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July 28, 2005

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin

Posted by David Womersley

We
by Yegeny Zamyatin
first published in 1924
available in Penguin Classics, £8.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian novel We. This follows on from Prof. Womersley's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit of those other dystopian novels of the first half of the twentieth century, Brave New World and 1984.

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is the earliest, today the least-read, but in certain respects the most enduringly interesting example of twentieth-century dystopia. An influence on Orwell's 1984, and showing tantalising points of contact with Huxley's Brave New World, it has a provocativeness of insight and (insofar as one can judge of such things accurately from a translation) a brilliance of technique, which eclipses its English successors. If the radical issue which unites and fuels all these works is the question of the individual versus the collective (as Zamyatin himself believed it to be), then it is arguable that this theme receives its most vivid, as well as its earliest, expression in We.

Zemyatin was born in 1884, in the provinces south of Moscow. He worked in England for some of his life: during the First World War he helped build Russian icebreakers in England, and he edited a series of the works of H.G. Wells for publication in Russian. In 1931, discouraged by the turn of Russian life and politics, and forbidden to publish his writings, he petitioned Stalin to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. The request was granted, and Zamyatin moved to Paris, where he died in 1937.

Composed probably in 1920-21, and read by Zamyatin to invited audiences on a number of occasions, We was however not published until 1924, and even then not in Russian, but in an English translation by the émigré Gregory Zilboorg for the New York publishers, Dutton. There followed further translations: Czech in 1927, French in 1929. But it was not until 1952 that the original Russian text was published, and even then this occurred once more in New York. It was only in 1988 that the original Russian version of We was published on Russian soil by the Moscow publishers Kniga. The reason for this delay is to be found in the paranoia of the Soviet régime, which regarded Zamyatin's novel as a thinly-encrypted attack on the Soviet system. There is a deep fittingness in the fact that the publication history of this prophetic denunciation of totalitarianism should itself have been so clearly shaped and influenced by totalitarian repression. But were the Soviet authorities right to view We in this way?

Certainly the totalitarian government of Zamyatin's OneState could be read as a lurid image of the Soviet system had it managed to realise its own most fantastic and hubristic aspirations. But in fact Zamyatin's concerns are more complicated, and the emotional range of his novel is broader, than could be expected from a work of purely topical satire. In the way they handled Zamyatin's novel the Soviet authorities demonstrated, not for the first time, that, in the midst of all their other human failings, despots tend also to be poor readers.

We is set in the far-distant future of the twenty-sixth century, when the earth has been subjugated by a totalitarian régime presided over by the shadowy figure of the Benefactor. The society of OneState displays what we have come to recognise as the characteristic features of such dystopian societies, but which it seems that Zamyatin originally minted: the family has been abolished; imagination and individuality are repressed (names being replaced by numbers with a letter prefix, vowels for women, consonants for men); the apparently humane goals of happiness and health have been used to justify the complete extinction of personal liberty; sex has been transformed into a social duty; and human life is utterly urban, because of the possibilities of control which exist in cities but not the countryside (from which the dwellers in OneState are separated by the "Green Wall").

The novel tells the story of D-503, a scientist and mathematician in OneState. He is engaged on the construction of the INTEGRAL, a rocket which will allow the export of OneState's totalitarianism to the rest of the universe. As the State Gazette puts it:

A thousand years ago your heroic forebears subjugated the whole of planet Earth to the power of OneState. It is for you to accomplish an even more glorious feat: by means of the glass, the electric, the fire-breathing INTEGRAL to integrate the indefinite equation of the universe. It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of the unknown beings who inhabit other planets – still living, it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy. But before taking up arms, we shall try what words can do.
However, D-503 meets I-330, a charismatic, secret dissident. I-330 has sex for pleasure, drinks and smokes, and is committed to the overthrow of OneState. It is for this reason that she cultivates D-503. Once the dissidents control the INTEGRAL, the destruction of OneState will be child's play, as she explains to D-503:
The INTEGRAL in our hands – with a weapon like that we'll finish the whole thing at once, quickly, painlessly. Their aeros will be a joke! Like midges turned against a shrike! And then if we need to, we can turn the blast from the engines against them and let that do the work . . .
But the insurrection fails. I-330 is tortured by asphyxiation, then executed. D-503 undergoes the "Great Operation" of lobotomy, from which he emerges loyal and smiling ("a smile is the normal state of a normal person"). The totalitarianism of OneState emerges apparently strengthened from this trial, because (as D-503 says) "reason must win".

A range of comparisons between We and the dystopian novels of Orwell and Huxley suggest themselves immediately, although perhaps the most interesting concerns sex. Zamyatin, like his two English successors, identified sex as a source both of repression and liberation, although whereas in 1984 sex is generally discouraged by the party, in Huxley as in Zamyatin the institutionalising and bureaucratising of a certain libertinism, in which one is obliged to have sex with those who desire it, is a way of turning this potential source of disruption into an instrument of orderly control. In all three writers intense erotic experience is presented as a solvent of this social control. Why should this be so? Perhaps it is because the erotic (as opposed to bureaucratised or routine coupling) is an instance of an impulse of undeniable power originating from within oneself rather than being imposed from outside; as such, it implicitly challenges the state's claim to have a monopoly of imperatives. The allure of I-330 embodies Zamyatin's most subtle diagnosis of the vulnerability of totalitarianism.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.


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It could do with a revival in a modern format, where WE are the ‘Borg’, and resistance is futile. Let’s see…

Earth history has gone very wrong, and the INTEGRAL has reached the solar-type star R Cephei. The inhabitants of Planet III are in dire straits. Suddenly the Tardis materializes in their midst, and out steps the Doctor …

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 29, 2005 02:21 PM
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Interesting site. I came across it trying to find a place where I could download "We". would you happen to know?

Posted by: André C at June 14, 2006 12:16 AM
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