The Russian Novel That Foresaw—but Underestimated—Totalitarianism
Yevgeny Zamyatin, the author of “We,” was both the original writer of totalitarian terror and one of its original victims.
By Masha Gessen
December 13, 2021
I have an object to which, for many years, I’ve given pride of place in every house I have lived. It’s a wall hanging of sorts, a two-by-three-foot glass display that contains a hand-printed daily schedule. It includes eight and a half hours of sleep; an hour each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a half hour of exercise; three hours of fresh air; and three hours of after-dinner board games and movie watching. Someone pilfered this beautiful object from a psychiatric ward in provincial Russia, to present to me as a gift. I never tire of looking at it, just as my daughter never tires of pointing out the entry “An hour of rest: 14:00-16:00.” How wondrous, to be able to make an hour of rest stretch out for two—to subvert the flow of time.
Every year when I read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” with my students, I wish the psychiatric-ward schedule were hanging in the classroom, because Zamyatin’s novel imagined a regimented way of life, and because it, too, seemed to subvert the flow of time. Born in 1884, Zamyatin was a revolutionary, indeed a Bolshevik; he was imprisoned and sent into internal exile in the tsar’s Russia, and then moved for a time to England, returning just a month before the Bolsheviks came to power. Three years later, he wrote his dystopia, possibly revising it in 1921 or 1922. By the time he had completed a final draft, the Bolsheviks had already imposed censorship and created the secret police. It took them a few years to establish Soviet rule over most of what had been the Russian Empire, to expropriate most property and to build its first concentration camp, and it took longer to establish a reign of terror. But Zamyatin had already written a novel that described many of the specifics of that terror, and of other terrors to come in the twentieth century.
If you have heard of “We,” you have heard that it was prescient and pioneering, and that it influenced Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, whose dystopian novels have, in turn, helped shape our understanding of the twentieth century and beyond. “We” conceives a One State where people don’t have proper names; they are marked by a combination of letters and numbers, like the inmates of Nazi camps. They wear identical clothes, their hair is uniformly shorn, their food is synthetic and purely utilitarian, and their homes are identical and transparent. (Soviet life, with its enforced uniformity on the one hand and extreme scarcity on the other, was eventually a less aesthetically pleasing version of this levelled existence.) They live according to a centralized schedule, a high-tech display that evokes my psych-ward timetable and specifies everything, down to the hour of lovemaking, with a partner who is assigned by the central authority. They speak an inverted language; the tyrant is called the Benefactor. The center of communal life is the public execution, which is glorified and perfected: a human life reduced to a small amount of clean water and ash. Zamyatin imagined this twenty years before Nazi Germany began the sanitized, industrial mass murder of people who had been reduced to numbers. Zamyatin’s dystopia is a walled and domed city, and its inhabitants are unaware of the existence of a larger world. He imagined this years before the Iron Curtain sealed off the Soviet Union.
Though Zamyatin wrote “We” several years before the word “totalitarianism” appeared in political speech, and a full three decades before political theorists defined and described it, he did more than predict some of its characteristics; he foresaw its defining condition, which is the destruction of the individual. Hannah Arendt, in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and elsewhere, argued that totalitarianism was a novel form of government, distinct from the tyrannies that preceded it. The tyrants of the past demanded obedience—the outward performance of certain behaviors—but totalitarian regimes seek to subsume, to obliterate the core of the human being. Obedience is not enough, nor is the performance of love; the regime demands that and everything else, too. The contours of the self disappear, and humans meld into what she called “one man of gigantic dimensions.” Zamyatin found the word for it: we.
“We” could not be published in Soviet Russia. It was translated into English in 1924, then into Czech and French. A couple of years after the Czech publication, Zamyatin—at the time a writer in good standing, the head of the Leningrad branch of the Writers’ Union—was denounced by every journal and publishing house in the U.S.S.R. He had to resign his post, become a pariah. In 1931, he emigrated to Paris, by special dispensation. By this point, Soviet borders were effectively closed.
All of the foregoing is accurate, and all of it is obvious enough. The contemporary Russian literary critic Dmitry Bykov, however, has argued that Zamyatin’s predictions were off. “He was afraid of the wrong thing,” Bykov said, in a 2016 lecture. “He envisioned an exemplary totalitarian state, built on absolute reason, on logic . . . and an enforced totalitarian benevolence.” Zamyatin’s dystopia was clear, sterile, perfect—and hence soulless, and soul-killing. In reality, Bykov continued, it was not a tyranny of perfection that made twentieth-century totalitarianism so terrible; it was a tyranny of the worst.
