are. You are enslaved spiritually; we, only physically.” Pavel and his co-defendants are sentenced to deportation to Siberia.

Palageya and the socialists print Pavel’s speech. She takes bundles of the leaflets, goes to the railway station, but the police catch her.

She manages to throw the leaflets to the crowd that has gathered around and cries out: “Poverty, hunger and illness, that’s what people are given by their work.

“Everything’s against us, we’re dying all our lives, working day after day, always in dirt, always deceived, while others through our labours amuse themselves and eat their fill and keep us like dogs on a chain in ignorance – we know nothing – and in fear- we’re afraid of everything! Our life is night, a dark night.”

The police beat, choke and try to silence her. But she manages to call out: “Seas of blood won’t extinguish the truth.”