Evgenii Zamyaatin *

WE

The edition I happen to own was translated from Russian by Gergory Zilboorg, with an introduction by Peter Rudy and a preface by Marc Slonim -- the 1972 edition was translated by the very dependable Mirra Ginsburg, so I would recommend either one.


Background information, Questions for Reading, and further resources

The fiction writer, dramatist, critic, editor and translator Evgenii (pronounced "Yevgeny") Zamyatin was born in 1884 in the Russian provincial town of Lebedyan and grew up in provincial central Russia. His father was an Orthodox priest, but he joined the Bolshevik Party while he was a student at the St Petersburg Polytechnioc Institute. He was arrested, imprisoned, and then exiled in 1905. In 1908 he finally graduated as a naval engineer and joined the faculty of the Institute. At the same time he began publishing both technical articles and fiction. His early works included "A Provincial Tale" [Uezdnoe], 1913 (based on a period of exile in 1911; how would it compare to the image of exile in Khvoshchinskaia's Boarding School Girl?), Out in the Sticks [Na kulichkakh], 1914, many short stories, and the longer stories "The Islanders" [Ostrovityane], 1918, based on a residence in England during the First World War in his professional hat of naval engineer, and "The Fisher of Men" [Lovets chelovekov], 1922.

Once the new Soviet cultural scene began to solidify after the Revolutions of 1917 and the ensuing period of civil war, Zamyatin became a big figure in the exciting cultural revival of the 1920s. He edited the journals Dom iskusstv (House of Arts), Sovremennyj zapad (The Contemporary West), and Russkij sovremennik (The Russian Contemporary), translated a number of important writers (including H. G. Wells) from English and French into Russian, served on the boards of literary organizations, and taught writing techniques to aspiring students from a variety of social and educational backgrounds.

One important consequence of Zamyatin's most important educational activity after the Revolution was the influence of his lectures on a group of younger writers who named themselves the Serapion Brothers, after E. T. A. Hoffman's hermit Serapion, and who emphasized free fantasy and humaneness in literature as well as a focus on literary craftsmanship shared with Zamyatin. The group included such future luminaries as Konstantin Fedin (1892-1977), Vsevolod Ivanov (1895-1963), Veniamin Kaverin (1902-1989), Lev Lunts (1901-1924), the marvelous humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko (1895-1958), and the poet Elizaveta Polonskaya (1890-1969). The group, loose in any case, had dissolved by 1929 -- a point by which Zamyatin himself was already experiencing difficulties under tightening censorship and repression.

Peter Rudy describes Zamyatin's position sharply in his 1959 introduction to the Zilboorg translation: "Zamyatin had worked and suffered so that the Revolution might take place. When it finally became a reality, he greeted it with enthusiasm and spent endless hours in lecture halls and conference rooms on its behalf. But he was quick to notice the alarming tendencies that were developing in the new society, and in his writing he boldly pointed out the impending dangers. "I Fear," an essay which appeared in 1920, warned against the insidious pressures for conformity: the new Russia would have no real literature until it cured itself of this illness; and if the illness proved incurable, then there would be only one future for Russian literature -- its past. [...]" Like We, which was written in 1920 though it was not published in Russian until 1929 (abroad, in an intentionally distorted version that purported to be a re-translation from the Italian version -- trying to avoid getting Zamyatin into trouble at home), "I Fear" was an early and prescient objection to the very tendencies that would only later develop into the crushing repressions of the Stalinist period and, for writers, the shackles of Socialist Realism.

Orthodox Communist critics turned against Zamyatin more and more, and by 1929 he was considered a "devil of Soviet literature," unable to publish or otherwise reach his readers. In June of 1931 he wrote a forceful but dignified letter to Joseph Stalin, asking permission to leave the Soviet Union since he was no longer free to continue with his writing. Surpsiringly, and perhaps (who knows?) in recognition of Zamyatin's own bona fides as a pre-revolutionary member of the Bolshevik Party, he was allowed to leave for Paris with his wife. This voluntary exile was a relief but not a joy. The politically polarized emigre community did not welcome him, for the most part, and he wrote nothing that could compare with his earlier work until his death in 1937.

We can be read from several points of view: as an early example of a literary treatment of dystopia, influential on later such works; as a science fiction work; as a critical treatment of Taylorism and other movements in the same critical Russian tradition as Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground or parts of the trial in The Brothers Karamazov; as a revolutionary thinker's caution against the ossification of the new system into one as inflexible as what it replaced (in the spirit of another twentieth-century leftist writer, the Croatian Miroslav Krleza!); and, finally, as a prescient critique of the particular distortions that emerged in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Questions for Reading:

1. Zamyatin is a particularly effective practitioner of Modernist color symbolism: keep an eye out for examples here (...such as colors that associate I-330 with a bee: why would that be a suitable association?).

