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 hair curlers hates most of all is the Fair Lady who does not recognize her sole right to the prerogatives of love.” Love, discontent, the scientific spirit—this is the triad that should make the world go round, the dialectic to produce the everchanging synthesis of tomorrow. All writers should be Scythians, “hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, skeptics,” anything but “diligent and trustworthy functionaries.” As Alex Shane comments in his preface to the essays, “Zamyatin reaffirmed the heretic’s role in effecting the cruel but wise law of never-ending dissatisfaction.”

“Reaffirmed”—for there is nothing original in the message: it is straight out of Goethe’s Faust and would have been endorsed by almost any Victorian bien pensant. Zamyatin himself was well aware of this, for the last sentence of his essay “I am Afraid”—in which his prophetic fears are of exactly what has come to pass in Russia—reads: “I am afraid that the only future possible to Russian literature is its past.” He saw that the tradition of herecy and rebellion which had fertilized Russian culture and nurtured the liberal idea belonged to the past, not to the future. Politically he loathed reaction. Exiled in Paris for the last years of his life he went out of his way to avoid émigré circles. But it was only in the past that he could find his ideal of what the writer should be.

Zamyatin was thus a divided man—pressing toward the future but condemned to find its only tolerable image in the past—and the dilemma gives a kind of unreality to the very considerable art and intentness of We. Like Wells himself, and like many other writers of the time who used scientific ideas, Zamyatin was fascinated by correspondences between science and art. He produced a biography of Von Mayer, a pioneer of thermodynamic theory, in which he equated the concept of entropy (“the tendency of the universe’s energy toward rest—toward death”) with the philistinism and spiritual death which he perceived being brought about by the domination of the Bolshevik Party. Ideally, revolution should be based on energy, entropy’s opposite—“an exact formula for this law of revolution will someday be established.”


Possibly, but as We demonstrates, the energies of science could be harnessed more effectively by the Philistine than by the Scythian. Nor is this the only paradox in Zamyatin’s position. Of the numerous movements and “isms” that hopefully proliferated around 1920 in Petersburg he chose to become the leader of the Serapion Brothers, a group which included a diversity of talents—the storywriter Zoshchenko, the formalist Shklovski, the critic Lev Lunts. The latter produced the Serapion manifesto, proclaiming the total “autonomy” of art.

We are with the hermit Serapion…. We reject utilitarianism. We do not write for the sake of propaganda. Art is as real as life itself, and, as life itself, has no goal or meaning, it exists because it must exist.

And—possibly with an echo of Shklovski’s formalism—“Literary chimeras are a special sort of reality.”

Although We is the most determined propaganda imaginable, its grave aesthetic balance and harmony, the carefully structured discipline of its style, are—so to speak—Serapion; and they have been superlatively rendered in Mirra Ginsburg’s translation. But they have also dated: they seem a literary equivalent of art deco, just as the machines, like Wells’s, belong to an era of bakelite technology. Inevitably the faded aesthetics of the novel now seem discrepant with the urgency of its message. Though 1984 was openly based on the plan of We, Orwell inherited a harsher and clearer idiom—that of Swift and Defoe—which gives his satire a more colorless but also timeless quality.

Yet Serapionism lends both a tenderness and a dignity to We which its successor notably lacks. The satire itself is of course predictable, and interchangeable with that of other works of the kind.

Naturally, having conquered hunger…the One State launched its attack against the other ruler of the world—Love. And finally this elemental force was also subjugated…. Since then it has been only a matter of technology. You are carefully examined in the laboratories of the Sexual Department; the exact content of sexual hormones in your blood is determined, and you are provided with an appropriate table of sexual days. After that you declare that on your sexual days you wish to use number so-and-so, and you receive your book of coupons (pink).

Anyone, from Wells to Aldous Huxley and onward, could do this sort of thing. But just as Zamyatin draws on the Russian literary tradition for the scope of his polemics (and his “Benefactor” is very obviously a descendant of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor), so he draws on it for a seemingly effortless understanding and delineation of the varieties of affection.

The lovers in 1984 are schematized dry sticks, and those in Brave New World are even worse. Orwell and Huxley seem to know that love is a good thing and strive to exhibit it by contrast with the nightmare of the future. Zamyatin feels it and virtually makes an epiphany of it. His numbered hero, whose schematic entries in a diary make up the formal structure of the book, comes to apprehend its distinctions in the other “numbers”. in his life. As Mirra Ginsburg well says, We is not only a parable and a fantasy but “a profoundly moving human tragedy, and a study in the variety of human loves (passion—D.503; domination—I.330; jealousy—U; gentle, total giving of the self—0.90). Though the people are nameless numbers each is an individual, convincingly and movingly alive.”

