‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We by Evgeny Zamyatin is often seen as a precursor of George Orwell’s dysutopian novel 1984. Indeed, there are similarities, though We strikes one with it’s novelty and the fact that it was written in 1920-21, when the newly formed Soviet government was just beginning to consolidate itself.

Lenin was still alive, the Stalinist terror had not yet begun.

While it is possible to read We as a dysutopian novel- a critique of the socialism as it evolved under Soviet rule, it can also equally be read as a critique of positivism– a school of thought that reduced human nature to empirical and scientific facts.

It is a critique of a technocratic society and comparisons with modern Western societies are inescapable.

The novel is situated in about 3000 AD. The central character is numbered D-503- the level of civilization reached requires no names, everyone is a number. D- 503 is a mathematician/ engineer whose life is disrupted when he is attracted towards a woman I-330.

Even love appears as a mathematical problem when his mind grapples with the nature of an irrational number (the square root of minus 1).

D-503 is a law- abiding number who has absolute faith in the Benefactor, the supreme, God- like head of the One State. He recognizes the superior nature of his society. He compares his present with the primitive 20th century, for example, when he goes to vote in the election that every time unanimously returns the Benefactor to power. Those that disagree, are obvioulsy eliminated in a grotesque ceremony presided over by the Benefactor himself.

Naturally, this is entirely unlike the disorderly, disorganized elections of the ancients, when- absurd to say, the very results of the elections were unknown beforehand. Building a state on entirely unpredictable eventualisties, blindly- what can be more senseless?

Despite the inevitable comparisons with Orwell’s 1984, there is reason enough to believe that Zamyatin is more optimistic. At the end of novel, the One State- the State of Reason survives, but also suffers a blow, as the Wall that separates the sanitized One State from its primitive human neighbours is pushed back.

This cannot be postponed, because in the western parts of the city there is still chaos, roaring, corpses, beasts and unfortunately- a considerable group of numbers who have betrayed Reason.

The conflict between Reason and ‘primitive’ society (when numbers were humans) continues.

It is significant that while Zamyatin resisted efforts by the Party to censor his works, he considered himself to be a Soviet writer till his end in 1937.

His Bolshevik perspective comes through at places:

Then how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.

In 1931, Stalin had, miraculously, granted Zamyatin permission to emigrate. Zamyatin died in Paris in 1937, waiting for his return.

He was thus spared the fate of many other writers who were to satirize the emerging Soviet society. Andrei Platonov, for example, spent his last years as a window cleaner and whose works like The Foundation Pit, Soul and Happy Moscow saw the light of day only towards the end of the Soviet Union.

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3 thoughts on “‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin

  1. Just browsing thru some of your older posts. “We” sounds very interesting…esp your take that it can be seen as a critique of positivism as well.

  2. Isn’t the square root of -1 normally “i” ? The feeling of being an individual in “We” is the horror. Instead of “we” he is “i”.

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