Thursday, 6 February 2014

Soviet Dystopia: We

This year sees the ninetieth anniversary of the first publication in English of Evgenii Zamiatin’s seminal dystopian novel, We (Russian Mы/My). Pre-dating, and possibly influencing, the two major depictions of all-powerful state control in twentieth-century English literature, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is undoubtedly the least well-known of the three. In part this stems from its troubled publishing history; written in 1920-21, We was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, though its reputation in the west has continued to grow with the years.

First Edition, 1924
Various copies, including some from University of Leeds Library

With the Bolsheviks having only just secured power, Soviet authorities took a predictably dim view of Zamiatin’s prescient portrayal of totalitarian rule, set in the ‘OneState’ of the twenty-sixth century and narrated by citizen D-503. Its absolute ruler is the Benefactor; every aspect of life is timetabled, from work schedules to ‘Personal Hours’, and the buildings are constructed almost entirely of glass, to allow for constant state surveillance. Given the emphasis on the collective in the imagined OneState, and also its themes of conformity and psychological confinement, We can be read as a reflection of Zamiatin’s fears for the future after the Russian Revolution of 1917. This seems to have been the interpretation of the literary censors, who immediately banned it, the first book to suffer this fate in the Soviet Union; the novel was finally published in the USA, by E. P. Dutton in New York in 1924. In fact, Zamiatin (a naval engineer by profession) also took inspiration from a period spent working in the ship-yards of Tyneside, where he supervised the construction of ice-breakers. We reflects the contemporary trend toward the mechanisation of labour and ‘scientific management’, notably the time-and-motion studies of efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, that the author first observed in the UK. Clarence Brown, translator of a later English edition, comments that:

“characters behave as nearly as possible as if they themselves were fail-safe pieces of hardware.”

After the banning of We, and with cultural life suffering from the same authoritarian clampdown as the rest of Soviet society, Zamiatin, possibly fearing the purges which were to come, wrote directly to Stalin, asking to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union and pursue his artistic freedom elsewhere. Remarkably, his plea succeeded, and in 1931, he left the country. Though his exile was to Paris, rather than Siberia like so many of his literary colleagues and peers, he barely wrote again and died, by all accounts disillusioned and impoverished, in 1937.

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