A dystopian landmark & cautionary tale about the murderous fruits of the Russian Revolution: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s pioneering We, the 1994 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To celebrate the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing Appreciations of all past award-winners, that make clear why each winner deserves our recognition as pro-freedom.
Here is an Appreciation for Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the 1994 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg
We imagines a world of repressive conformity and stagnant stasis within a totalitarian State.

With his landmark novel Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin bravely pioneered and imagined what later came to be known as dystopian literature.

For better and worse, that dark and cautionary new genre was inspired by the millions of innocent people whose lives were destroyed by the Russian Revolution under Lenin’s communism. The genre took on even more moral weight after the world witnessed the horrors of all the other statist-collectivist variants (from socialism to national socialism and fascism) whose authoritarian excesses and violent extremes of dictatorship, war, famine, poverty and social collapse so brutally marked and disfigured the 20thcentury.

We, written in 1920-1921 by the Russian writer and first published in English translation in 1924 in New York, was so critical of collectivist authoritarianism that it wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1988, when the era of glasnost led to its first appearance with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. A year later, the two dystopian novels were published together in a combined edition.

Inspired partly as a satirical commentary on Frederick Winslow Taylor’s then-fashionable system of bureaucratic industrial efficiency, whose Taylorism was then being emulated by the Soviets as part of their new industrial model of communism, We is set in a distant future millennium after a terrible war has wiped out virtually all of humanity and where One State controls the remaining masses.

The survivors, who live inside a glassed-in city, are forced to march in lock step with each other under observation by the secretive Bureau of Guardians, while people are referred to by their numbers.

The story centers on D-503, a spacecraft engineer who begins a journal while building a spaceship intended to invade and conquer other planets.

Already paired with O-90, an assigned female lover who visits him on selected nights, and in another romantic relationship with his female friend R-13, a State poet, D-503 meets a third woman I-330 whose illegal cigarette-smoking, alcohol-consuming and unapproved flirtatious behavior shocks him but also strangely attracts him.

D-503’s illicit affair with I-330 sparks disturbing dreams and exposes him to a secret group plotting to overthrow the One State and reunite its sheltered under-glass citizens with people living in the outside world.

Tragically, D-503 is captured and psycho-surgically altered to become a reliable mechanical “tractor” in human form without any imagination or emotions. Yet, the seeds of rebellion are sprouting elsewhere.

The cautionary fable, although inspired by the horrors imposed by Lenin and Stalin’s murderous minions, ends on a tentative and poetic note of hope, as the uprising gathers strength, walls are torn down, birds repopulate the city and the future of the One State begins to seem uncertain.

Perhaps it was too much for Zamyatin, in the 1920s during the heights of the world’s deluded infatuation with and blindness to the evils of completely unlimited government power, to actually imagine a more positive end to his story, one ending in the actual achievement of liberty and human rights for all.

But perhaps also it was artistically and historically more honest, and sufficient, for Zamyatin’s dark tragedy to end with hints of the beginning of the end of the Omnipotent State. Early in the 20th century, during the heights of statist collectivism, that was perhaps all that a good writer could hope for.

Note: Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) was a Russian author of science fiction and political satire. After having been a prominent old Bolshevik in support of Lenin and Communism, Zamyatin became deeply disturbed by the policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – especially censorship of literature, the media and the arts and the widespread Soviet suppression of freedom of speech.

Yevgeny Zamyatin in a 1923 drawing by artist Boris Kustodiev (Creative Commons license)

We, the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board, was smuggled to the West for publication, sparking outrage within the Union of Soviet Writers and leading to Zamyatin’s exile from his homeland. Because of his use of literature to critique Soviet politics, Zamyatin is considered one of the first Soviet dissidents.

While We is Zamyatin’s best-known novel, it was not his only success. He also wrote the screenplay adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s stage play The Lower Depths for a 1936 film by the great French director Jen Renoir; and published many satirical stories, including one that presaged the situation and themes of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron (a recent Prometheus Hall of Fame winner).

We, Zamyatin’s best-known novel, also ranks as one of the most influential 20th century novels – reportedly read by several authors who later wrote their own dystopian novels, including Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), George Orwell (1984) and Ayn Rand (Anthem) – the latter two works being early inductees into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

Modern libertarianism virtually didn’t exist that early in the 20thcentury, aside perhaps from some writing and rhetoric by H.L. Mencken (who called himself a libertarian while upholding freethinking and radical classical liberal views) and Albert Jay Nock (Our Enemy the State). But who knows? If Zamyatin had been familiar with libertarian thinking, he might have embraced even more of it than he did within the constricting context of his Russian education and culture, judging from his maverick individualistic spirit of questioning authority.

True literature can exist only when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics,” Zamyatin wrote in his 1921 essay “I Am Afraid.”

To his credit, he wasn’t afraid to question authority – even at the risk of his life and career under a dictatorship.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Poul Anderson’s The Star Fox, the 1995 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

• Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

• Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans .
Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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