Yevgeny Zamyatin: Мы (We)
Zamyatin’s best-known novel had a difficult publishing history, as it clearly was not welcomed by the Soviet authorities. It was first published in English translation in New York as the Soviets would not publish it. It was then published in Czech translation in 1926. Selections appeared in a Russian magazine, published in Prague, without Zamyatin’s authorisation or, indeed, his knowledge. He tried to have it stopped but without success. The full version was not published in Russian till the Chekhov Press, an émigré publisher in New York, published it in 1952, though it had circulated in samizdat in the Soviet Union before that. He did not, of course, live to see its full publication in Russian.
From the literary history point of view this book is interesting. It was influenced by the writing of H G Wells and, in turn, very much influenced George Orwell‘s 1984 and Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. Like those two novels, it is a novel set in the future, where individual freedom is severely curtailed and, like those two novels (and Karin Boye‘s Kallocain), can clearly be seen as a criticism of the Soviet Union. The story is told in the form of a diary by D-503, builder of the Integral. All the people – they are, in fact, called numbers and not people – have a letter followed by a series of numbers, with no personal name. D-503 is the chief builder of the Integral, an interplanetary spaceship which is about to be launched for the first time. D-503 is a mathematician and his vague obsession with the square root of -1 may indicate the futility of this project but, apart from that, all seems to be going well. He has a girlfriend – O-90 – as well as a male friend, the poet, R-13. The society in which they live is highly regimented. Everyone does everything at the same time (eat, sleep, make love). However, it does not seem too aggressive, as in 1984. The leader is called the Benefactor and is elected (unanimously, of course) and there are Guardians, a sort of police/Soviet commissar, but they do not seem to intervene too much.
This semi-idyll changes when he is approached by E-330 who invites him to her room and who even tries to get him to break the rules by feigning illness (she knows a doctor who will sign a sick note). Initially he is reluctant but, gradually, he is drawn in and has an affair with her and breaks rules, which he seems to get away with. It is soon apparent that she has an ulterior motive. We learn that beyond the walls of this state are people who have not been organised in the way that the numbers have and we also learn that there is a revolutionary group, featuring E-330, intent on taking over the Integral, breaking down the walls and starting their own revolution. D-503 is in love so, after his initial reluctance, he goes along with the plot but, of course, it goes wrong. Zamyatin’s skill is not to have it all end, as does George Orwell, in a bitter, cruel tragedy, with our hero tortured. Indeed, though he has a fatherly chat with the Benefactor, the Guardians, though clearly there, do not torture him and his (and her) execution are relatively humane. In my view, it work better than George Orwell‘s 1984 and Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, as it takes a less realist and more personalised approach.
First published in Russian 1927 by Lazarev, Prague (incomplete version); Chekhov Press 1952 (complete version)
First English translation E P Dutton 1924