As in E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops,” which antedates We by a few years (could Zamyatin have come across it in England?), the artificial city of the One State, presided over by the Benefactor, has outside its glass walls the unredeemed world of nature, peopled by birds and trees and the hairy primitives whom Orwell metamorphosed into the proles of his ramshackle urban nightmare. The hero is chief designer of a flying machine which will carry the Benefactor’s message, put into panegyrics by state writers, to other worlds. His entries record his dawning horror at finding he has a self, awakened by his feeling for other numbers, and at the end that self breaks down, submits to an operation, betrays those it loves. But demoralization has begun; the city is occupied in part by the disaffected; and the entries conclude with the hero’s fervent hope that they will be overcome.

We feel that his confidence is not misplaced, and that the Benefactor will have no trouble in conquering any threat to the mindless happiness of the One State. Mirra Ginsburg suggests that the author is saying “to all dogmatists, all who attempt to force life into a rigid mold: You will not, you cannot prevail. Man will not be destroyed.” I doubt this. Not for nothing was Zamyatin a colleague of the formalist Shklovski. We ends precisely and ironically because the hero is no longer capable of the act of “self-expression”: the last writer is extinguished with the last sentence of the book; only the title remains.


Irving Howe’s claim that “We is one of the great novels of the twentieth century” is, I think, excessive. Really great novels do not rely, as We and all other such novels have to do, on an ingenious external structure. They generate their own imaginative life from deep down. We is lacking in the true originality of its time, that of Ulysses for example, which does not schematize the future but burrows into the previously untapped reality of the present. A great novelist cannot afford to be so wholly in charge of his material as is the writer of satiric fantasy: there will always be an element of surprise—for him as for us—in what has emerged. (Swift is a partial exception, for what makes the end of Gulliver’s Travels so haunting is the uprush of disgust and despair that seems to sweep aside the cool satiric intent.)

But though (like other writers in the genre) he manipulates his material, Zamyatin has none of that element of self-indulgence which is the other occupational hazard of satiric fantasy. Mirra Ginsburg considers Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange as successors to We, but they seem to me for this reason to be on a wholly inferior plane. They are games, toys, devices, masquerading as tracts for the times. The author of We was actually beginning to have to live under conditions not so very different from those he was writing about, and in 1929 the Benefactor, through his creature RAPP (the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), imposed upon Zamyatin the silence that is suggested in the last words of his novel. Forbidden publication in Russia, he was allowed to leave the country and died five years later.

The final irony, and one probably not lost on Zamyatin, is that the socialist realists who hounded him through RAPP used a technique that is essentially similar to his own: inventing a wholly imaginary society that is presented as real, “the future that works,” and presented in the same stylized manner, with the same emphasis on the characteristic as is used by science fiction. Novels about cement works and sunburned traktoristi are as unactualized as the nightmare society projected by Zamyatin, but the ideal of happiness universalized by the One State is their specification and premise. The irredeemable unreality of such novels is the phantasmal “we” in whose name they claim to speak

Zamyatin’s title perfectly defines the nature of his irony, and his heresy.

We is from God and “I” from the devil: in the ancient world this was understood by the Christians, our only predecessors (however imperfect)…. Is it not clear that individual consciousness is merely a sickness?

Freedom, and especially freedom for the writer, consists in saying not “We” and “Our” but “I” and “Mine.” The final pungency of We is that the very limitations inherent in its form constitute an inbuilt parody of the fantasy that is Soviet Realism. It is remarkable how so many Russian masterpieces, from Eugene Onegin onward, are built upon the parodic form.

As propaganda We has of course dated, not only in the sense that yesterday’s jolt is today’s bromide, but also in a more interesting and perhaps more disconcerting way. For in the West today anarchy casts a longer shadow than the Benefactor. Aimlessness and freaking out impose their own sort of mindless conformism; “we” has become the pronoun of bodies far more irrational than the monolithic society. We are threatened by the primitive backlash which Zamyatin extolled, and his position of isolation has become a literary fashion. The writer as Scythian may become the purveyor of radical chic. We do not need warning against those who tell us we live in a paradise. On the contrary, life inside the wall today is probably more tolerable, more hopeful even, than literature would have us believe.

This Issue

October 19, 1972