Russian novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist, whose famous anti-utopia My (1924, We) prefigured Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and inspired George Orwell's 1984 (1949). The book was considered a “malicious slander on socialism” in the Soviet Union, and it was not until 1988 when Zamjatin was rehabilitated. In the English-speaking world My has appeared in several translations.
“And then, just the way it was this morning in the hangar, I saw again, as though right then for the first time in my life, I saw everything: the unalterably straight streets, the sparkling glass of the sidewalks, the divine parallelepipeds of the transparent dwellings, the squared harmony of our gray-blue ranks. And so I felt that I — not generations of people, but I myself — I had conquered the old God and the old life, I myself had created all this, and I'm like a tower, I'm afraid to move my elbow for fear of shattering the walls, the cupolas, the machines...” (from We, translation by Clarence Brown)
Zamjatin Evgenijj Ivanovich was born in the provincial town of Lebedian, some two hundred miles south of Moscow. His father was an Orthodox priest and schoolmaster, and his mother musician. He attended Progymnasium in Lebedjan and gymnasium in Voronezh. From 1902 to 1908 he studied naval engineering at St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute. While still a student, he joined the Bolshevik Party. In 1905 he made a study trip in the Near East. Due to his revolutionary activities Zamjatin was arrested in 1905 and exiled. His first short story, ‘Odin’ (1908), was based on his experiences in prison.
Zamjatin lived illegally in St. Petersburg, spent some time in Finland in 1906, and continued his studies. After graduating as a naval engineer in 1908 he lectured at the Polytechnic Institute and began publishing fiction and technical articles. Zamjatin was again imprisoned and exiled in 1911, but two years later he was given amnesty. In 1916 he was sent to England to supervise the construction of icebreakers at the Armstrong-Whitworth shipyards in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On the eve of the October Revolution, Zamjatin returned to Russia. His stay in England inspired such satirical works as Ostrovitjane (1918, ‘The Islanders’) and Lovets cheloveka (1921, ‘The Fisher of Men’). In the Soviet Union Zamjatin was known as “the Englishman” because of his moustache, neat tweed suits, and formal behavior.
Zamjatin'is first book, Ujezdnoje (1913, ‘A Provincial Tale’), a satire of Russian small-town life, brought him widespread recognition among critics of the regime. Na Kulichkakh (1914, A Godforsaken Hole) was published in the Socialist-Revulutionary Party's almanac, Zavety, which had also printed Ujezdnoje. The story depicted drinking, racism, and barbarism in an army garrison in Vladivostok, and led to the confiscation of the journal. Zamjatin himself was tried for maligning the military. During this period Zamjatin was close to the so-called “Scythian” movement. “This is the tragedy and the biter, racking happiness of the true Scythian: he can never rest on laurels, he will never be with the practical victors, with those who rejoice and sing ‘Glory Be,’” Zamjatin wrote in one of his essays.
In 1817-18 Zamjatin wrote articles under the pseudonym of M. Platonov in Socialist newspapers, and in the early 1920s he edited of the journals Dom Iskusstva, Sovremennyj zapad, and Russkij sovremennik. He lectured on writing techniques in the “House of Arts,” which had been established in Petrograd by Gorky, served on the board of numerous literary organisations, and worked for the World Literature Publishing house, where he edited Russian translations of Jack London, H. G. Wells, Romain Rolland, O. Henry, and Anatole France. The Serapion Brothers, a literary group of 12 intellectuals who advocated artistic freedom, also enjoyed Zamjatin's support. Among the Serapions were Konstantin Fedin, Venjamin Kaverin, Lev Lunts, Viktor Shklovskij, Vsevolod Ivanov, Nikolaj Nikitin, Mikhail Slonimskij, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Nikolaj Tikhonov, and Elizaveta Poloskaja.
Although Zamjatian welcomed the revolution, he criticized its repression of freedom, and barbarity of the new regime. In 1919 and 1922 Zamjatin was arrested. His play Blokha (1926), based on Leskov's folk-story ‘Levsha’, was a great success, but the production was closed by cultural officials. Considered a heretic, Zamjatin was constantly attacked in the late 1920s by Communist Party-line critics, and he had to give up the leadership of the All-Russian Writers' Union. His works were banned, removed from libraries, and he was unable to publish. After writing a letter to Stalin, Zamjatin was allowed to go with his wife into exile in 1931. He settled in Paris in 1932, where he lived in poverty. For the last years of his life Zamjatin worked on Bich Bozhij, a novel on Attila and Rome, which paralleled the 20th century conflict between Russia and West. He never finished the book. Zamjatin died in Paris on March 10, 1937, dreaming of return to the Soviet Union. During the following decades Zamjatin's works were studied and published in the West, and he was characterized as one of the most brilliant Russian writers of the 20th century. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies banned Soviet masterpieces were again published, among them Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Grossman's Life and Fate, and Zamjatin's My.
My was the only full-length novel Zamjatin wrote. He completed the work in 1921. Extracts from the original text were published in an emigre journal in Prague in 1927. In Russia My circulated in manuscript. The story was set in the twenty-sixth century A. D. in a totalitarian, standardized One State of the future. Its dictarot is the all-powerful “Benefactor,” who offers the citizens, called Numbers, security and material affluence but not freedom. The narrator, D-503, is an engineer and mathematician who fully accepts the total control and rationality of the centralized state. However, his observations in his diary reveal a huge between the reality and his orthodox view of it: “And the what a sky! Blue, unsullied by a single cloud (what primitive tastes of the ancients must have had if their poets were inspired by those absurd, untidy clumps of mist, idiotically jostling one another about). I love — and I am sure I am right in saying we love — only such a sky as this one: sterile and immaculate. On days like this the whole world seems to have been cast of the same immovable and everlasting glass as the Green Wall, as all of our structures. On days like this you can see into the deep blue depth of things, you see their hitherto unsuspected, astonishing equations — you see this in the most ordinary, the most everyday things.” D-503 falls in love with I-330, a member of a revolutionary group, but their love is doomed. Like in 1984, love is destroyed by the totalitarian system. D-503 becomes again its faithful servant when his imagination is removed in an operation.
Zamjatin's early stories satirized the backwardness of the provincial Russia, and later his target was the Communist system. All kinds of dogmatism — religious dogmas included and perhaps on a personal level the Orthodox beliefs of his father — gave material for several of his stories. In ‘God’ a cockroach, Senka, doesn't believe in God, until he sees Mizumin the postman, who says. “A-ah, cockroach that I love, my friend from behind the stove — where you been keeping yourself? Greetings!” Mizumin's plans to marry fail, he comes home drunk, and drops Senka into one of his canal-boats, size 14. Senka begs his God: “Have mercy upon me!” Mizumin finds Senka and places him on the wall, saying: “Creep on!” And Senka confesses: “How unbearably great was God, how merciful, how mighty!”
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