Evgenii Zamiatin (1884-1937), We

About Chernyshevsky | About Dostoevsky | Info on Zamiatin and and questions about We | More questions on We

Chernyshevsky: “Vera Pavlova’s Dream” from What Is To Be Done? (1863)

Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) is more important as a thinker than as a writer, but What Is To Be Done (Lenin’s favorite novel, and as I mentioned quite possibly the worse novel ever written, if we exclude novel-length things meant for beach reading) was one of the most influential, life-altering books in the history of Russian literature and culture.

Chernyshevsky was born in the Russian provincial city of Saratov, where his father was the local priest. He had the usual seminary education of a priest’s son and was expected to become a priest himself. (Lots of Russian positivist radicals and “men of the 1860s” were “поповичи,” priest’s sons, with typical seminary names like “Dobroliubov” (Добролюбов) 'lover of good', and you can see the influence of Bible study and hagiographic reading all over their assumptions about society and proper morality.) Chernyshevsky left seminary in 1845 and started St. Petersburg University, at that time the most élite educational institution in Russia, in 1846. There he read the western radical authors (Feuerbach, Louis Blanc, Proudhon, Fourier) and witnessed the failed European revolutions in 1848, which persuaded him that liberalism could not change the world. He started work on his master's thesis at St. Petersburg U in 1853 and began his journalistic career in 1854. At first he wrote literary criticism (inspired by the late, great critic Vissarion Belinskii), but then he moved more and more into “publitsistika” and other kinds of social commentary. He failed his thesis defense in 1855; the thesis offended many readers by suggesting that reality was superior to any kind of art: not only is an apple better than a painting of an apple, but that a good pair of boots is worth more than Pushkin, in crude summary. By 1857, Ch’s writing had shifted entirely to socio-economic questions.

The Russian government, devoted to “autocracy, nationality, and orthodoxy,” did not appreciate Chernyshevsky’s writing and growing influence over young people especially, and after about a year of secret police surveillance he was arrested in 1862. He wrote What Is To Be Done? in prison (in the Peter and Paul Fortress), and the censors inexplicably allowed the novel to be serialized in the journal Chernyshevsky wrote for, The Contemporary (ironically enough, it had been founded by Pushkin). There was no evidence against Chernyshevsky, but he still underwent a civil execution (a sword broken over his head on a public platform in front of a gallows) and was sentenced to seven years of hard labor and exile for life. He wrote nothing else with the same impact as What Is To Be Done?, but his sentence was interpreted as a martyrdom, and it alienated many Russians who had felt hopeful about the changes introduced in the early 1860s. The harsh conditions of prison and exile broke his health and he died at 61. He is still widely respected in Russia (a subway stop in St Petersburg is named after him).

There’s a fascinating polemical version of his life in Chapter 4 of Vladimir Nabokov’s great Russian novel, The Gift (1937): Nabokov depicts the Russian émigré community rising in offense at his hero Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s presentation of Chernyshevsky, and life imitated art when the real Russian émigrés were offended at Nabokov for this version of Chernyshevsky’s story – he (Ch.) was such a sacred cow, even among people who had fled or been exiled from the new Soviet Union (where Chernyshevsky was of course even more sacred).

Chernyshevsky makes lots of narrative meta-comments that present his novel as poorly written, and himself as a non-author, not concerned with artistry but with Truth. “Vera Pavlova’s Dream” is an exception: he cites bits of poems and song; you can tell he’s trying to write as expressively as he can, with pathos! This chapter also shows his feminism, one of the most attractive sides of Chernyshevsky’s personality. What Is To Be Done? inspired many young female readers to study science and medicine - as Vera Pavlovna is doing by the end of the novel – and many young male readers to support women in getting access to education in Western Europe, especially Switzerland.

A note on her name: “Pavlovna” is a patronymic, telling us that her father’s name is Pavel (her brother would be “Pavlovich”) – as Leonid’s common-law wife in the first part of Red Star is “Anna Nikoaevna,” with a father named Nikolai. You can imagine how this naming convention, still alive and well in Russia, inscribes every single person with le Nom du Père (to cite the French feminist critics) and marks their place in the patriarchy. She refers once to “Sasha” – her (second) husband, a doctor/scientist (I forget exactly what!) named Aleksandr.

