Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884–1937) was the creator of the novel We (1920), a science fiction satire on totalitarianism that was both notable and extremely influential. He also wrote shorter fiction, mostly satirical, that remains less well known but has much to offer students of the early Soviet period of Russian literature.
The first book banned in the young Soviet Union, We was not published in Russian in a complete version until 1952, and was not officially approved until the perestroika era of cultural openness that preceded the fall of Communism. It circulated in manuscript, however, and was well known to a variety of Russian writers. The novel's greatest influence was visible abroad; it was admired by English novelist George Orwell and was a key predecessor to 1984. The extent of its influence on another major work of futurism, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, has been debated; Huxley denied that he had read the book, but Orwell and others identified strong similarities between Huxley's and Zamyatin's novels, and the central plot device of a romance that arises in the midst of a completely centralized and mechanized society is common to the two books.
Born in Small Town
Zamyatin was a native of Lebedian, Russia, a small town about two hundred miles south of Moscow. He was born early in 1884; the conflicting dates of January 20 and February 1 that appear in literary sources may result from the conflicting calendrical systems in force in Russia at the time. Zamyatin's father was a Russian Orthodox priest and a school principal, but the atmosphere of the small town, despite his mother's love for literature and classical music, was not intellectual. Zamyatin retreated into a world of books; he loved Dostoyevsky and later wrote of being "initiated into this mysterious thing, letters" (as quoted on the website Yevgeny Ivenovitch Zamyatin: The Russian Revolutionary Romantic Distopian Writer). Attending high school in the city of Voronezh, Zamyatin excelled in English but did poorly in math classes. With typical perversity, he decided to become an engineer. Honored with a gold medal at his high school graduation, he pawned the medal shortly afterward.
Zamyatin studied naval engineering at the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute from 1902 to 1908, and he made a living until the time of the Russian Revolution mostly in that field. He had begun to write when he was very young, however, and continued to do so despite the warnings of teachers who tried to alert him to the dangers of antagonizing the czarist secret police. Not heeding these warnings, Zamyatin joined the revolutionary Communist Bolshevik party. He took advantage of a summer job on a ship to make his way to Odessa, where he joined city residents in backing the mutiny of the crew of the battleship Potemkin in rebellion against being given maggot-infested food to eat. Zamyatin participated in the abortive leftist rebellion of 1905, and was arrested, beaten and held for several months in solitary confinement. That experience was reflected in Zamyatin's first published story, Odin (Alone), which appeared in 1908.
Although Zamyatin was officially told to stay clear of St. Petersburg, the secret police made a clerical error that allowed him to slip back into engineering classes, stay under the radar, graduate from the Polytechnic Institute and even teach there for several years. He continued writing fiction and published several technical articles. In 1911 the police realized their error, arrested him again, and sentenced him to internal exile in the provincial city of Lakhta. Zamyatin made good use of the time by writing a set of short stories, Uezdnoye (District Tales), that satirized small-town Russian life. Two years later, having served his time, he was officially rehabilitated. He promptly antagonized authorities once again with Na kulichkakh (A Godforsaken Hole), a story that depicted a group of drunk, intolerant Russian soldiers in Vladivostok. The journal that published the story was seized by police.
In 1916 Zamyatin traveled to England on a long-term engineering assignment: he was to oversee the construction of Russian icebreakers that had been commissioned from a Newcastle shipyard. Zamyatin, who spoke only broken English, did not feel at ease in Britain and filled his notebooks with jaundiced observations. His satirical eye was busily at work, however, and while he was there he wrote two short comic novellas about life in England, Ostrovitiane (The Islanders) and Lovets cheloveka (The Fisher of Men). These books (later published together in English under the title The Islanders) delved only superficially into English life but showed Zamyatin's fantastic humor developing to a new level. In The Islanders he imagines a bill introduced in the English Parliament that would make all noses the same length. Zamyatin took to wearing tweed suits, and England made enough of an impact on him that his Russian friends dubbed him "the Englishman" after he returned home.
When Zamyatin heard that a revolt against czarist rule had broken out in Russia in 1917, he hastened back home, traveling in a small British ship that was vulnerable to attack by German submarines. He was overjoyed by the Communist takeover and thought that it heralded a bright new future. Zamyatin wrote numerous newspaper articles, sometimes using the pseudonym M. Platonov, and edited several literary magazines. He also supervised Russian translations of foreign novels by, among others, Jack London, O. Henry, and H.G. Wells, the latter a science fiction writer and fellow engineer whom he greatly admired. Zamyatin's reputation was riding high in the early days of the Soviet regime, and he inspired a group of younger followers in St. Petersburg to form a writers' association called the Serapion Brothers.
Beginning in 1919 Zamyatin worked on drafts of We, whose Russian title was My. It was his only full-length novel. As state repression descended over Russia, Zamyatin vigorously protested the deteriorating civil rights situation. When he finished We in 1920 it was branded a slander against socialism and was left unpublished. The book appeared for the first time in English translation, in 1924. Russian writers passed copies of it from hand to hand, and a group of Russian expatriates in what is now the Czech Republic published a version in Czech in 1927, further angering Soviet authorities. The book was also issued in French and, thanks to high-profile reviews by George Orwell and other writers, became well known in the West.
