SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 208 May 2017

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Persecuted by tsar and Stalin

March 2017 was the 80th anniversary of the death of the noted Soviet Russian writer, Yevgeny Zamyatin. Chiefly famous for his futuristic novel We, written in 1920 and a key influence on George Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin was at the heart of developments in post-revolutionary Russian literature. ANDY FORD looks at his life and legacy.

Yevgeny Zamyatin was born in Tambov province in the heart of provincial Russia in 1884. He went on to study naval engineering in St Petersburg where he became a Bolshevik around the time of the 1905 revolution and was exiled to Siberia as a result. On return he qualified as an engineer but was again arrested for his political activities. He was amnestied in 1913 although, the following year, his satire A Godforsaken Hole, describing the corruption, stupidity and sexual shenanigans of tsarist army officers stationed in the Russian Far East, earned him a further trial for disrespecting military authority.

However, with the onset of the first world war the state had a use for his skills and he was sent to Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to supervise the construction of ice breakers. His stay in England resulted in two further satirical tales: The Islanders, in which a family is forced to follow the ‘Precepts of Compulsory Salvation’, mocks the restricted, blinkered lives of the English middle classes; and The Fisher of Men, which describes the dual life of an outwardly respectable blackmailer.

His stay in England made a huge impression on Zamyatin and, on his return to Russia, he was always known for his English affectations in dress and literary taste. After the 1917 revolution, together with Maxim Gorky, he began a project to bring the best of world literature to the newly freed Soviet working class with translations. He also shared his knowledge of British and American authors, such as HG Wells, O Henry and Jack London, with the new generation of Soviet writers.

As the 1920s went on Zamyatin wrote widely on Russian and foreign writers, and techniques of fiction, while also producing his expressionistic short stories. His stories – collected in translation as The Dragon and Other Stories – show a great innovation in style, almost surrealist in character. The North describes a love story set amidst the natural life of Russian Lapland where Zamyatin spent one of his exiles. The Most Important Thing describes the tragedy of an execution during an anti-Bolshevik peasant uprising in central Russia – mixed with a science fiction strand about two people orbiting the earth.

He gathered a group of younger writers around him who took the name of Serapion Brethren. They held that art should be independent of politics, in opposition to the ideas of the Proleletkult who measured the worth of art and literature in terms of its loyalty to the Soviet regime. Zamyatin mocked those who denied any need to learn from the past or wider European literature and who, instead, sought to build so-called ‘proletarian culture’ in isolation in the USSR.

Like Leon Trotsky, he saw the main task as assimilating the best that bourgeois literature had to offer and using it to create a new Soviet culture. Despite the similarity of their approach to cultural development in the Soviet Union, Trotsky criticised Zamyatin’s scepticism towards the revolution and his stance that it had been tainted by the use of force. Trotsky accused the Serapions of "lacking in principles", and of being in some cases internal émigrés. He even went so far as to describe Zamyatin as a "phlegmatic snob" in his book Literature and Revolution (1923). Nonetheless, Trotsky would not have dreamed of silencing or exiling, still less murdering, a writer like Zamyatin just because he dis-agreed with him.

As well as his wide knowledge of European literature, Zamyatin was well versed in the 19th century Russian realists, such as Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, and the Symbolists like Andrei Bely. In 1925 he wrote a trenchant defence of Chekhov against the proto-Stalinists who attacked him as a "bourgeois writer", pessimistic or concerned with the "whining" of "superfluous people". Instead, Zamyatin pointed to Chekhov’s unsparing realism in depicting the life of the peasants in tsarist Russia, his social idealism, and his innovations in imagery and style.

However, it was the earlier work, We, which was to be his ultimate undoing at the hands of the Stalinists. It is a remarkable book, heavily influencing George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It concerns an engineer, named D-503, who lives and works in the ‘One State’ ruled over by ‘The Benefactor’ where the citizens have no names, just numbers.

Unluckily for him, he begins a personal diary and falls in love with E-330, who has not been assigned to him by the state, and then begins to question all the state’s received wisdoms. As the One State is subject to mass surveillance, with all walls made of glass, both D-503 and E-330 are arrested and tortured. E-330 refuses to confess and is executed by suffocation. D-503 is not so strong and submits to the state.

Controversy has raged since the 1920s over We. Was it an attack on the Soviet Union in the time of Lenin? Or was it a description of the chilling possibilities modern technology could give to a dictatorship? Orwell saw it as more of a reaction and warning against the confident technological utopianism of HG Wells, while cold war warriors described it as the first work of Soviet dissidence.

Zamyatin had always argued against the ‘court poets’ who tailored their work to each twist and turn in official policy and, in 1929, they were able to move against him using the publication of We abroad. It was denounced as an attack on Stalin and the USSR. Zamyatin was removed from all his posts in the Soviet publishing and literary world, and his work was refused publication. He was effectively silenced.

Without writing, life had no meaning for him and with Gorky’s help he petitioned Stalin in an extraordinary letter, which still survives, for leave to go abroad in 1931. Probably thanks to Gorky’s friendship with Stalin, Zamyatin and his wife were actually permitted to leave and he went into exile in Paris where he continued to write on literary themes, although he produced very little fiction. In Paris, however, Zamyatin felt isolated. He would not become part of the counter-revolutionary ‘White’ émigré crowd but neither could he be part of the official Russian community. He died on 10 March 1937.

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