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||Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884-1937) - name also written Evgenii Ivanovich Zamiatin|
Russian novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist, whose famous anti-utopia My (1924, We) prefigured Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and inspired George Orwell's 1984 (1949). The book was considered a "malicious slander on socialism" in the Soviet Union, and it was not until 1988 when Zamyatin was rehabilitated. In the English-speaking world My has appeared in several translations.
"And then, just the way it was this morning in the hangar, I saw again, as though right then for the first time in my life, I saw everything: the unalterably straight streets, the sparkling glass of the sidewalks, the divine parallelepipeds of the transparent dwellings, the squared harmony of our gray-blue ranks. And so I felt that I ? not generations of people, but I myself ? I had conquered the old God and the old life, I myself had created all this, and I'm like a tower, I'm afraid to move my elbow for fear of shattering the walls, the cupolas, the machines..." (in We, tr. Clarence Brown, 1993)
Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin was born in the provincial town of Lebedian, some two hundred miles south of Moscow. His father was an Orthodox priest and schoolmaster, and his mother musician. He attended Progymnasium in Lebedian and gymnasium in Voronezh. From 1902 to 1908 he studied naval engineering at St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute. While still a student, he joined the Bolshevik Party. In 1905 he made a study trip in the Near East. Due to his revolutionary activities Zamyatin was arrested in 1905 and exiled. His first short story, 'Odin' (1908), drew on his experiences in prison.
Zamyatin lived illegally in St. Petersburg, spent some time in Finland in 1906, and continued his studies. After graduating as a naval engineer in 1908 he lectured at the Polytechnic Institute and began publishing fiction and technical articles. Zamyatin was again imprisoned and exiled in 1911, but two years later he was given amnesty. In 1916 he was sent to England to supervise the construction of icebreakers at the Armstrong-Whitworth shipyards in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zamyatin returned to Russia. His stay in England inspired such satirical works as Ostrovitiane (1918, 'The Islanders'), in which he satirized English obsession with timetables, and Lovets cheloveka (1921, 'The Fisher of Men'), which takes place in a London suburb. In the Soviet Union Zamyatin was known as "the Englishman" because of his moustache, neat tweed suits, and formal behavior.
Uezdnoe (1913, 'A Provincial Tale'), a satire of Russian small-town life, brought Zamyatin widespread recognition among critics of the regime. Na kulichkakh (1914, A Godforsaken Hole) was published in the Socialist-Revulutionary Party's almanac, Zavety, which had also printed Uezdnoe. The story depicted drinking, racism, and barbarism in an army garrison in Vladivostok, and led to the confiscation of the journal. Zamyatin himself was tried for maligning the military. During this period Zamyatin was close to the so-called "Scythian" movement. "This is the tragedy and the biter, racking happiness of the true Scythian: he can never rest on laurels, he will never be with the practical victors, with those who rejoice and sing 'Glory Be,'" Zamyatin wrote in one of his essays.
In 1917-18 Zamyatin contributed articles under the
pseudonym of M. Platonov for Socialist newspapers, and in the early
1920s he edited of the journals Dom Iskusstva, Sovremennyi
zapad, and Ruskii sovremennik.
He lectured on writing techniques in the "House of Arts," which had
been established in Petrograd by Gorky, served on the board of numerous
literary organisations, and worked for the World Literature Publishing
house, where he edited Russian translations of Jack London, H.G. Wells,
Romain Rolland, O. Henry, and Anatole France. The short story 'Mamai'
drew from the cultural heritage of St. Petersburg, and the idea of the
city as an artifical creation, built on swamp ground. At night, the
buildings turn into ships.
The short story 'Peshchere' (1921, The Cave) was set in the ruined, frozen old Petersburg, where people try to survive in the city as through it were the Ice Age: ". . . muffed up in hides and coats and blankets and rags, the cave dwellers were constantly retreating from cave to cave." The two central characters, Martin Martinych and Masha, still remember time, when "the window was open, a green sky – and below, from another world, an organ-grinder". Zamyatin's grim vision inspired Friedrich Ermler's film House in the Snow Drifts (1927). Ermler's most famous and notorious film is perhaps The Great Citizen (1939), about the life and murder of the Communist Party leader Sergei Kirov. The film received the Stalin Prize first class.
