1920 – We

1920. The Russian Civil War is mostly over. The anti-Communist White Army is defeated, and their leader, Admiral Alexander Kolchak is executed by the Bolshevik Forces. It looks as though the long struggle is almost at an end, and a new world order heralded by glorious revolutions is about to begin.

Understandably, many in the West are scared. The second Congress of the Communist International, hosted in Soviet Russia, has adopted Lenin’s twenty one conditions of admission; conditions which require all Communist organizations around the world to actively foster revolution in their countries. Also, new Communist parties are being formed in Australia, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. The United States decides to act. It is the first Red Scare, and the government needs to set an example. In a series of raids, over four thousand suspected radical leftists, anarchists and communists are arrested and deported.

However, the proto-Soviet state isn’t going anywhere. The new Bolshevik government, needs to decide how it will control the ideas being communicated to the still mostly uneducated proletariat. New ideas are no longer welcome, which is a shame because the dissatisfied revolutionary, Yevgeni Zamyatin, has just started writing We, a book imagining life in the future worker’s utopia of the “United State”, after all the artificial individual differences between people have finally been eliminated.

Yevgeni Zamyatin (1884-1937) was a Russian science fiction author and political satirist. Initially he was one of the Bolshevik movement’s most ardent supporters. He was arrested and imprisoned twice for participating in demonstrations; first as a student and later during the 1905 revolution. After the October revolution of 1917, his attitude began to change. At much personal risk, he began to openly advocate for the right to criticize those in power. In 1919, Zamyatin published the essay “I am afraid” in which he argued that the attitude of the current regime was stifling creative literature. Shortly afterwards he was recruited by Maxim Gorky to work on the World Literature project, in which non-Russian literary works were translated and published in Russian. Zamyatin’s work on world literature resulted in him discovering the science fiction of H. G. Wells whose novels inspired him to write what was probably his most ambitious work ever, the anti-utopian novel We.

Zamyatin wrote We between 1920 and 1921, but was unable to publish the book in Soviet Russia. The Goskomizdat, the new Soviet Censorshop Bureau, banned the book on the grounds that it was ideologically undesirable. In 1924, Zamyatin was forced to smuggle the book to the United States where it was translated into English by Gregory Zilboorg and published by E. P. Dutton in New York. In 1927, Zamyatin went much further and smuggled the original Russian text to Prague where it was published by Marc Lvovich Slonim. Zamyatin then proceeded to smuggle the Russian edition back to the USSR and distribute it clandestinely. The Bolsheviks were not happy, and Zamyatin got blacklisted. His plays were banned from the theater and his books were confiscated, a literary death sentence. In 1931, Zamyatin appealed directly to Joseph Stalin and asked to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union with his wife so he could continue writing. Stalin granted his request and the couple moved to Paris, where Zamyatin lived until he died of a heart-attack in 1937. We is his legacy.

The novel is set one thousand years in the future and tells the story of D-503, a mathematician and spacecraft engineer who lives in the United State, a perfect utopia founded on the principles of Taylorism (a theory of management in which all workers are viewed as interchangeable cogs), following a revolution and two-hundred year war. There are no names in the United State, only numbers. Males receive a consonant and females a vowel. Every activity is perfectly regulated for optimum efficiency, from how many times you need to chew between each bite (50) to who you can have sex with and when. There is no need for privacy in the United State, and all walls are made of glass. In fact, the entire country is surrounded by a wall of glass separating it from the untamed green jungle that lies outside. In the United State, the individual doesn’t matter, it is only the collective as a whole that counts. The country is governed by the Well-Doer, the wise benevolent ruler who is always unanimously elected back into power, and protects his people by summarily executing anyone who disagrees with him.

D-503 is happy. He has friends and a lover, O-90. However, he is also different. He has the soul of a poet, and this soul is stirred when he hears a piano being played by a woman called I-330, in a recital intended to mock old forms of music. D-503 falls head over heels in love with I-330 who introduces him to illegal cigarettes and alcohol, which both repel and fascinate him. The struggle is difficult and eventually D-503 is forced to make hard choices between his duties to the United State, his feelings towards O-90, and the passions I-33 awakens within him. A struggle that is far from unique, and according to the Well-Doer, something that can easily be resolved through simple surgery, surgery that can remove D-503’s ability to imagine, which no one really needs in the first place.

The numbers of the protagonists’ names were taken from the specifications of the St. Alexander Nevsky, Zamayatins favorite icebreaker in the yard where he worked as a naval architect in the earlier stages of his career.

The book is a worthy read, but not an easy read. The ideas conveyed through the book are very powerful, and they satirize many of the prevailing attitudes in both the Capitalist United States and Communist Soviet Russia. However, they are narrated by D-503 who has the soul of a poet, but is using prose as his medium. This means that the book is full of metaphors, symbols and allegories, which D-503 uses to describe every one of his actions, interactions, thought-processes, and encounters, and the sum total of all this imagery weighs down the book and impedes the readers progress. The book is still worth reading though, in addition to its powerful messages, the book helped found the dystopia genre, and it directly inspired many other later important works, such as Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell, Anthem by Ayn Rand, and the Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Omer today is foundation in splendor, and We serves as a good reminder of why we need to have proper foundations before we can have splendid societies. The foundations of the United State are Taylorism and authoritarianism, both ideologies in which there is only room for one people, one idea, and one state. These are ideas which sanctify efficiency, while generating a lot of waste because any idea or individual that does not conform is immediately discarded instead of utilized, and innovation is basically ignored. Societies that adhere to these principles will inevitably decay and fall apart. If we want our society to be splendid, we need to make sure that we have input from ALL individuals when establishing the foundations, and if we want our society to become even better, we will work on allowing everyone to continue to have a say because when it comes to good ideas, you can never have too many.

The Golem

Author: Yevgeni Zamyatin

Translator: Gregory Zilboorg

Publisher: Dutton

Published: 1924 (First Published 1920)

Pages: 226

Format reviewed: Digital