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We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

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Before Orwell gave us Nineteen Eighty-Four (in 1948), we had another novel describing a futuristic dystopia in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921). As Zamyatin himself said, the work is both his most serious and most lighthearted work. It's surely one that deserves consideration.

Born in 1884, Zamyatin loved liberty, which put him at odds with the tsar of his native Russia. Opposing the tsar by joining the Bolshevik party earned him the distinction of being arrested and exiled in 1905. Zamyatin found his way back into the country, managed to complete his degree in naval engineering in 1908, became a member of the faculty of the Institute, and published stories about his small hometown, Lebedyan. In 1911, the tsar's police force finally identified him and exiled him once again. Tsar Nicholas II instituted a policy of amnesty in 1913, which allowed Zamyatin to return to the country legally.

Zamyatin spent much of World War I in Britian, working with English engineers to build icebreakers. When Zamyatin returned to Russia in 1917, Lenin and the bolsheviks had seized power. Almost immediately, Zamyatin had doubts about whether the newly-empowered party would remain true to its advertised ideals. Nevertheless, he stayed and helped to support younger writers until in 1931—after being accused as a “counter-revolutionary” (for the publication of We abroad)—when he wrote Iosef Stalin a letter, explaining that he could no longer work in the Soviet Union, and asking for permission to leave. Stalin surprised many by granting his request, and Zamyatin went to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1937. We was published in Russia for the first time in 1987, during glasnost'.

I read the novel in an English translation by Clarence Brown.

We is the journal of a true believer in the utopian society called “OneState” (Odinoe Gosudarstvo in the original Russian), ruled completely by The Benefactor. The journal is maintained by a Number known as D-503, a Number with great responsibility, as designer of OneState's greatest scientific achievement, the INTEGRAL. A female number known as I-330 introduces D-503 to a broader world, which leads him down a dangerous path that puts him at odds with OneState, saddled with a disastrous condition for any Number to have—a soul.

As D-503 wrestles with this condition, he reads in the State Gazette an important announcement:


For henceforth you are perfect! Up until this day your offspring, the machines, were more perfect than you.


Every spark of the dynamo is a spark of purest reason. Every stroke of the piston is an immaculate syllogism. But do you not also contain this same infallible reason?

The philosophy of the cranes, the presses, and the pumps is as perfect and clear as a circle drawn with a compass. But is your philosophy any less perfect?

The beauty of the mechanism is in the precise and invariable rhythm, like that of the pendulum. But you—sustained as you were from infancy on the Taylorian system—are you any less pendulum-perfect?

But think of this:

The mechanism has no imagination.

When you were at work did you ever happen to see a distant, idiotic, dreamy smile spread across the physiognomy of a cylindrical pump? At night during the hours designated for rest, did you ever happen to hear the cranes toss restlessly and heave sighs?


But—and you should be ashamed of yourselves!—the Guardians more and more frequently note that you yourselves smile and sigh in just this way. And—cover your eyes for very shame!—the historians of OneState are seeking to resign rather than record certain shameful events.

But you are not to blame. You are sick. The name of your illness is:


This is the worm that eats out black wrinkles on the brow. This is the fever that drives you to run farther and farther, even though that “farther” began in the place where happiness ends. This is the last barrier on the path to happiness.

But rejoice: It has already been demolished.

The path is free.

The latest discovery of State Science: The imagination is centered in a wretched little brain node in the region of the pons Varolii. Expose this node to three doses of X rays—and you are cured of imagination.


You are perfect, you are the equal of the machine, the path to 100 percent happiness is free. Hurry, then, all of you, young and old, hurry to undergo the Great Operation. Hurry to the auditoriums where the Great Operation is performed. Long live the Great Operation! Long live OneState! Long live the Benefactor!

Reflection on this book raises important questions. What is a human being, really, but his consciousness, his imagination—what we call his soul? What is death but the extermination of a consciousness? How can one claim to be alive all while bowing to every whim of those around him, of never using his imagination, of never forming an original thought, of merely existing passively?

I'm reminded of the words of another writer, Henry David Thoreau:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what they had to teach; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Life is a precious gift, the worst of all gifts to reject. One life squandered is a tragedy. A multitude of lives wasted, a catastrophe. Zamyatin shows the future that can be avoided if only we have the courage to think, to be ... to live.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-01-16 08:49 AM
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