The immediate inspiration for We was probably H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. Both books are set in a distant future depicted as an extreme development of contemporary trends. We is said to take place in the twenty-sixth century. It was not just an early science fiction novel but also among the very first examples of the dystopic, or nightmare future, an offshoot of the genre. The citizens represented in the novel, who have had their imaginations surgically removed, live within a glass dome under the rule of the One State and its leader, the Benefactor. The planet outside the dome had been made uninhabitable by a war that lasted for two centuries. Buildings are all made of glass, and a police force called the Guardians watches all citizens for any trace of unapproved behavior. Culture is entirely government-controlled; music comes from a Music Factory that prefigures the emergence of Muzak and other industrial uses of music over the next several decades. Citizens can obtain time alone only for sexual intercourse, for which a stamped pink coupon is required.
The novel's title refers to the elimination of first-person pronouns in the world Zamyatin imagines; "we" is the only acceptable first-person pronoun. Individuals are known by numbers (actually addresses) rather than names, and the novel's central figure is D-503, an engineer like Zamyatin (actually a spaceship builder) and at first a supporter of the regime. He begins to see through the regimentation of his life after he is seduced by a woman, I-330, who stands for the human spirit of irrationality and chaos. We is not a heavy symbolic political tract but, like Orwell's 1984, a highly readable and often funny satire on totalitarianism. That its significance extended beyond Soviet Communism was immediately grasped by Orwell, who wrote, as quoted by Alan Myers in his article "Zamyatin in Newcastle," that "what Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilization."
Headed Russian Writers' Union
Even in the face of his lack of success in getting We published, and even though he was detained by police on several occasions, Zamyatin continued to write. His essay "I Am Afraid" questioned government censorship, and an experimental long story, Peshchere (The Cave), was published in 1922. The story was set amid the privations of wartime in St. Petersburg, with an extended metaphor likening the cold and darkness of the city to life in a cave. The story inspired a 1927 film, House in the Snow Drifts, by Soviet director Friedrich Ermler. Despite (or perhaps because of) his problems with the authorities, Zamyatin was admired by other Russian writers and was chosen as president of the All-Russian Writers' Union.
Zamyatin wrote several plays in the middle and late 1920s; Atilla (1925) was based on the figure of Attila the Hun, and Blokha (The Flea) was based on a folk-style story. Blokha was staged with sets by a top designer, Boris Kustodiyev, and was enthusiastically received by the public in its opening performances, but by this time the comparative liberalism of the early 1920s had disappeared and Zamyatin was under constant attack in the government-controlled press. He was singled out for criticism by Leon Trotsky himself, then in the midst of a power struggle with future dictator Josef Stalin, but he did not back down from his view that a writer ought to be, as he often put it, a heretic. Blokha was closed down by government censors, and Zamyatin was forced into near-total obscurity. He may have contributed to the text of the Dmitri Shostakovich comic opera The Nose, which was based on a novel by Nikolai Gogol, a comic novelist whose outlook bore some similarities to Zamyatin's own.
Finally Zamyatin's situation in the Soviet Union became untenable, and he wrote a letter to Stalin personally, asking that he be allowed to leave the country. Possibly due to support from writer Maxim Gorky, permission was granted, and he left for Paris. In his last years he dreamed of returning to the Soviet Union and refrained from contributing writings to the anti-Communist press in the West. This earned him the enmity of Russian emigrés. In his last years he worked on a novel about Attila the Hun, but it was never finished. Zamyatin died in Paris on March 10, 1937. We continued to be widely read in the West, and collections of Zamyatin's stories and essays appeared in English translation from the 1960s through the 1980s. Zamyatin was officially rehabilitated in the Soviet Union in 1988, and today We is frequently assigned in literature classes in Russian schools.
Ginsburg, Mirra, edited and translated, A Soviet Heretic: Essays, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Shane, Alex M., The Life and Times of Evgenij Zamjatin, University of California Press, 1968.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 7, 2006).
Stifled Heresy, "Yevgeny Ivenovitch Zamyatin: the russian revolutionary romantic distopian writer," http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/1634/Zamyatin.html (February 7, 2006).
"Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884–1937)," Books and Writers, http://www.kirjastosci.fi/zamyatin.htm (February 7, 2006).
"Yevgeny Zamyatin, We," Green Man Review, http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_zamyatin_we/html (February 7, 2006).
"Zamyatin, Evgeny Ivanovich," Encyclopedia of Soviet Writers, http://www.sovlit.com/bios/zamyatin.html (February 7, 2006).
"Zamyatin, Evgeny Ivanovich," http://www.orwell.ru/people/zamyatin/zei_en (February 7, 2006).
"Zamyatin in Newcastle," The Myers Project, http://www.pages.britishlibrary.net/alan.mysers/zamyatin.html (February 7, 2006).