Yevgeni Zamyatin

Yevgeni Zamyatin

Yevgeni Zamyatin was born in Lebedyan, Russia, on 20th January, 1884. The son of a teacher, Zamyatin trained as a naval engineer at St Petersburg. While a student joined the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). He later wrote: "To be a Bolshevik in those years meant following the path of greatest resistance, so I was a Bolshevik then."

Zamyatin's support of the Bolsheviks resulted in him being arrested and sent into exile. He returned during the 1905 Revolution and joined the student demonstrations against Nicholas II. Zamyatin was arrested, badly beaten and sent to Spalernaja Prison where he had to endure several months of solitary confinement.

After graduating Zamyatin became a lecturer at the Department of Naval Architecture. He wrote several articles on ship construction for journals such as The Ship and Russian Navigation. He also wrote fiction and in 1913 published the novel A Provincial Tale. This was followed by At The World's End (1914), a satire on military life. This upset the censors and Zamyatin was brought to trial but was acquitted. However, the book was banned and all copies were destroyed.

During the First World War Zamyatin was sent to England to supervise the building of Russian icebreakers. He returned to Russia after the October Revolution. Although initially a supporter of the Bolsheviks he began to question the new government's attempt to control the arts.

Zamyatin switched his support to the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and published a series of political fables in Delo Naroda (The People's Concern), a newspaper run by Victor Chernov. He also wrote for Novaya Zhizn (New Life) a journal funded and edited by Maxim Gorky. In one of these articles he attacked the Soviet government and its Red Terror.

In 1919 Zamyatin published an essay entitled Tomorrow, where he wrote about the importance of maintaining the right to criticize those in authority: "Today is doomed to die - because yesterday died, and because tomorrow will be born. Such is the wise and cruel law. Cruel, because it condemns to eternal dissatisfaction those who already today see the distant peaks of tomorrow; wise, because eternal dissatisfaction is the only pledge of eternal movement forward, eternal creation." Zamyatin went on to add: "The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy."

Ignoring warnings about the dangers of what he was doing, Zamyatin published the essay, I Am Afraid, where he argued that the attitude of those in authority was stifling creative literature. Zamyatin argued that "the only weapon worthy of man is the word." He added "fortunately, all truths are false: the essence of the dialectical process is that today's truths become errors tomorrow."

In 1919 Zamyatin was recruited by Maxim Gorky to work with him on his World Literature project. It was the task of Gorky, Zamyatin, Alexander Blok, Nikolai Gumilev, and other members of the editorial board to select, translate and publish non-Russian literary works. Each volume was to be annotated, illustrated, and supplied with an introductory essay.

Zamyatin continued to write fiction and literary criticism and in 1921 his work inspired the creation of Serapion Brothers. The group argued for greater freedom and variety in literature. Members included Nickolai Tikhonov, Mikhail Slonimski, Vsevolod Ivanov and Konstantin Fedin.

In 1923 Zamyatin published Fires of St. Dominic, a book about the Spanish Inquisition, that parallels the activities of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. He also wrote a series of plays including the popular Attilla. It was through his work with World Literature that Zamyatin discovered the science fiction of H. G. Wells. This inspired him to write the novel We. The first anti-utopian novel ever written, it is a satire on life in a collectivist state in the future. People in this new society called One State, have numbers rather than names, wear identical uniforms and live in buildings built of glass. The people are ruled by the Benefactor and policed by the Guardians. One State is surrounded by a wall of glass and outside is an untamed green jungle.

The hero of We is D-503, a mathematician who is busy building Integral, a gigantic spaceship which will eventually go to other planets to spread the joy of the One State. D-503 is happy with his life until he falls in love with I-330, a member of Mephi, a revolutionary organization living in the jungle. D-503 now joins the plot to take over Integral and use it as a weapon to destroy One State. However, the conspirators are arrested by the Guardians and the Benefactor decides that action must be taken to prevent further revolts. D-503 like the rest of the people living in One State, is forced to undergo the Great Operation, which destroys the part of the brain which controls passion and imagination.

Zamyatin secretly distributed copies of We through literary circles. He was warned by friends that attempts to publish the book in the Soviet Union would led to his arrest and possible execution. Zamyatin knew that he could not be published in the Soviet Union but he managed to smuggle a copy of his manuscript abroad. An English translation of the novel was published in the United States in 1924. Three years later a Russian language edition began to circulate in Eastern Europe.

The publication of We brought fierce criticism from the Soviet Writers' Union. He responded by resigning with the comment that "I find it impossible to belong to a literary organization which, even if only indirectly, takes a part in the persecution of a fellow member."