No questions for reading “Vera Pavlova’s Dream,” it’s a secondary reading meant to open your appreciation of We, but please note:


Dostoevsky, “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” in Worlds Apart:

Fëdor (Fyodor) Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is one of the best-known authors in the world, but please let me know if you have any questions about him! The salient details for appreciating his part in the polemics around What Is To Be Done, and thence his contribution to the underpinning of

Notes from Underground (1864) and Crime and Punishment (1866) were immediate responses to Chernyshevsky's novel. The character of Luzhin in C and P embodies and mocks its ideas, while Lebezyatnikov, who shows up only at the funeral meal for Marmeladov that turns into a typical Dostoevskian scandal, is supposed to be a caricature of Chernyshevsky (and in fact, in the end, turns out to be absurd but bsaically a good guy). The other Dostoevskian link connecting these with We is the Grand Inquisitor scene in Brothers Karamazov (1879-80). (For a little light reading when your chem homework gets onerous, you can download the electronic text here, http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8578.) It's chapter 5 of the fifth book of the novel (which also first appeared serially). If you know these texts, keep them in mind as you read.

  1. Our narrator describes the same kind of sublet St. Petersburg lodgings that we see in Crime and Punishment. Does science fiction treat cities differently from other kinds of literature?
  2. What is the role of children in the story?
  3. How does this dream compare with Tsiolkovsky’s “On the Moon”? (At least the title tells you it’s a dream!) With the dreams in We?
  4. Dostoevsky’s own access to infinite space, here and elsewhere, is provided by God and angels: they move through actual space, with suns and planets, and they can take humans along or send them to walk a zillion miles (another story from Brothers K.). Dostoevsky refers very briefly to astronomy and describes an actual trip through space: compare it to the others we’ve seen.
  5. How does the narrator’s description of the people on p. 284 compare to D-503’s description of the Numbers or Ciphers?
  6. (Not a question, but confirming that it is a typo on p. 287: “mine and thin” should of course read “mine and thine.” ☺)
  7. How could our narrator have corrupted these people?
  8. In what ways does the capsule history of this new planet evoke and refer to the history of Earth, especially of Europe (with its cradle and original ideal in Greece)?
  9. What does Dostoevsky want you to get from the story? What trajectory is he trying to impart to the reader? Do you buy it? Why?

Evgenii Zamiatin/Zamyatin, We – written mostly in 1920, completed in 1921; first published (surprise!) in English translation by Gregory Zilboorg in New York (I was wrong about Italy: that was Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago – sorry!); first published in Russian in 1927 in Paris, as tamizdat though my use of the term is anachronistic; first published in the Soviet Union in 1988 (!).

I hope every edition of We that you might possibly own will have an introduction about Zamiatin’s life and writings – if not, let me know and I’ll put more information up here. Important to remember that he was a naval engineer and worked as one until 1917 (when he was 33).

There are multiple translations (not surprising, given the book’s importance). Note that the first several entries are supposed to be stiff and difficult to read, perhaps even more than the translation will suggest. D-503 starts out as a turgid writer, not an artist but a mathematician (I’d say he was “constipated,” but the One State must control their diet too well for that). As he opens up emotionally and mentally during the story, his style gets both more fluent and more artistic.