To be sure, the horrors of the twentieth century were, as the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argued, functions of modernity. The Holocaust ran on rails, timetables, and the technology that made mass, anonymized murder possible. Zamyatin was a man not only of words but also of science; he was educated as an engineer and worked in ship building, as one of the creators of a giant Russian icebreaker. He had a keen sense of the ways in which technology could transform human existence, and this, perhaps, enabled him to envision humans reduced to numbers, and to handfuls of ash. What he didn’t foresee, as Bykov noted, is the irresistible appeal to the worst in human nature, the very appeal that links the darkest moments of the twentieth century to the autocrats and aspiring autocrats of the twenty-first century. They invite their followers to abandon conventions of dignity and expectations of morality and be their worst selves, together.
The regimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had enough similarities to allow scholars to create a new category that included them: totalitarianism. Both regimes relied on propaganda and terror; both treated their populations as dispensable. But there was one significant difference that continues to haunt us to this day: whereas Hitler openly appealed to the worst in humanity, the Bolsheviks built their state in the name of beautiful, humanistic ideas. The Bolsheviks pictured a state in which everyone was perfectly equal, everyone received according to need and contributed according to ability, and everyone existed in perfect harmony with the rest. Zamyatin’s dystopia is consistent with these ideas, and prefigures their corruption. As the son of an Orthodox minister and himself a Russian revolutionary, Zamyatin had a deep understanding of, even love for, the ideals of communitarianism. When he visualized the ugly outcome of a relentless enforcement of these ideas, he used what he had surely once thought of as a beautiful word—we—to describe it.
In a world without personal boundaries, a world without deviation, conflict, serendipity, difference, a world without “I,” there can be no “us.” The we of “We” is a mass rather than a community of people. Zamyatin imagined that, if a totalitarian subject started pursuing his desires rather than following the master timetable and the Benefactor’s orders, he would become unable to live within the we. He would have to be fixed, executed, or expelled. In the novel, the protagonist, D-503, is diagnosed with having developed a soul—a condition that must be remedied so that he may be reintegrated into society.
As Zamyatin’s story is usually told, this is what happened to him, too. After the publication of “We” abroad, he was shut out of all Soviet institutions and was forced to ask Stalin to let him emigrate. That is the story I summarized above. It’s neat, but it’s not exactly true. Zamyatin’s initial loss of professional and social standing preceded the publication of “We” abroad, and it likely preceded the completion of the novel. In 1921, in an essay titled “I’m Afraid,” he wrote about what he saw as an emergent Soviet system for choosing ideologically reliable writers and allowing only them to be published. He classified writers as “agile” or “not agile” and claimed that the latter group—those unable to pitch their words precisely to the expectations of the new regime—had been rendered silent:
True literature can thrive only in places where literature is created not by obedient and reliable bureaucrats but by madmen, recluses, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics. Where a writer must be reasonable, faithful like a Catholic, useful in the present moment, where he cannot flail at everyone as Jonathan Swift did or smile at everything as Anatole France does, there can be no literature that is cast in bronze—there can only be the sort printed on paper, the newsprint sort that’s read today and used to wrap bars of soap tomorrow.
Zamyatin thought, correctly, that his was the kind of writing that would live on long after the bar of soap had been used up. He clawed his way back, calling in favors from influential friends, who intervened so that he could continue publishing. Zamyatin spent three years working on a play that he believed would restore his good name. In 1928, the play, “Attila,” was granted a reading before the Artistic Soviet of the Great Leningrad Drama Theatre. Representatives of eighteen different city factories were present; laborers were now the ultimate authority in every area, including the arts.
They liked the play. One workman remarked that the play reflected an ancient class struggle that mirrored contemporary reality. “Ideologically, this play is quite acceptable,” the factory worker concluded. “This play is very impressive and does away with the idea that contemporary theater writing doesn’t produce good plays.” Another factory worker compared Zamyatin to Shakespeare and said, “The play is tragic, extremely saturated with action, and will engage the audience very much.” A third laborer found that “all the episodes in the play were strong and fascinating.” This was the contemporary equivalent of raves; in the era of state censorship, reviews were supplanted by previews. Zamyatin thought that he had succeeded, that the Soviet Union would recognize him as one of its own, and that he would be allowed to serve the regime as a writer.
