Yevgeny Zamyatin and the novel We

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Article on life of Yevgeny Zamyatin, Russian writer.

Yevgeny Zamyatin and the novel We

Yevgeny Zamyatin was born in Russia in 1884. In his youth he was involved in a Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, and began a hazardous writing career in the years following the 1905 revolution, in which he was arrested, imprisoned and twice exiled before being granted amnesty in 1913.

By 1917 he was no longer a member of the Bolsheviks and threw himself into the great artistic and cultural ferment triggered by the Russian Revolution. Hurrying back from a job in England, he served on the editorial boards of several publishing houses and taught at writing workshops.

Whilst some writers believed that literature should be totally subordinated to socialism, Zamyatin became a leading figure in the Serapion Brethren. This group had different styles and approaches, but were united in their belief that writers should have creative freedom, and that literature should not be uniform and monochrome but varied, experimental and above all crafted. The Brethren supported Zamyatin’s declaration, in the essay ‘I Am Afraid’, that: “true literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and sceptics.”

He wrote We in 1920-1921 but was not permitted to publish it. It was the custom to read new works out at meetings of the All-Russian Writers’ Union, and We provoked a series of vicious attacks by Party critics and tame hack writers.

As the grip of the new bureaucratic class tightened on all aspects of Russian life, Zamyatin came increasingly under attack. He was fearless in his opposition to calls for total submission to the Communist Party. In his 1926 essay, ‘The Goal’, he wrote that he found it: “difficult to imagine a work by Lev Tolstoy or Romain Rolland based on improvement of sanitation.”

By 1929 the regime had set up the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. RAPP pursued a campaign to wipe out any independent writing in Russian literature. Many publishing houses and magazines were closed down and there was a wave of suicides by writers and poets.

Zamyatin and his fellow writer Pilnyak were singled out for a particularly nasty campaign of vilification. Whilst We was never published in the Soviet Union, its translation and publication in a Russian émigré journal in Czechoslovakia was used to denounce him (even though its first publication in English in 1924 and in Czech in 1927 had gone unnoticed). Pilnyak cracked under the pressure and recanted. Zamyatin refused to give in. Faced with the withdrawal of his works from publication, shops and libraries, Zamyatin wrote to Stalin asking permission to leave Russia, as he regarded this ban as a living death.

Surprisingly, permission was granted, thanks to the intercession of Gorky, the grand old man of Russian literature. He moved to Paris in 1931, but life was still hard for him. He had little in common with the Russian émigré community with its reactionary ideas. He was lonely and lived in great poverty. He died of heart disease in 1937, with just a few friends attending his funeral. His death passed unremarked in Soviet papers and his name was deleted from all literary histories and encyclopaedias. He became a non-person, tippexed out from history.

But his great dystopian novel has survived despite all of this. Unlike Orwell’s 1984 (which was much influenced by Zamyatin) it carries a message of hope. As Zamyatin’s heroine I-330 says in We: “We shall break down all walls – to let the green wind blow free from end to end – across the earth.”

Nick Heath

This article first appeared in issue No.74 of Organise! magazine of the Anarchist Federatiom

Posted By

Battlescarred
Oct 6 2021 07:22

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Serge Forward
Oct 6 2021 13:14

And a fantastic book it is too!