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How Yevgeny Zamyatin shaped dystopian fiction

While Wells, Huxley and Orwell invented flawed worlds, the Soviet writer was living in one.

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In May 1929 Yevgeny Zamyatin was the target of hostile verses composed by the poet Aleksandr Bezymensky, a member of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. Appearing in the Leningrad edition of the prestigious Literary Gazette under the title “Certificate concerning social eugenics”, one of them read:

Type: Zamiatin. Genus: Evgeny. Class: bourgeois. In the village: a kulak. The product of degeneration. Footnote: an enemy.

With its threatening references to degeneration and eugenics, this ditty would not have been out of place in Der Stürmer, the Nazi tabloid that was being published in Germany at the time. For Zamyatin, one of the best known authors living in the Soviet Union, the attack was the culmination of years of dangerous insecurity. In September 1929 he resigned from the Soviet Union of Writers, and in June 1931 wrote to Stalin asking permission to leave the country. Maxim Gorky interceded on Zamyatin’s behalf, and his request was granted. Accompanied by his wife, Lyudmila, he left Russia in November 1931 and settled in Paris, where he died of a heart attack in 1937.

More than anyone else, it was George Orwell who made Zamyatin’s novel We known in the West. Reviewing the book in Tribune in 1946, Orwell called the futuristic dystopian fable “one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age”. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Orwell believed, “must be partly derived from it”. Orwell rated Zamyatin’s dystopia – the story of growing disobedience under a totalitarian surveillance society – superior to Huxley’s on account of its “intuitive grasp of the irrational side of totalitarianism – human sacrifice, cruelty as an end in itself, the worship of a leader who is credited with divine attributes”. These elements are present in 1984 (1949) – which Orwell acknowledged was influenced by We – but so is the source of rebellion against totalitarianism. Zamyatin and Huxley imagined a society in which emotionless sex would be prescribed as a means of keeping the population docile, whereas Orwell’s is a more puritanical dystopia. Yet all of these authors identify the origins of revolt in forbidden love.

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Huxley claimed he had not heard of We when writing his book, which he said was a response to HG Wells’s Men Like Gods (1923). A larger influence on Huxley was undoubtedly JBS Haldane’s Daedalus: Science and the Future (1924), in which the celebrated biologist and early-20th-century transhumanist urged humankind to take control of its future evolution by means of eugenic selection and “ectogenesis”, the artificial cultivation of embryos. Huxley envisaged a World State from which choice and individuality have been eradicated. The population is ordered in a hierarchy of castes, from Alphas to Epsilons. Genetic engineering, psychological conditioning and the euphoria-inducing drug Soma ensure people perform their assigned functions. A residue of unmodified human beings exists in the Savage Reservations, one of whom, John the Savage, visits the World State, has an unlicensed relationship with Lenina, a foetus technician, and finally hangs himself.

Huxley’s target was scientism rather than utopianism. But Huxley and Zamyatin were at one in thinking that a society rationally engineered to minimise discord and unhappiness would eliminate much of what is meaningful and valuable in human life.

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We is often described as the first dystopian novel, but there are precedents in Western literature. HG Wells, with whom Zamyatin had several meetings when Wells visited the Soviet Union in 1920 and on whose work he wrote a long essay, produced some powerful dystopias alongside utopian fiction and non-fiction. In Wells’s first novel The Time Machine (1895), the delicate Eloi people lead a charmed life based on the slave labour of the subterranean Morlocks. The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) describes the creation of hideous and wretched hybrid species – a theme prefigured nearly 80 years earlier in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). EM Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) has humans living underground, their needs provided for by an omnipresent Machine, whose breakdown signals the end of their world.

We is distinctive in linking the inhuman world it depicts with what many regard as the defining human attribute – the power of reason to reshape society. Zamyatin’s objection to utopias was not that a perfect society is unachievable. It was the very idea of perfection that he rejected. He believed the single-minded pursuit of a rational model of society ended in tyranny. But it was not political repression that most troubled him. He was more concerned with the impact of rationalism on the soul. Human creativity was inextricably bound up with disruptive passions. Utopian schemes were dystopian by nature.

