Zamyatin, Yevgeny Ivanovich

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Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884–1937), who was born in Lebedyan, Tamov district, Russia on February 1, is best known for having written We (1920), the archetypal anti-utopian novel. The son of a Russian Orthodox priest and a mother who had received a liberal education, he was a constant critic, siding with the Bolsheviks before the revolution and chiding the new government after their victory.

Zamyatin's critical posture was not limited to Russia. Although he was a naval architect by training, when he was in Great Britain (1916–1917) to supervise the building of Russian icebreakers, he published The Islanders, a satire of the English. Over the course of his career Zamyatin wrote about forty books, a few of which were quite influential in their time, but he is remembered primarily for one he could not publish. When the Soviets began to censor literature in 1922, the first manuscript banned was We, which then appeared in English in the United States (1924) and in Russian in Prague (1927). After 1929 Zamyatin could not publish at all at home. In 1931 at Zamyatin's request, Stalin allowed him to emigrate to Paris, where he lived, unsupported by the local Russian community, until his impoverished death on March 10.

We is the forty-record journal of D-503, an engineer supervising the building of The Integral, a spaceship intended to impose the philosophy of the totalitarian One State on other planets: "If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy" (p. 3). The fundamental contradiction between mechanism and individualism defines the novel. People are "Numbers": The higher the number, the higher the rank; there are vowels and even numbers for females, consonants and odd numbers for males. The "Lex Sexualis" states, "A Number may obtain a license to use any other Number as a sexual product" (p. 22)

Everyone lives according to a Table of Hours. All residences are made of glass. Curtains may be drawn only during Sexual Hours. Despite his role and self-conscious desire to be a good citizen, D-503 develops a soul. The first, unexamined symptom is his desire to express himself, to write the book that is before the reader. The second is a complex passion he feels for I-330, a bold woman revealed as a revolutionary who is trying to use D-503 to gain control of The Integral but also may have fallen in love with him.

The development of his soul subtly changes D-503's viewpoint: "As I crossed the avenue, I turned around. Here and there in the huge mass of glass penetrated by sunshine there were grayish-blue squares, opaque squares of lowered curtains, the squares of rhythmic, Taylorized happiness" (p. 41). The reference to Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915), the inventor of time-motion studies and "industrial engineering," Zamyatin's high priest of dehumanizing technology, suggests why D-503 says, "Love = f(D), love is the function of death" (p. 127).

I-330 does seduce D-503, but an assistant prevents a takeover of the ship. I-330 is killed publicly, and D-503, like every other citizen of One State, undergoes a new procedure to remove the imagination, after which he concludes, with horrible happiness, "Reason must prevail" (p. 218).

Perhaps it must. In 1988, under glasnost, when the Soviet Union began to "rehabilitate" banned literature, We was on the very first list.

The fundamental contradiction between mechanism and individualism that Zamyatin explored has resonated ever since in discussions of science, technology, and ethics. As societies, by adopting modern science and technologies, have come to possess increasingly potent tools for individual action, those tools often have resulted in the conscious imposition or spontaneous emergence of machinelike social orders. For good and bad, after all, railroads make people run on time. This dilemma echoes through powerful and popular works ranging from Edgar Rice's play The Adding Machine (1923) to monitory novels such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Ayn Rand's Anthem (1938), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), and William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) as well as potent sociological analyses such as Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society (1964) and touchstone movies such as Blade Runner (1982).


SEE ALSO Science Fiction; Science, Technology, and Literature; Utopia and Dystopia.


Cooke, Brett. (2002). Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin's We. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. A literary critical and sociobiological analysis of the meanings and place of We.

Richards, David John. (1962). Zamyatin: A Soviet Heretic. London: Bowes and Bowes.

Zamiatin, Eugene [Zamyatin, Yevgeny]. (1959 [1924]). We, trans. Gregory Zilboorg. New York: Dutton. (Original Russian Ms., 1920.)

Zamyatin, Evgeny [Yevgeny]. (1978 [1918]).The Islanders, trans. T. S. Berczynski. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Trilogy Publishers.

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Zamyatin, Yevgeny Ivanovich

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