Them and Us

A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin

edited and translated by Mirra Ginsburg
University of Chicago, 322 pp., $9.50

Yevgeny Zamyatin
Yevgeny Zamyatin; drawing by David Levine

Whatever their design upon us, novels of Utopia share some of the limitations of pornographic fiction. The fancy has only so many fixed counters to play with, and the imagination can only work through style and idea, not with any deeper creative process. Like sex, the future turns out to be distinctly finite: we shall probably see the point too early, and having seen it become bored. Tolstoy thought this always happened when art relied too much on gimmicks, and Dr. Johnson observed of Gulliver’s Travels that once Swift had thought of big men and little men the rest was easy. Johnson’s dislike of Swift made him unfair, but he has a point. Satiric fantasy is apt to be self-limiting, even at its best.

Zamyatin’s We is one of the best in the genre. In 1922, at the time he was writing it, Zamyatin wrote an essay on H. G. Wells which shows an encyclopedic knowledge of European science fiction of the time. Wells, he remarked, differs from all the rest as +A differs from -A (the mathematics metaphor is typical of Zamyatin) because he is writing social tracts in the form of fantastic novels. That was also Zamyatin’s purpose. The essay appears in a recent collection entitled A Soviet Heretic, edited and translated by Mirra Ginsburg, and like many other pieces in that volume it is an exploration—from a craftsman’s point of view—of how the Russian writer of the time might not only maintain his own integrity in the face of the growing threat of Soviet bureaucratization but might also find ways to warn: to keep revolution alive by discarding the new truths and moving on to new heresies.

For Zamyatin was a convinced believer in the revolution, so long as it remained one: he would have echoed St. Just’s protest, La révolution est glacée. He had himself been locked up by the tsarist regime for participating in the abortive events of 1905, and in 1917 he hurried home from England where he had been helping in the design and construction of icebreakers for the Russian navy. He was too late for the downfall of the old regime and only experienced the coup of October when the Bolsheviks seized power. His comment on this is typical: “It is the same as never having been in love and waking up one morning already married for ten years or so.” For Zamyatin, revolution should be like love, and his complaint against the Bolsheviks was that they had changed this exciting and fertile emotion into suspicion and a deadly self-righteousness.

” ‘The Victorious October revolution,’ as it is referred to in official sources, has not escaped the general law on becoming victorious: it has turned philistine,” Zamyatin wrote in 1918 in an essay called “Scythians?” Such a sentence shows prescience. He goes on to say that what the new Soviet woman “with her…

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