Authors: Yevgeny Zamyatin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Russian novelist


Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (zuhm-YAHT-yihn) was an important Russian satirist, one of the formulators of the dystopian genre, and a masterful essayist, dramatist, and writer of short fiction. He was born on February 1, 1884, in Lebedyan, Tambov Province, in the central farmland of Russia. His family belonged to the educated middle class, his father being a priest and teacher in the local school and his mother a pianist. Zamyatin was educated from 1893 to 1902 locally and at Voronezh. In 1902 he commenced the study of naval engineering at the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute, spending his summers touring Russia and the Middle East.{$I[AN]9810000714}{$I[A]Zamyatin, Yevgeny}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Zamyatin, Yevgeny}{$I[tim]1884;Zamyatin, Yevgeny}

As a result of a certain innate rebelliousness, Zamyatin early became a Bolshevik, was briefly imprisoned in 1905, and was several times exiled from St. Petersburg. He completed his studies in 1908, accepting a lectureship at the Institute in Naval Architecture. During World War I, he spent some eighteen months in England but returned during the Revolution. He had long before ceased to be a Bolshevik but sympathized with the cause. After witnessing massive impoverishment and government brutality, however, he frequently satirized the state. He was most overtly critical of authoritarian regimes in the dystopian novel We, his masterpiece.

Throughout his career, Zamyatin continued to lecture at the institute. He produced innumerable stories, fables, sketches, and essays, and served on the editorial boards of several publishing houses and journals, editing the works of such authors as H. G. Wells, O. Henry, and Jack London. He was a creative and influential author and lecturer, guiding the Serapion Brotherhood, a group of young writers in the early 1920’s intent upon experimentation in fiction and freedom of self-expression.

Indeed, Zamyatin himself was independent by nature. Most of his writing was experimental and satiric. He frequently used the sharp, jagged imagery of the expressionists, together with touches of caricature and the grotesque. His work was usually tragic and, more often, satiric–filled with irony and literary parody. He commenced early, about 1908, to write short tales and fables, later moving to the novella and the longer story in the 1920’s. In this later period, he also wrote essays and a number of plays. Because of Communist pressures, however, much of his work was never published or performed, and most stories appeared individually in journals only. He remained throughout fiercely autonomous as a writer, even once asserting that major authors are outsiders.

Accordingly, his work was increasingly criticized by party-liners. The formation of a strong writers’ union in 1929 was accompanied by more censorship. Many writers were refused publication, silenced, arrested; a number committed suicide. Amazingly, Zamyatin, after writing a candid letter to Joseph Stalin in 1931, was permitted with his wife to emigrate. Settling in Paris, he remained there until his death in 1937, a gentlemanly outsider. Of his demise, no notice was taken by the Soviet press, and his name was not included in major Soviet volumes on modern Russian literature.

Typical of his early stories is the novella A Provincial Tale. Filled with slang and dialect, it depicts life in provincial Russia in gloomy terms. From the outset, Zamyatin published numerous shorter pieces and fables as well as stories and tales. Most reveal a cruel world, wrought with impressionistic, almost nightmarish imagery. At its best, life is tragic; in a lengthy later tale, “Yola” (1928; the yawl), a romantic fisherman in the North has saved for years to purchase his own fishing yawl. No sooner has he obtained it than a squall sinks man and boat together.

A persistent theme is revealed in the satiric story about England, The Islanders, which examines bourgeois philistinism. In it, Vicar Dooley seeks to institute a means of effecting “compulsory” salvation. In “Rasskaz o samon glavnom” (1923; “A Story About the Most Important Thing”), an ardent Bolshevik, Dorda, is ominously portrayed as nothing more than a revolver in a black metallic holster. Zamyatin understood how easily people can sacrifice their humanity, becoming subhuman. He told the tale of Attila the Hun three times: as a story (1924), as a play (1927), and in an unfinished novel, Bich Bozhy (the scourge of God), which he was still writing when he died.