Although Zamyatin welcomed the revolution, he criticized its
repression of freedom, and barbarity of the new regime. In Petrograd
Zamyatin enjoyed the fame of a grand master of literature. His
disciples established in 1921 a group, called the Serapion
Brothers after E.T.A. Hoffmann's
collection of stories Die Serapions-Brüder
(1819-21). The Serapions insisted on their apolitical stance but they
all had problems with the censors. Among the members were Konstantin
Fedin, Veniamin Kaverin, Lev Lunts, Viktor Shklovsky, Vsevolod Ivanov,
Nikolay Nikitin, Mikhail Slonimsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Nikolay
Tikhonov, and Elizaveta Poloskaya.
In 1921 Zamyatin published in the magazine Dom Iskusstv an article entitled 'I am Afraid,' in which he accused the government of suppressing free thought. "I am afraid the future of Russian literature might be only its pass," he wrote."Real literature can exist only where it is done not by obedient and dependable clerks, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics." (St Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov, 2010, p. 374) When Zamyatin surveyed in 1923 the new Russian prose, he criticized both the Proletkult writers and the Serapion Brothers. He remarked the language of the epoch was rapid and pungent, like a code.
was arrested in 1919 and again 1922, this time along
one hundred sixty members of the intelligentsia. He was imprisoned at
Shpalernaya Prison in Petrograd, where he was held in
solitary confinement and then released following an intervention
of his friends. Unfortunately, they did not know that at that time
Zamyatin toyed with the idea of leaving the country, but requested that
the decision to
deport him would be reversed and he would be allowed to go to Moscow
instead. Finding it difficult to get his new works published,
accepted an offer by the Leningrad Malay Academic Theater to adapt the
story 'The Islanders' for the stage. It was produced in 1925 under the
title The Society of Honorary Bell
Blokha (1925, Flea), based on Leskov's folk-story 'Levsha' and produced at the Moscow Art Theater Two with sets by Boris Kustodiyev, was a great success. A second version premiered at the Bolshoi Dramatic Theater in 1926. Due to attacks on Zamyating, the production was closed by cultural officials. Aleksei Diky, who collaborated with Zamyatin on the initial adaptation, played later Stalin in such films as Igor Savchenko's The Third Strike (1948) and Vladimir Petrov's The Battle of Stalingrad (1949).
Considered a heretic and "an open enemy of the working class,"
Zamyatin was constantly attacked in the late 1920s by Communist
Party-line critics, and he had to give up the leadership of the
All-Russian Writers' Union. Zamyatin argued that the post-revolutionary
age is best represented by work which form a synthesis of the fantastic
and common life. By this he meant his own fable We and perhaps Bulgakov's The
Master and Margarita.
The story 'Ivany' featured a village where all peasants are called
Ivan. The Ivans dig a hole so deep that they end up on the other side
of the world and find out that the soil is not better there.
With reference to Zamyatin, Leon Trotsky coined the term "inner
émigré" in Literature and Revolution (1924), Zamyatin being
the master of this group of writers: ". . . he has sketches about
Russian "islanders", about the intelligentsia who live on an island in
the strange and hostile ocean of Soviet reality."Zamyatin's books were banned, removed from libraries, and
he was unable to
publish. Zamyatin's contribution as one of the libretists to Dmitry
Shostakovich's satirical opera The Nose
(1927-8), based on Gogol's story, is unclear; other writers were Georgy
Yonin, Alexander Preiss, and the composer himself. The pressures
of communist rule became too much for Zamyatin.
After writing a letter to Stalin, Zamyatin was allowed to go with his wife into exile in 1931. He settled in Paris in 1932, where he lived in poverty. Mostly he avoided emigré organizations, but he kept contact to Bulgakov and Bulgakov's brother Nikolaj. The film director Jean Renoir hired him to co-write the script for Les Bas-fonds, based on Gorky's play. The setting was changed from Russia to a French slum. For the last years of his life Zamyatin worked on Bich Bozhii, a novel on Attila and Rome, which paralleled the 20th century conflict between Russia and West. He never finished the book. Zamyatin died in Paris on March 10, 1937, dreaming of return to the Soviet Union. During the following decades Zamyatin's works were studied and published in the West, and he was characterized as one of the most brilliant Russian writers of the 20th century. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies banned Soviet masterpieces were again published, among them Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Grossman's Life and Fate, and Zamyatin's My.