2. Although dominant ideology in the US tends to stress the value of individual taste and choice, we still have schools of thought, local communities or veins of criticism that point out or avoid the down sides of too much individuality, too little community and connection. What is GOOD about the utopia Zamyatin describes? As D-503 describes his activities in the first entries, are you convinced by his cheerfulness?

3. How does this book work as a "diary" or journal? What does it suggest about the influence of a choice to write and the process of writing on the writer -- especially one such as D-503, who belongs to the technical elite, and who may never have written this long a connected text before?

4. How do you respond to this book as a reader; how does it leave you feeling or directed -- and how might it have influenced Zamyatin's contemporaries (fellow-leftists; reactionaries; vulgar Marxist critics)?

5. What do you need to know about the culture of the two decades before the Russian Revolution in order to understand the temptations our hero faces? Where do you feel the lures of the past have particular cultural or historical markings, and where are they the sort that any culture might have produced?

6. What patterns or play do you find in the letters that accompany these characters' "numbers"? Several of them are in English in the original -- "I" of course. "R" as well -- in Russian the "backwards R" is the letter "ya," which is also the word for "I", the first-person singular pronoun. So in both these cases the "speaking" name bears a hint at impermissible individualism, or at least its seeds, already present in their nature as human beings.

7. If you are familiar with higher mathematics, what are the associations of the Integral and other references?

8. What is the effect of the ending?

This novel, as noted above, is available in Gregory Zilboorg's 1924 translation (Library of Congress number  PG3476.Z34 M92) and in Mirra Ginsburg's from 1972 (LoC number variously PG3476.Z34 M92 or M913 or M92 1972...).

A select bibliography on Zamyatin in English:

  • Edward J. Brown, Brave New World, 1984, and We: An Essay on Anti-Utopia (Zamyatin and English literature) (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976), LoC call number PG3476.Z34 M933
  • Philip Cavendish, "Evgenii Ivanovich Zamiatin 1884-1937," in Neil Cornwell, ed., Reference Guide to Russian Literature (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998), pp. 909-911; additional articles on individual works by Alexandra Smith ("The Islanders," pp. 911-912), Robert Russell (We, pp. 912-913) and Mari aPavlovszky ("The Flood," pp. 913-914).
  • Christopher Collins, Evgenij Zamjatin: An Interpretive Study (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), LoC call number PG3476.Z34 Z6
  • Gary Kern, ed. and intro., Zamyatin's WE: A Collection of Essays (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1988)
  • D. J. Richards, Zamiatin: A Soviet Heretic
  • Alex M. Shane, The Life and Works of Evgenij Zamjatin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), LoC call number PG3476.Z34 Z84 
  • Alex M. Shame, "Zamyatin, Evgeny Ivanovich (1884-1937)," in Victor Terras, ed., A Handbook of Russian Literature, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 528-529.

    If you enjoyed this book, you might also like Zamyatin's other prose and plays (I am particularly fond of his 1926 story "X" [Iks], or works by the other Serapion Brothers:

  • Fedin's Cities and Years (NY: Dell, 1962), wonderfully translated by Michael Scammel (LoC number PG3476.F4 G652)
  • Vsevolod Ivanov's Armored Train 14-69, available in one volume from Ardis (Ann Arbor, 1978) with Zamyatin's The Islanders (LoC call number PG3476.Z34 O813 1978)
  • Veniamin Kaverin's The Artist is Unknown (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1973), translated by P. Ross (LoC call number PG3476.K43 K453 1973)
  • Mikhail Zoshchenko, Nervous People and Other Satires (NY: Pantheon Books, 1963), ed. and intro. by Hugh McLean, translated by Maria Gordon and Hugh McLean (LoC call number PG3476.Z7 N4) -- Zoshchenko is probably the best known of these writers, and there are several other very nice editions of his stories and other work
  • On poet Elizaveta Polonskaya, see Leslie Dorfman Davis , Serapion Sister: The Poetry of Elizaveta Polonskaya (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), LoC call number PG3476.P617 Z88 2001.

    * This portrait (accompanied by Zamyatin's actual signature) was stolen from Evgenii Zamiatin, Sochineniia [Works], ed. Evgenii Zhiglevich (Munich: A Neimanis Buchvertrieb und Verlag, 1970), p. 3.

    And the picture below, showing what a natty dresser he was (Anglophile at least in his clothing), was scanned from Ellendea Proffer, ed., A Pictorial Biography of Mikhail Bulgakov (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984), to which I had of course gone in search of pictures of Bulgakov:


    Return to The Great Russian Novel of Conscience.

    Home page of Swarthmore College.

    Sibelan Forrester's Home Page