Zamyatin, Yevgeny (1884–1937)
ZAMYATIN, YEVGENY (1884–1937)BIBLIOGRAPHY
Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote dystopian works and is best known for We (1920–1921), which significantly influenced such writers as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. His portrayal of totalitarian psychology inspired the brothers Strugatsky to write philosophically charged science-fiction novels in a similar anti-utopian vein. Zamyatin's style exemplifies the ornamental mode of writing; it promotes skaz (free indirect discourse), which relies on spoken language.
Zamyatin was born in Tambov province on 1 February 1884 to a schoolteacher father and a musician mother. He completed his schooling in Voronezh and studied naval engineering in St. Petersburg's Polytechnic Institute (1902–1908). During his years of study, he visited many cities (including Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Salonika), became a Bolshevik, and was arrested for political activity (1906). He graduated in 1908 and worked as a naval engineer from 1908 to 1911. Critics were receptive of his published short stories. In 1911 he was employed as a lecturer at the Polytechnic Institute and in 1916–1917 supervised the construction of Russian icebreakers in England. His The Islanders (1917; Ostrovitiane, published in Russia in 1918), a satirical allegory imagining English life in the 1920s, deals with the individual's conflict with society. Irony and criticism of a clockwork society permeate the narrative. Its depiction of an execution implies that violence plays a role as mass spectacle in contemporary society; it foreshadows Zamyatin's novel We and Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading (1934–1935).
After returning to Russia in September 1917, Zamyatin became a schoolteacher. He was famous as the translator of H. G. Wells and Jack London. We, published abroad in translation (1925), was banned in the USSR until 1988 for its mocking description of a centrally organized modern society, which was seen as a vehement attack on communism. Zamyatin considered We his most serious literary achievement. The novel is set more than a thousand years in the future in One State—a perfect society run by the dictator Benefactor—and presented as a diary written by D-503, chief builder of the spaceship "Integral," who wants to communicate One State's message of total control and infallible happiness to other planets. A love affair between D-503 and I-330, a female member of the revolutionary group, leads D-503 to turn toward anarchy and to unsuccessfully hijack Integral's maiden flight. In response to that revolutionary impulse, Benefactor subjects D-503 to a compulsory operation—"fantasectomy"—to remove his imagination. As a result, D-503 becomes an avid supporter of the regime who dispassionately watches I-330 being tortured prior to her execution. The novel raises questions about conformity, mass technology, and individual freedom. Zamyatin questions the ethical grounds of a social engineering that sacrifices individual freedom to universal happiness. His philosophically charged 1923 essay "On Literature, Revolution, and Entropy" considers the belief in absolute truth and the attempt to produce rigid, dogmatic life forms ill-founded, and speaks of modern society's need for heretics as critical voices to guarantee true progress: "Heretics are the only (bitter) medicine against entropy of human thought." In the mid-1920s Zamyatin worked as a critic and editor, writing several screenplays for the emerging film industry; his plays The Flea and Society of Honorary Bellringers were successfully performed in Moscow and Leningrad.
His satirical stories of the 1920s include criticisms of Lenin in "Tales of Theta" and "Dragon," a surreal tale about the army's brutality during the Red Terror. "The Flood" deals with ethical issues, denouncing violence and utopian aspirations. It features a married couple who adopts an orphaned teenage girl. Her father had sexually abused her, and her adopted mother goes mad and axes her to death after a serious flooding of the Neva River. The story focuses indirectly on Russian life in the 1920s and directly on human passions. It exposes the fallacy of Soviet propaganda, which argued that the human mind could be reshaped, and demonstrates that the consciousness of ordinary citizens operates at a primitive level. It highlights the 1917 Revolution and the Red Terror, taking up the theme that lawlessness and evil affect psychology and everyday life, and that a growing tolerance toward violence turns many into savages. Despite the normalization of life toward the end of the 1920s, there was still hardship (e.g., shortages of bread and poor-quality coal); when children played civil war games, they cast White Army officers as the "bad guys." The story's depiction of the flood alludes to Alexander Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman" (1833), which displays ambivalence toward Peter the Great's vision of modernity as the necessary suppression of nature and tradition.
Zamyatin's subversive works were banned in the late 1920s for political reasons; he was severely criticized by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. Unable to publish, Zamyatin wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin in June 1931, requesting permission to emigrate, which was granted. Zamyatin and his wife settled in Paris, where he died 10 March 1937, his last novel, The Scourge of God, left unfinished.
In the late 1980s Zamyatin's works were rediscovered in Russia. His impact on the post-Soviet contemporary dystopian novels Blue Laird, by Viktor Pelevin and Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya has yet to be properly assessed.
Brown, Edward James. Brave New World, 1984, and We: An Essay on Anti-Utopia. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1976.
Collins, Christopher. Evgenij Zamjatin: An Interpretative Study. The Hague, 1973.
Edwards, T. R. N. Three Russian Writers and the Irrational: Zamyatin, Pil'nyak, and Bulgakov. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.
Russel, Robert. Zamiatin's "We." Bristol, 2000.
Shane, Alex M. The Life and Works of Evgenij Zamjatin. Berkeley, Calif., 1968.