Questions for Reading:

Zamyatin is really a first-rate writer (using 90 proof ink!); I’m sure you’ll notice lots of things as you read. Here are a few questions to get you going:

  1. Our hero, D-503, is a mathematician. What might that suggest about his character?
  2. What’s the effect of having numbers instead of names? (Shades of THX-1138, whose name compares to D-503’s the way recent license plates compare to old license plates.)
  3. And yet – the letters do function as a kind of “talking names.” In the original, the letters come from both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets (maybe to make us feel that the whole world, or at least all of Europe, is now united in this one state?) D-503 has a Cyrillic Д, which may activate whatever associations there’d be for a Greek “delta.” O is the same in Russian or Latin letters; I-330, R-13, and S all have Latin letters. “R” looks very like the Russian letter Я, pronounced “ya,” which is both a letter and the word for the pronoun “I.” Thus suggestions of individuality, or mirror image (the I inverted). What else can you make of R, O, I, and S?
  4. The problem with these anti-utopias is always: Who’s really running things?
  5. What do we learn about the history of the One State/United State (depending on what translation you have)? What about its architecture and technology?
  6. What do you know about Taylor, his exercises, and his influence in industry and mass production? (What do you know about Ford?)
  7. What’s the effect of the references to prior culture in the text (Kant; Scriabin; Pushkin; Dostoevsky; etc.)?
  8. Where do you see irrationality or human passions lurking beneath D-503’s lack of self-knowledge?
  9. Why would this culture have kept the Ancient House?
  10. What is I-330 up to?
  11. What is the role of dreams in the work?
  12. What roles are played in the story by mathematics, art, poetry?
  1. What is the effect of D-503’s personality shifts, as his style and mood change, and he comments on how differently he felt and wrote yesterday?
  2. S-4711 has a talking number, as well as his double-curved S, evocative of big ears and scoliosis: 4711 is the name of the original eau de cologne (produced for centuries now in Cologne, as you might expect), taken from the number assigned to the house of the owner of the company on the even of the French Revolution. Can you make any sense of this association?
  3. The effect of the various letters of the Numbers’ or Ciphers’ names is different in English, where you get a sentence like “It is I, I-330” (!). In Russian, the pronoun “ya” (я) is all over the place, activating the connection between R-13 and I-330 whenever D-503 talks about himself.
  4. In the original Russian, they'll “tear out your fantasy” (fantazija, фантазия).
  5. What do you know about Tamerlane? (a 14th-century Turkic commander)
  6. Record 20 mentions burning at the stake – cf. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.
  7. Regarding U-, D-503 rattles off the standard “there is no greater honor than to crown someone’s evening years” – but he clearly doesn’t like or trust her. What is he repressing here?
  8. Is it plausible that the eyes of an uncorrupted person won’t hide what’s going on in that all-too-opaque skull?
  9. What are the various implications of the name and purpose of the Integral?
  10. Kind of an obvious question, but: why do the children object to having their fancy or fantasy extirpated by x-rays? (Note that x-rays aren’t called x-rays in Russian, but “Röntgen rays,”: after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, who won the very first Nobel Prize in Physics.)
  11. The poetry comes in hexameters, a very classical or neoclassical meter – it seems that poetry here rhymes and scans just like on Mars. Is it plausible that a society that infantilized its population in this way would teach it anything about history, or present what sounds like pretty élite arts, rather than employing brief catchy jingles and beach novels?
  12. Notice the Modernist color symbolism (yellow and black for bees, etc.).
  13. I-330 espouses a philosophy very like Zamiatin’s own. What’s the effect of making a character like her the mouthpiece of the author?
  14. Compare the space flight described in Record 34 to the others we’ve seen so far.
  15. How can D-503 be so naïve, expecting that no one will read his notes, when he leaves them right on his table in a room with glass walls? (And is I-330 right to blame him for the exposure of the conspiracy to kidnap the Integral?)
  16. How does the speech of the Well-Doer or Benefactor in Record 36 compare to the Grand Inquisitor?
  17. What do you make of the elements of masochism in the story? The (rather traditional) associations of orgasm with death?
  18. What kind of narrative consciousness do we get from D-503? How reliable is the information an unreliable narrator conveys?
  19. So did I-330 love him or just use him? (How about all those leftover pink tickets in her room? And who was the mysterious F? - it's a Russian Ф in the original, like a Greek phi.)
  20. What’s the effect of the story’s end? (Here perhaps closest to Orwell’s 1984.)


Returun to the syllabus for Russian and East European Science Fiction.