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.
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.