Fierce and Gentle Warriors
One Man’s Destiny
It was with reference to Zamyatin that Trotsky in 1923, in his Literature and Revolution, coined the term “inner émigré” to define an attitude and a quality of writing which he resented, a scornful aloofness to the Revolution, a spiritual isolation that seemed to him willful and snobbish. He was only partly right; Zamyatin was indeed aloof, but neither snobbish nor indifferent. He sensed how things were going; wrote We, that famous satire on totalitarianism which inspired Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, but which has never been published in Russia; and presently, finding his position in the USSR untenable—suddenly deprived of his various editorial positions, unable to publish his stories, his play taken off the boards—changed from inner to outward émigré, and ended his days in Paris, in 1937.
His escape was unusual. In a remarkable letter to Stalin he asked permission to leave the country and his request was granted. “To me, as a writer,” he said, “being deprived of the opportunity to write is nothing less than a death sentence. Yet the situation that has come about is such that I cannot continue my work, because no creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution…. I have never concealed my attitude toward literary servility, fawning, and chameleon changes of color: I have felt—and I still feel—that this is equally degrading to both the writer and to the revolution.” And having given specific instances of persecution, he made his plea in the following terms:
If I am in truth a criminal deserving punishment, I nevertheless do not think that I merit so grave a penalty as literary death. I therefore ask that this sentence be changed to deportation from the USSR—and that my wife be allowed to accompany me. But if I am not a criminal, I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife temporarily, for at least one year, 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.
This was in 1931. Maxim Gorky interceded for him, and Zamyatin left Russia. He did not come back.
The Dragon contains, in addition to the letter to Stalin, excellent translations of fifteen of his stories that span the period of his creative life: the earliest was first published in 1913 when he was twenty-nine years old, the last in 1935, two years before his death. They are greatly varied in theme, tone, setting. Some are humorous, some tragic, some are satires and parables, some fantasies or almost fairy tales. None are “realistic,” for to realism Zamyatin objected on principle. Literature, he said in an essay that created a stir in 1921 and is still quoted with fury by Soviet critics, “Real literature” is created by “madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, skeptics”; he feared that in their insistence on realism, proletarian writers were stepping backward into the Sixties and that Russian …