276 Followers
48 Following
Hoss

Monkeypanic

We

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin, Mirra Ginsburg Author Yevgeny Zamyatin took part in two Russian Revolutions, hoping to overthrow the abusive and excessive Czarist system. He had joined the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), and believed Lenin's promises of a more equitable society, where labor controlled the means of production. By 1920, he tried to remain hopeful, but it was becoming apparent that the country was going in the wrong direction. Three long years since the Revolution had not moved anyone closer to a "workers' paradise"; if anything, it had seen the development of more severe censorship, martial law, and police state surveillance. Across town from Zamyatin's flat, Joseph Stalin was contemplating delicate political maneuvers which would make him the uncontested dictator of the USSR in five years' time. Zamyatin couldn't have known about that, but he knew something was amiss, so he picked up his pen and began writing We. Along with George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, this 1921 novel is the least-known of the triumvirate of big 20th century dystopian tales. It has a special credibility for being not only the first of the three written, but also the only one composed by someone who was actually living in a police state. This gives the work an immediacy which the other two lack. Whereas 1984 and Brave New World only point to a faroff England which might one day be, We bears the imprint of the Soviet society Zamyatin inhabited daily. It is the story of a mathematician (D-503) on staff with the space agency of the One State. It shares plot elements with 1984, in that D-503 starts off an apathetic but essentially pliant tool of the state. He has an emotionless association with lifepartner O-90, and an arm's-length friendship with propaganda publisher R-13, but these accessories fail to bring any pleasure or purpose to his life. Entertainment in the One State consists of political functions and state-arranged prostitution with an assortment of joyless partners. Along comes (what else?) a woman and shakes everything up. I-330 is unlike anybody D-503 has ever met before. She's so full of life, so luminary in an otherwise drab and gray oppressive world. What makes her different? Same as the Julia character in 1984: she's got critical thinking skills, she believes there is more to life than the monolithic State, and she harbors a spark of rebellion in her. She's part of an underground resistance called the "Mephi". The parallels with 1984 are very strong here. D-503 and I-330 enjoy a brief romance, during which he becomes aware of the stifling true nature of the State. He starts to share her dream of what an alternative world, a better world could be, but before he can act on it, the State discovers them and intervenes. D-503 is broken... not with torture as in 1984, but with a lobotomy. Just as Winston Smith is induced to sacrifice Juliet to preserve himself, We closes with the execution of unrepentant I-330.Did Orwell rip off Zamyatin? The paths of influence are unmistakable, but no. The two works bring very different strengths to the table. Orwell examines the political mechanisms of tyrrany. His entire exploration of the interaction between Inner Party, Outer Party and Proles is brilliant; as is the balance of power between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia; the Inner Party's use of the Trotsky-like scapegoat Emmanuel Goldstein; the manipulation of language to political ends in "newspeak"; and O'Brein's dissertation on the history of Oligarchical Collectivism. These are all Orwell's own, and they make 1984 the powerful work it is. We, on the other hand, examines totalitarian life on a much more personal level- as one might expect from an author with Zamyatin's life experiences. D-503 lives his life mechanically, with the resignation of the completely disempowered. He looks for somebody or something at which to target his anger, but the problem is everywhere; he's entrapped within a comprehensive and interlocking political/economic/social/academic system, with no hope for escape. His loveless partnership with O-90 sucks the life out of him, but he can't be angry at her; her life is as bad as his. His job holds diversionary value for him, but he isn't free to explore his own interests; he serves at the pleasure of the State, and is only valued as a tool to further State aims. The recreational prostitution available to him has no element of personal connection, desire, or conquest. In truth, it's a sort of disguised duty, because once he declines partaking in the sexual bread-and-circus any more, it raises suspicion. Zamyatin was probably as intellectually able as Orwell to explore the political science of the One State, but he doesn't, because he is interpreting his own life experiences through D-503, and unlike Orwell, he has the credibility to do so. In fact, one testament to the truth and authenticity of this novel is the official Soviet response to its printing: Zamyatin had the good sense to know We couldn't be printed in the USSR, so he had it smuggled to Czechoslovakia. When the book became a minor sensation in the West in 1921, Zamyatin was harassed by the NKVD (secret police) and suffered numerous career setbacks. His timing was good though, in that We was first published years before Stalin consolidated power through a series of purges and showtrials, beginning in 1934. If Zamyatin had still been around in '34, there is little doubt he would have been rounded up and tried with other dissidents, and then worked to death in a gulag camp. As it is, he was able to get his friend Maxim Gorky to personally appeal to Stalin, to allow him [Zamyatin] to leave the country. He emigrated to Paris in 1931, and We remained contraband literature in Russia until 1988.If you have an interest in dystopian literature, this book is not to be missed. Personal note: one of my college admission essays was about We.