Here Zamyatin followed Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) – the seminal dystopian text. For Dostoevsky’s “underground man”, a society founded on logic and science (if such a thing was possible) would be a spiritual prison. The capacity for irrational love and sacrifice, for choosing conflict and suffering over peace and happiness, was an essential part of human freedom.

Orwell deserves much credit for bringing attention to We. In one respect, though, his review may have had the effect of diminishing Zamyatin’s achievement. He believed the book had been written around the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, a view that has been widely accepted. In fact, as JAE Curtis has shown in The Englishman from Lebedian (2013), the most authoritative biography of the writer to date, Zamyatin wrote the book in 1919-20, and it reflects the circumstances of that time.

By January 1919, the Cheka – the Soviet secret police founded by Lenin in December 1917 – was nearly 40,000 strong, and by mid-1921 numbered more than a quarter of a million. (For comparison, the various sections of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, reached their highest numbers in 1916, when they totalled around 15,000.) Threatened by a major peasant rebellion in the province of Tambov in August 1920, where Alexander Antonov of the Socialist Revolutionary Party had mustered a “Blue Army” of around 20,000 men, the Cheka was assisting the Red Army in shooting hostages, burning down villages and using poison gas on peasants who tried to escape into the forests.

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We is set centuries later, after a devastating war has reduced the world’s population to a fraction of its former size. Yet the book is not so much an anticipation of the future as a clairvoyant insight into Zamyatin’s present, when the totalitarian logic of the Soviet experiment was already unfolding.

We’s publishing history confirms the veracity of Zamyatin’s vision. An English translation appeared in New York in 1924. The first full Russian text was published only in 1952, again in New York. Many editions appeared in other countries and languages, but the book did not appear in Russia until 1988, when the Soviet Union was nearing collapse. This new edition, which contains Orwell’s review as well as an introduction by Margaret Atwood, an afterword by Ursula Le Guin and an absorbing comment by the translator Bela Shayevich, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, will be the definitive version in English for the foreseeable future.

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Zamyatin – born in 1884 in Lebedian, around 300 kilometres from Moscow; his father an Orthodox priest, his mother a musician – always lived parallel lives. A rebel against tsarism, he joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party as a student. During the disturbances of 1905 he was a clandestine activist, hiding pamphlets and weapons, and spending three months in prison in solitary confinement. At the same time he was training as a maritime engineer in the Polytechnic Institute in St Petersburg. Travelling across Russia inspecting ports and submarines, he simultaneously established himself as a writer by publishing short stories. He continued to pursue a dual career when he was sent to Tyneside to supervise the building of icebreakers for the Russian Imperial Navy. Living in Newcastle, he produced The Islanders (1918), in which he mocked the class system and hypocrisies of Edwardian provincial England. He went on to adopt the tweedy suits and reserved manner of the country he satirised, so much so that his Russian contemporaries nicknamed him “the Englishman”.

Zamyatin’s independence of mind soon brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities. Within weeks of the October Revolution of 1917, he was denouncing the Soviet state for its dictatorial methods. He was arrested and interrogated by the Cheka in February 1919, then again in May under suspicion of colluding with members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in a supposed plot against the regime.

The jeopardy in which he lived became clearer when in August 1921 his friend Nikolai Gumilev, the avant-garde literary theorist and husband of Russia’s greatest 20th-century poet Anna Akhmatova, was arrested on charges of involvement in a non-existent monarchist conspiracy, sentenced to death and shot along with 60 others in the Kovalesky Forest in the outskirts of St Petersburg. (Nearly a century later, an estimated 4,500 casualties of that first wave of Soviet terror are believed to remain buried in unmarked mass graves at the site.)