Then the regional censorship authority banned the play. Did Zamyatin realize that the ban had nothing to do with the content or style of his writing? Did he know that writers, like all other people, were subjected to random terror? Did he comprehend that his ideologically perfect offering was rejected precisely because totalitarianism had no use for transactional obedience, because it demanded unconditional surrender? It seems that he did not.
It makes so much sense to think that “We” was denied publication because it predicted some aspects of Soviet totalitarianism. But Zamyatin, who had spent years working as a ship-building engineer in England, saw the book as a cautionary tale about modernity, a warning about the dangers of Fordism as much as about the rigid pursuit of a Socialist utopia. The book was rejected, not because it was, in the eyes of the authorities, wrong about the Soviet Union but because it was wrong for the Soviet Union—as was Zamyatin himself. The system was expelling him, and it didn’t owe him any explanations.
Zamyatin’s trajectory defies logic, which made him both the original writer of totalitarianism and one of its original victims. In “We,” Zamyatin envisions the tyranny of rationality, a world of relentless causality, with every action assigned its predictable consequence. Work leads to progress. Progress leads to happiness. The sex act leads to children. Transgression leads to death. Even as Zamyatin’s fantastical totalitarianism breaks down, it does so in predictable ways. A breach in the wall leads to more life. The development of a soul destroys harmony. The amputation of the soul restores happiness. If only things were so clear.
Totalitarian terror is random. Nothing—not even an upside-down world, an inside-out world, a world that rewards the absence of soul and prizes the death of nature—can be as frightening as a world that makes no sense. True terror works by making everyone believe that they can be imprisoned, condemned, beaten, raped, executed at any time—punished for nothing and everything, without cause, warning, or recourse to justice. What ultimately dates “We”—what, in a sense, reaffirms our perception of time—is that, in 1920, Zamyatin could not yet imagine a tyranny of chaos. For all his apparent prescience, he could not understand what was happening to him.
The rejection of his play “Atilla” in 1928, followed by a public-shaming campaign over the foreign publication of “We” the next year, robbed Zamyatin of all hope. He was now completely de-published in the Soviet Union. Not a single play of his was in production. His planned collected works were taken off the press. Even translations and academic critical articles, due to go to print, were cancelled. Finally, he lost the last of his board memberships and copy-editing gigs. As Zamyatin described it in his letter to Stalin, he was sentenced to a “literary death”: he would not be published, and he would not be allowed to play even supporting roles in the publishing world.
In his 1931 letter to Stalin, Zamyatin noted that the Soviet penal code provided the possibility of replacing a death sentence with expulsion from the country. “If I truly am a criminal and deserve to be punished,” he wrote, “then I dare suggest that my punishment should not be so severe as a literary death, and so I ask that my sentence be reduced to being sent outside the borders of the USSR, with my wife being granted the right to accompany me. But if I am not a criminal, then I ask that my wife and I be allowed temporarily, at least for a year, to go abroad, so that I may return as soon as it becomes possible in our literature to serve big ideas without serving little people.”
He lived in Paris until his death, six years later, at the age of fifty-three. It was 1937, the year, it is generally believed, when Stalin’s Russia carried out the greatest number of death sentences. A Russian academic lecturing on Zamyatin is likely to add the phrase “of natural causes” when mentioning the year of his death; without it the audience might be expected to assume the opposite. Zamyatin died three years before France was occupied by Nazi Germany, four years before the beginning of the Holocaust. He died during the Soviet Great Terror and was, in all likelihood, still hoping to return home, to be a writer there. He didn’t know that the loneliness and lostness he had felt in the nineteen-twenties—the nagging feeling that nothing made sense and the obsessive need to extract reason from senselessness—were the actual, defining experiences of totalitarianism. The feeling of nonexistence permeates “We,” but it is an expected, rule-bound nonexistence. A random, punitive, inexplicable nonexistence is not in the novel, perhaps because Zamyatin could not yet imagine it in 1920—or, perhaps, because he could never imagine it, even as he was experiencing it. “We” is a monument to both the possibilities of the human imagination and its limitations. Zamyatin could imagine a nightmare that wasn’t, but not the one that he was living.
This excerpt is drawn from the foreword to a new edition of “We,” out this month from Penguin Classics.