Zamyatin's plays were banned from the theatre and any books that had been published in the Soviet Union were confiscated. Zamyatin described these events as a "writer's death sentence" and wrote to Joseph Stalin requesting to emigrate claiming that "no creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year." He bravely added: " Regardless of the content of a given work, the very fact of my signature has become a sufficient reason for declaring the work criminal. Of course, any falsification is permissible in fighting the devil. I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men".

It appeared only a matter of time before Zamyatin would be arrested and imprisoned. However, in 1931 Maxim Gorky managed to use his influence over Joseph Stalin to allow Zamyatin to leave the Soviet Union.

Zamyatin settled in France where he wrote screenplays such as Anna Karenina. He also wrote an unfinished novel, The Scourge of God, a satire on the Russian Revolution. Yevgeni Zamyatin died of a heart attack in Paris on 10th March, 1937. We, although never published in the Soviet Union, deeply influenced other novels about the future such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

Primary Sources

(1) Yevgeni Zamyatin, Tomorrow (1919)

Every today is at the same time a cradle and a shroud: a shroud for yesterday, a cradle for tomorrow. Today is doomed to die - because yesterday died, and because tomorrow will be born. Such is the wise and cruel law. Cruel, because it condemns to eternal dissatisfaction those who already today see the distant peaks of tomorrow; wise, because eternal dissatisfaction is the only pledge of eternal movement forward, eternal creation. He who has found his ideal today is, like Lot's wife, already turned to a pillar of salt, has already sunk into the earth and does not move ahead. The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy: tomorrow is an inevitable heresy of today, which has turned into a pillar of salt, and to yesterday, which has scattered to dust. Today negates yesterday, but tomorrow is a negation of negation. Thesis yesterday, antithesis today, and synthesis tomorrow.

(2) Yevgeni Zamyatin, The Day and Age (1924)

In America there is a society for the suppression of vice which once decided, in order to prevent temptation, that all the naked statues in a New York museum must be dressed in little skirts like those of ballet dancers. These puritan skirts are merely ridiculous, and do little damage; if they have not yet been removed, a new generation will remove them and see the statues as they are. But when a writer dresses his novel in such a skirt, it is no longer laughable. And when this is done not by one, but by dozens of writers, it becomes a menace. These skirts cannot be removed, and future generations will have to learn about our epoch from tinseled, straw-filled dummies. They will receive far fewer literary documents than they might have. And it is therefore all the more important to point out such documents where they exist.

(3) Alexander Efremin attacked the writing of Yevgeni Zamyatin in his article The Fatal Path (4th January, 1930)

Zamyatin has a complete and unmitigated disbelief in the Revolution, a thorough and persistent skepticism, a departure from reality, an extreme individualism, a clearly hostile attitude to the Marxist-Leninist world view, the justification of any "heresy", of any protest in the name of that protest, a hostile attitude to the factors of class war - this is the complex of ideas within which Zamyatin revolves. Thrown out beyond the bounds of the Revolution by its centrifugal force, he, of necessity, is in the enemy camp, in the ranks of the bourgeoisie.

(4) Yevgeni Zamyatin, How We Write (1931)

I spend much time in rewriting, evidently much more than is necessary for the reader. But this is necessary for the critic, the most demanding and most caviling critic that I know of; for myself. I am never successful in deceiving this critic, and until he tells me that everything that is possible has been done.

If I consider anybody else's opinion, then it is only the opinion of my friends, of whom I know that they know how a novel, a story, a play is made: they themselves have made them - and made them really well. For me, there is no other criticism, and how it could exist, is incomprehensible to me.

(5) Yevgeni Zamyatin, letter to Joseph Stalin (June, 1931)

No creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year. In each of my published works these critics have inevitably discovered some diabolical intent. Regardless of the content of a given work, the very fact of my signature has become a sufficient reason for declaring the work criminal. Of course, any falsification is permissible in fighting the devil.

I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men, as soon as there is at least partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role of the literary artist.

I do not wish to conceal that the fundamental reason for my request for permission to go abroad together with my wife is my hopeless situation here as a writer, the death sentence which has been passed on me here as a writer.

(6) Marc Slonim met Yevgeni Zamyatin in Paris shortly before his death.

He was lean, of medium height, clean shaven, with reddish-blond hair parted on the side. Then in his early fifties, he looked much younger, and the malicious twinkle in his grey eyes gave a boyish expression to his handsome face. Always wearing tweeds and with an unextinguished pipe in his wide, generous mouth, he resembled an Englishman.

(7) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)

When the Press denounced Zamyatin and Pilniak as public enemies, the first for a biting satire on totalitarianism, the other for a fine realist novel, my author friends (in the Soviet Writers' Union) voted everything that was expected of them against their two comrades.