In 1922 Zamyatin spent a month in prison in a crackdown on the intelligentsia that culminated in the mass expulsion of more than 200 of the country’s leading artists, scientists and thinkers in what came to be known as “the philosophers’ steamships”. The scheme of exiling potential dissidents was conceived by Lenin with the aim of ridding the Soviet state of intellectual opposition, but some believe it was Trotsky who singled out Zamyatin for deportation. After the ships sailed in September and November, the writer’s position continued to be discussed by leading Bolsheviks in Moscow, including the grandly titled Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who oversaw censorship of the arts.

In the event, Zamyatin was not expelled, and during the years that followed he wavered as to whether he should join the Russian writers who had gone abroad. His attitude to the Soviet state contained contradictions he never resolved. He attacked the Bolsheviks from the time they seized power, but declined to join any of the émigré factions in Paris and remained a Soviet citizen. Rather than being an enemy of the Soviet regime, he seems to have regarded himself to the end as a Soviet dissident.

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Like Zamyatin, We cannot be fitted into any simple category. An attack on “machine civilisation”, it is also deeply coloured by his experience of Soviet life. Written as 40 “records” by “D-503”, a mathematician and engineer responsible for building a rocket that would enable the conquest of other planets, the novel envisions a society designed according to the dictates of reason. Citizens of the One State live in glass houses that enable continuous surveillance. Identified by numbers rather than names, their behaviour is regulated by mathematical formulae that govern how every hour of the day is spent. A Green Wall seals them off from fur-clothed primitives who live in the wilderness. Looming over this closed society, an all-seeing Benefactor ensures that its harmonious functioning is undisturbed.

The plot is familiar from Orwell’s 1984. D-503 meets a free-spirited woman, 1-330, to whom he is irresistibly attracted. Instead of having the therapeutic sex prescribed by the state, they enter an intense romantic relationship. 1-330 reveals that she is involved with the Mephi, an organisation dedicated to tearing down the Wall. D-503 decides to report her to the State Guardians, but cannot bring himself to do it. The last record has him recovering from a “Great Operation” in which his capacity for emotion has been surgically removed:

… now I am healthy: I am completely and totally healthy. I’m smiling: I can’t help smiling: a splinter has been removed from my head and now it is empty and light.

Relieved of his conscience, D-503 informs on his lover and watches her being tortured without feeling sympathy or remorse. Unlike Winston Smith’s lover Julia in 1984, 1-330 refuses to betray her co- conspirators. Unbroken, she is executed with them. At the same time the Green Wall has been penetrated, and sectors of the city are littered with dead bodies. D-503 remains serenely confident. “I’m certain: we’ll win. For reason must win in the end.”

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The last canonical dystopian novels were arguably Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Since then the Soviet-style dystopia that Zamyatin attacked has crumbled into dust. But a high-tech version of something like the society depicted in We and reimagined in 1984 is under construction in China. The West displays some of the features of Brave New World. Mass consumption of anti-depressant drugs has been normalised. And in the US between 1999 and 2017, nearly 400,000 people died from using opioids. Anyone can perish in a drug overdose, but those most prone to these deaths come from abandoned groups more powerless than the lowest castes in Wells and Huxley. Unlike the Morlocks and Epsilons, many in the post-industrial wastelands are offered no role in society, however subservient.

We inhabit a dystopian reality, which may account for the dearth of dystopian fiction. Yet the novels of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell continue to cast a powerful spell. All of them end in defeat for the protagonists, but in each case a possibility of revolt remains. Zamyatin places it in the primitives beyond the Green Wall, Huxley in the Savage Reservations and Orwell in the proles. With their unruly passions, these human remnants preserve the prospect of freedom. At bottom the dystopian imagination is an expression of hope, and Zamyatin shows how the imperfections of humankind can ultimately destroy the most rational despotism. 

We
Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Bela Shayevich
Canongate, 304pp, £14.99

 

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 27 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost