Yevgeny Zamyatin and “We”

To give you an idea of how up to speed I am on science fiction, I had never heard of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, or at least not until I ran across an old review of the book among George Orwell’s essays.  In the review, which appeared in early 1946, he writes,

Several years after hearing of its existence, I have a last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age… So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.

The book was obviously rare and difficult to find at the time Orwell wrote.  Here’s how he describes the plot:

In the twenty-sixth century… the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers.  They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the “Guardians”, to supervise them more easily.  They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as “a number” or “a unif” (uniform)… The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous.

Orwell was sure the book had inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although Huxley denied it.  Be that as it may, it certainly inspired Orwell’s own 1984.  For example, the glass houses (telescreens), Guardians (though police), and Benefactor (Big Brother) are all there, and there are many similarities in the plot, including the ending.  That’s not to imply that 1984 wasn’t original.  Far from it.  The central theme of 1984 was the nature of totalitarianism, and what Orwell believed was a very credible totalitarian future, not in centuries, but in a few decades.  In We, on the other hand, as Orwell put it,

There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind.  Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure.

I would also agree with Orwell that We isn’t first rate as a novel, although it may just be because I’m put off by the abrupt, expressionist style.

Still, there are an astounding number of themes in the book that have appeared and continue to appear in later works of science fiction to this day.  For example, the loss of individuality in future dystopia’s,

You see, even in our thoughts.  No one is ever ‘one,’ but always ‘one of.’  We are so identical…

to be original means to somehow stand out from others.  Consequently, being original is to violate equality.

The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this:  humility is a virtue and pride is a vice, “WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic… Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?

The totalitarian ruler and his enforcers,

And to expel the offending cog, we have the skillful, severe hand of the Benefactor and we have the experienced eye of the Guardians…

They (the ancients) however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one – one with a very precise visual appearance.

…and so on. And what became of this prescient but scarce book? As science fiction aficionados are surely aware, it is scarce no longer. It has been reprinted many times since Orwell’s time, and I had a much easier time acquiring a copy than he. I was intrigued to find that Zamyatin was an old Bolshevik. Obviously, after the Russian Revolution, he quickly discovered he was a “cog” who didn’t quite fit. We had the honor of becoming the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board in 1921. According to Wiki,

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.

By this time, Zamyatin had managed to smuggle We out of the Soviet Union and have it published abroad.  He was very lucky, after having pushed his luck so far, to escape the clutches of the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.  Fortunately, Gorky was still around to help him.  That great man, although a convinced socialist himself, probably saved hundreds from the executioner with similar appeals.  Zamyatin died in poverty in Paris in 1937.

Yevgeny Zamyatin

2 thoughts on “Yevgeny Zamyatin and “We””

  1. I strongly disagree regarding the quality of this novel. For reading, it is far superior to 1984 which lacks the creative use of language that Zamyatin employs in “We”. Zamyatin’s book is in reality a novel length poem, filled with extraordinary images and philosophical ideas. Perhaps Orwell’s book has appeal to the reader who prefers utilitarian novels. Zamyatin is a better stylist and he explores a broader range of concepts and issues, that is why his book has inspired so many other writers. Maybe Orwell didn’t like Zamyatin’s ideas about the Brits (see “The Islander”), but I think Zamyatin had more affection for the Brits that they might detect in his parody. His humor makes his books more fun to read too. I like “1984” but it is humorless and colorless.

  2. You’re probably right about the novel. It made a strong impression on me, as it obviously did on Orwell as well. I read it fairly late in life, when my tastes in literature were pretty much established. Zamyatin’s novel is unique and different, and can’t very well be judged by those standards. I really need to read it again. I’ve never really developed much appreciation for beauty of style. For example, Stendhal has always been my favorite novelist, and the critics often complain about his style. If, as you say, “We” should be read as a poem, it probably loses a lot in translation. The only other language I read well is German, and I know that’s true of some of my favorite authors in that language. Kafka and Grimmelshausen both have unique styles, especially Kafka with his terrifying officialeze, and it’s difficult to convey that in English. My favorite poet, Trakl, from whom I took my blog handle, “Helian,” is really untranslatable.

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