His masterpiece is his one completed novel, We. Here is his most powerful literary conception–a dystopian novel set in the Superstate’s future, when all people have become mere numbers, reduced to slavery and adulation of nation and leader. A small group of subversives yearns to overturn the mechanized, lifeless dictatorship, but even they become somewhat mechanical, shedding their humanity while rigidly pursuing their goals. At the close, the rebels have breached some of the walls of the Superstate, although their revolution has been stalled. In order to keep citizens docile, the leaders lobotomize them, reducing them to robots; however, rebels always tend to rise against such tyranny. One of Zamyatin’s guiding principles maintained that humankind incessantly required fresh revolutions to offset entropy.

This last theory did much to antagonize the Communists. For that reason, Zamyatin became a voice unwanted and often unheard, a prophet unwelcome in the Soviet Union. However, his influence and creative zest have endured. Originally confined and prevented from addressing much of an audience, Zamyatin has, with every decade, widened his sphere of influence. He acquired his largest audience long after his demise.

BibliographyBillington, Rachel. “Two Russians.” Financial Times, January 5, 1985, p. 18. This discussion of Zamyatin’s Islanders notes that the anti-British story helped to make Zamyatin’s name in Russia.Brown, Edward J. “Zamjatin and English Literature.” In American Contributions to the Fifth International Congress of Slavists. Vol. 2. The Hague: Mouton, 1965. Discusses Zamyatin’s interest in, and debt to, English literature stemming from his two-year stay in England before and during World War I.Cavendish, Philip. Mining the Jewels: Evgenii Zamiatin and the Literary Stylization of Rus’. London: Maney, 2000. A thorough study of the folk-religious background of Zamyatin’s sources of inspiration. It traces his attempts to reconcile the folkloric tradition and the vernacular through his artistic expression. In the process, drawing from the past and from the language of the people, he creates literature that is basically modernistic.Collins, Christopher. Evgenij Zamjatin: An Interpretive Study. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1973. In this ambitious study, Collins advances a rather complex interpretation of Zamyatin, mostly of We, on the basis of Carl Gustav Jung’s idea of the conscious, unconscious, and individualism.Cooke, Brett. Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin’s “We.” Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002 .From the series titled Studies in Russian Literature and Theory. Includes index and bibliography.Kern, Gary, ed. Zamyatin’s “We”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1988. A collection of essays on Zamyatin’s magnum opus, We, covering the Soviet view, mythic criticism, aesthetics, and influences and comparisons. It includes one of the best essays on the subject, Edward J. Brown’s “Brave New World, 1984, and We: An Essay on Anti-Utopia.”Mihailovich, Vasa D. “Critics on Evgeny Zamyatin.” Papers on Language and Literature 10 (1974): 317-334. A useful survey of all facets of criticism of Zamyatin’s opus, in all languages, through 1973. Good for gaining the introductory knowledge of Zamyatin.Quinn-Judge, Paul. “Moscow’s Brave New World: Novelist Zamyatin Revisited.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 1988, p. 8. A brief biographical background to accompany a story about the publication of Zamyatin’s antitotalitarian novel We in Moscow.Richards, D. J. Zamyatin, a Soviet Heretic. New York: Hillary House, 1962. Overview of the main stages and issues in Zamyatin’s life and works. Excellent, brief presentation of all facets of a very complex writer. Brief but pithy discussions of the plays, especially of Attila.Russell, Robert. Zamiatin’s “We.” London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000. Critical study of Zamyatin’s masterpiece includes bibliography and index.Shane, Alex M. The Life and Works of Evgenij Zamjatin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. The most comprehensive overall study of Zamyatin in English. Shane covers Zamyatin’s life and the most important features of his works, chronologically, in a scholarly but not dry fashion, and reaches his own conclusions. Pertinent discussion of plays. Extensive bibliographies.Shane, Alex M. The Life and Works of Evgenij Zamjatin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A comprehensive work on Zamyatin in English, covering, exhaustively but pertinently, his life and the most important features of his works, including short fiction. Shane analyzes chronologically Zamyatin’s works, in a scholarly but not dry fashion, and reaches his own conclusions. Contains bibliography.Slonim, Mark. “Evgeny Zamyatin: The Ironic Dissident.” In Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917-1977. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. A good portrait of Zamyatin as a leading literary figure of his time. Brief discussion of his plays within the framework of his entire opus. Excellent background details about his plays.“Soviets to Publish We.” The New York Times, June 25, 1987, p. C25. An article on the Soviet decision to publish We, the long-banned antitotalitarian novel.
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