This novel has served as the inspiration for what has become, if not a genre, then at the very least a dominant sub-genre of science fiction. It is the first major dystopian novel, a precursor to George Orwell’s1984, Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and its history, along with that of its author, eerily mimics some of the themes of those other books.
Written and completed in 1920, We was first published in English in 1924, then in Czech in 1927. It wouldn’t be published in Russian until 1952, some fifteen years after Zamyatin’s death. Even then, it was not published in Russia, but by the Chekhov Publishing House in New York. The edition I read for this review was translated by Mirra Ginsberg for publication in 1972, and has a wonderful introduction further outlining the major events in Zamyatin’s life.
However, it is not necessary to be intimately familiar with the totalitarian political structure of Stalin’s Russia to feel the full impact of We. Instead, the clarity of this book’s language and the amazing characterization and plotting carry the reader into a world both absurd and nightmarish, transcending what must have been the oppressive atmosphere in which it was written.
The narrator of this work is both numbered and lives at D-503, for in the world of We there are no names, only designations. He is the chief Builder of the One State’s most glorious project, the construction of a spaceship, the Integral. The work itself is a journal that is to be carried as cargo on the Integral, praising the efficiency, the rationality, and the happiness that life within the confines of the One State can bring to those worlds the Integral will someday visit.
The One State is overseen by the Benefactor, a deific figure portrayed with heavy hands, and a network of Guardians, who watch for anyone that might display the slightest irregular behavior. The One State exists within a glass dome, the rest of the planet supposedly rendered inhospitable during the Two Hundred Year War. Every building is made of this same glass, enabling any behavior not proscribed by the Table of Hours, the sacred text of the One State, to be easily seen and reported. Privacy is only allowed for sexual intercourse, and then only after applying for a pink coupon to be presented and validated in the front office of each housing complex.
As the journal progresses, D’s rigidly structured life grows in complexity as he meets I-330, a fiercely dominant woman who seduces him, first from his lover O-90, then from his beloved One State. While this crisis of conscience tears D apart, it also illustrates the problem facing the One State itself, that of imposing rationality upon humanity, when emotions and imagination so often lead to irrational behavior. Tension, paranoia, and passion build within D as he realizes that his seducer is part of a revolutionary society opposed to the One State. Yet even as he struggles with the desire to report her to the Benefactor, and weighs this against his own desire to join her in her revolution, he continues to believe that somehow the One State, and rationality, will prove to be his savior.
We is an exploration of the individual vs. the social order, a celebration of the importance of imagination, and ultimately, a warning regarding the dehumanizing consequences of imagination’s destruction. Zamyatin’s profound understanding of the human soul transcends what could have been a heavy, demagogic work. He celebrates the power of laughter, injecting a lightness into the text at the most unexpected points. I, pleasantly surprised at just how funny this work was, and at how well its science fiction aspects have withstood the changing times, certainly intend to read it again. Hopefully you, dear reader, will read it as well.
Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (Евге́ний Ива́нович Замя́тин) (February 20, 1884 – March 10, 1937) was a Russian author of science fiction and political satire. Despite having been a prominent Old Bolshevik, Zamyatin was deeply disturbed by the policies pursued by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) following the October Revolution. Due to his use of literature to criticize Soviet society, Zamyatin has been referred to as one of the first Soviet dissidents. He is most famous for his 1921 novel We, a story set in a dystopian future police state. Refused publication in Russia, Zamyatin arranged for We to be smuggled to the West for publication. The subsequent outrage this sparked within the Party and the Union of Soviet Writers led directly to Zamyatin's exile from his homeland.
Zamyatin studied naval engineering in Saint Petersburg from 1902 until 1908, during which time he joined the Bolsheviks. He was arrested during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and exiled, but returned to Saint Petersburg where he lived illegally before moving to Finland in 1906 to finish his studies.
After returning to Russia, he began to write fiction as a hobby. He was arrested and exiled a second time in 1911, but amnestied in 1913. His Uyezdnoye (A Provincial Tale) in 1913, which satirized life in a small Russian town, brought him a degree of fame. The next year he was tried for maligning the military in his story Na Kulichkakh (At the world's end). He continued to contribute articles to various socialist newspapers.
After graduating as a naval engineer, he worked professionally at home and abroad. In 1916 he was sent to England to supervise the construction of icebreakers at the shipyards in Walker and Wallsend while living in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Zamyatin wrote The Islanders, satirizing English life, and its pendant A Fisher of Men, both published after his return to Russia in late 1917. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 he edited several journals, lectured on writing, and edited Russian translations of works by Jack London, O’Henry, H. G. Wells, and others. Zamyatin supported the October Revolution, but opposed the system of censorship under the Bolsheviks.
His works became increasingly satirical and critical toward the CPSU. This attitude made his position increasingly difficult as the 1920s wore on. In 1927, Zamyatin arranged for the manuscript of his novel We to be smuggled to Marc Slonim, then editor of a Russian émigré journal based in Prague. This act signalled a mass offensive by the Soviet State against Zamyatin, who was subsequently unable to publish anything in his homeland.
His novel We, while often discussed as primarily a political satire on the totalitarianism he perceived in the Soviet Union, is significant in other aspects as well. It may variously be examined as (1) a polemic against the optimistic scientific socialism of H. G. Wells whose works Zamyatin had previously published and with the heroic verses of the (Russian) Proletarian Poets, (2) as an example of Expressionist theory and (3) as an illustration of the archetype theories of Carl Jung as applied to literature.
In addition to We, Zamyatin also wrote a number of short stories, in fairy tale form, that constituted satirical criticism of Bolshevik rule, such as in a mocking story about a city where the mayor decides that to make everyone happy he should make everyone equal. He starts by forcing everyone, himself included, to live in a big barrack, then to shave heads to be equal to the bald, and then to become mentally disabled to equate intelligence downward. This plot is very similar to that of The New Utopia (1891) by Jerome K. Jerome whose collected works were published three times in Russia before 1917. In its turn, Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" (1961) bears distinct resemblances to Zamyatin's tale.
Max Eastman, an American communist who had similarly broken with his former beliefs, described the Politburo's campaign against Zamyatin in his book Artists in Uniform.
In 1931, Zamyatin appealed directly to Joseph Stalin, requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union. In his letter, Zamyatin wrote, "True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics". With the encouragement of Maxim Gorky, Stalin decided to grant Zamyatin's request.
Zamyatin settled with his wife in Paris, where he collaborated with French film director Jean Renoir. Renoir's 1936 adaptation of Gorky's The Lower Depths was co-written by Zamyatin.
Yevgeny Zamyatin died in poverty of a heart attack in 1937. Only a small group of friends were present for his burial. However, one of the mourners was his Russian language publisher Marc Slonim, who had befriended the Zamyatins. Zamyatin's grave lies in Thiais, France, at a secular cemetery on Rue de Stalingrad.