Evgenii Zamiatin (1884-1937), 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
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
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
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:
- The attention to women’s history;
- The somewhat confusing two sisters personify Labor and Pleasure, who lead Vera Pavlovna through the dream;
- The Crystal Palace, based on the first steel-and-glass building in England;
- The plausibility (or not) of such a rational and educative dream (Zamiatin's are much more likely);
- The vision of an ideal socialist society that’s also ecologically well-integrated;
- Everyone comes to work and works; the old people age late: work is good for you!
- Amusing reference to aluminum as very expensive: it’s a highly reactive metal and used to be very rare and
expensive (Napoleon famously had a tray and a drinking service made of aluminum), until the discovery of how
to extract it from bauxite;
- Chernyshevsky stresses more than once that people who want to do something different (eat alone; linger in the
north through fall and winter) are free to do so, as are people who want to pay extra for special things and
- Vera Pavlovna, that creature of 19th-century St Petersburg, asks, “And who will wait on the tables?” even
though no one waits on her when she's at home;
- These happy socialists take turns singing in the choir and playing in the orchestra (page 257) - performing and
enjoying the show. Art, if not labor in general, has become less specialized, and many humans are equipped to
make it and enjoy it;
- In one scene, people are flirting with each other and then leaving the crowd to go have sex in private. Dear
old Chernyshevsky – imagining that women can enjoy having sex!
- Though this is a very small excerpt, perhaps you can see why people loved this novel so much, and why it was
so formative and influential in spite of its strong didactic tone. In the Soviet period, it never went out
of print and was read and studied by school children, which can’t have helped its reputation.
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.
- 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?
- What is the role of children in the story?
- 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?
- 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.
- How does the narrator’s description of the people on p. 284 compare to D-503’s description of the Numbers or
- (Not a question, but confirming that it is a typo on p. 287: “mine and thin” should of course read “mine and
- How could our narrator have corrupted these people?
- 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)?
- 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:
- Our hero, D-503, is a mathematician. What might that suggest about his character?
- 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.)
- 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?
- The problem with these anti-utopias is always: Who’s really running things?
- 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?
- What do you know about Taylor, his exercises, and his influence in industry and mass production? (What do
you know about Ford?)
- What’s the effect of the references to prior culture in the text (Kant; Scriabin; Pushkin; Dostoevsky; etc.)?
- Where do you see irrationality or human passions lurking beneath D-503’s lack of self-knowledge?
- Why would this culture have kept the Ancient House?
- What is I-330 up to?
- What is the role of dreams in the work?
- What roles are played in the story by mathematics, art, poetry?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- In the original Russian, they'll “tear out your fantasy” (fantazija, фантазия).
- What do you know about Tamerlane? (a 14th-century Turkic commander)
- Record 20 mentions burning at the stake – cf. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.
- 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?
- Is it plausible that the eyes of an uncorrupted person won’t hide what’s going on in that all-too-opaque skull?
- What are the various implications of the name and purpose of the Integral?
- 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.)
- 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?
- Notice the Modernist color symbolism (yellow and black for bees, etc.).
- 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?
- Compare the space flight described in Record 34 to the others we’ve seen so far.
- 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
- How does the speech of the Well-Doer or Benefactor in Record 36 compare to the Grand Inquisitor?
- What do you make of the elements of masochism in the story? The (rather traditional) associations of orgasm
- What kind of narrative consciousness do we get from D-503? How reliable is the information an unreliable narrator
- 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.)
- 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.