My, completed in 1921, was the only full-length novel Zamyatin wrote. Extracts from the original text were published in an émigre journal in Prague in 1927. In Russia My circulated in manuscripts. At an imaginative level, claims the author Martin Seymour-Smith in The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written (1998), My is "far above even Nineteen Eighty-Four". Besides Orwell, My inspired Huxley's Brave New World, although the latter writer did not acknowledge this fact. The first English translation was published in 1924, in the 1970s appeared two translations, and also in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Orwell got in his hands a French translation, entitled Nous Autres, not the American edition from 1924. In his review in Tribune (4 January, 1946) Orwell wrote: "So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enought to reissue it." Orwell urged Fredric Warburg to publish the work.
The story is set in the twenty-sixth century A.D. in a totalitarian, standardized One State of the future. Its dictator is the all-powerful "Benefactor," who offers the citizens, called Numbers, security and material affluence but not freedom. All the citizens wear identical grey-blue unifiorms with bandages bearing their numbers. There is no freedom, because freedom and crime are closely connected: "If man's freedom is nil, he commits no crimes." Special guardians spy upon the behaviour and morals of the numbers. The narrator, D-503, is an engineer and chief mathematician of the state, who fully accepts the total control and rationality of the mechanized and centralized state. He is terminating the construction of an interplanetary vessel and begins to write notes for the inhabitansts of other planets. However, his observations in his diary reveal a huge between the reality and his orthodox view of it: "And the what a sky! Blue, unsullied by a single cloud (what primitive tastes of the ancients must have had if their poets were inspired by those absurd, untidy clumps of mist, idiotically jostling one another about). I love – and I am sure I am right in saying we love – only such a sky as this one: sterile and immaculate. On days like this the whole world seems to have been cast of the same immovable and everlasting glass as the Green Wall, as all of our structures. On days like this you can see into the deep blue depth of things, you see their hitherto unsuspected, astonishing equations – you see this in the most ordinary, the most everyday things."
D-503 falls in love with I-330, a member of a revolutionary group, but their love is doomed. The caretaker of D's house makes a report to the guardians. Like in 1984, love is destroyed by the totalitarian system. D-503 becomes again the faithful servant of the One State when his imagination is removed in the Great Operation. I-330 and other revolutionaries are subjected to torture and sent to the modern improved guillotine. Though Zamyatin's target in We was not the NEP Period in early Soviet history, but a highly rationalized industrial society, the book was also a prophecy of Stalinism. As Gleb Struve said in 25 Years of Soviet Russian Literature: 1918-1943, "It is obvious that in this institution of guardians the Communist Government should see a satire of certain of its own methods." Zamyatin's vision of a rule-dominated society owes much to his experiences in war-time Britain.
Zamyatin's early stories satirized the backwardness of the provincial Russia, later on his target was the Communist system. All kinds of dogmatism – religious dogmas included and perhaps on a personal level the Orthodox beliefs of his father – gave material for several of his stories. In 'God' a cockroach, Senka, doesn't believe in God, until he sees Mizumin the postman, who says. "A-ah, cockroach that I love, my friend from behind the stove – where you been keeping yourself? Greetings!" Mizumin's plans to marry fail, he comes home drunk, and drops Senka into one of his canal-boats, size 14. Senka begs his God: "Have mercy upon me!" Mizumin finds Senka and places him on the wall, saying: "Creep on!" And Senka confesses: "How unbearably great was God, how merciful, how mighty!"
For further reading: 25 Years of Soviet Russian Literature: 1918-1943 by Gleb Struve (1944); A Soviet Heretic by David J. Richards (1962); The Life and Works of Evgenii Zamjatin by Alex M. Shane (1968); Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin 1917-1953 by G. Struve (1971); Evgenii Zamjatin: An Interpretative Study by Christopher Collins (1973); "Brave New World," "1984," and "We": An Essay on Anti-Utopia by E.J. Brown (1976); Three Russian Writers and the Irrational: Zamyatin, Pil'nyak, and Bulgakov by T.R.N. Edwards (1982); Zamyatin's 'We': A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Gary Kern (1988); Russkaia antiutopia XX veka by B.A. Lanin and M.M. Borishanskaia (1994); Zamiatin's "We" by Robert Russell (1998); Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin’s We by Brett Cooke (2002); 'Yevgeny Zamyatin: We, 1924,' in Literary Wonderlands: a Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, edited by Laura Miller (2016)