“Every morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the same hour, at the same minute, we wake up, millions of us at once. At the very same hour, millions, like one, we begin our work, and millions like one, we finish it. United into a single body with a million hands, at the very same second, designated by the Tables, we carry the spoons to our mouths; at the same second we all go out to walk, go to the auditorium, to the halls for the Taylor exercises, and then to bed.”
This is life in the One State, 1000 years after it dominated the Earth, and the setting for Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. Written in 1921, but not allowed to be published in the newly founded Soviet Union, We is the first work to be banned by the State Committee for Publishing in the Soviet Union (the censorship bureau). For this reason, its author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, can be considered among the first dissidents in the USSR. This is characteristic of Zamyatin, who believed that it was a person’s right to criticize the government, and that creative writers had a special duty to be heretics. Zamyatin certainly put that into practice with We.
Zamyatin was born in Lebedyan, Russia in 1884 and died in Paris in 1937. He was imprisoned for revolutionary activity before the Russian revolution and for anti-Soviet activity afterwards. His cells both times were on the same hallway of the same prison. What is strange about We is that Zamyatin wrote it in 1921, long before Stalin rose to his dictatorial, cruel place in the Soviet Union, and yet so many aspects of the novel foreshadow Stalin’s regime and the whole path of the Soviet Union, which had barely begun when Zamyatin wrote. He was decrying the machination of life that he saw in the industrial age, but his criticism applied to the Stalinist Soviet Union.
We was published in the US in 1924, having been smuggled out, but was not published in the USSR until 1988. It is one of the first futuristic dystopian novels and predates the better known Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell. Orwell specifically cites We as one of his inspirations, but Huxley’s connection is less certain.
The major emphasis of the novel is the violent dichotomy between the mechanical happiness that the One State tries to impose and the inherent primitive side of human nature. The One State claims that if everyone is equal then everyone will be happy. Since the goal is so estimable, anything is acceptable to reach it. Buildings are all made of glass, people who are too beautiful are disfigured, and everyone must follow the F. W. Taylor lifestyle because conformity leads to equality. People have numbers instead of names and sex visits are organized with pink tickets. “All seemed one: humanized machine and mechanized humans. It was the most magnificent, most stirring beauty, harmony, music” (79)! Originality and freedom are the enemies of equality and happiness. “[T]o be original means to stand out among others; consequently, to be original means to violate the law of equality” (28). If people are willing to give up their free will then the state can run like a machine and allot each person their due of material happiness. The Benefactor and Bureau of Guardians oversee the population to terminate those dissenting numbers and monitor all activity within the Green Wall that encloses the State. “[I]f human liberty is equal to zero, man does not commit any crime” (34).
Zamyatin describes the animal side of human nature that opposes this mechanization. The chaos begins when D-503, the protagonist, the chief engineer to design and construct a spaceship to spread the One State past the Earth, meets a woman, I-330. She smokes, drinks, flirts. She disobeys all aspects of order and is appallingly original in this One State full of uniforms. And yet she attracts D-503 nonetheless. I-330 gradually manages to draw D-503 into the underground resistance group that is planning a rebellion against the One State. The chief engineer, the epitome of order and rationality, still has this irrationality. Desires and chaos.
D-503’s journal, the novel’s perspective, offers a window into this conflict of the primitive and rational. The resurfacing of human instincts, something that does not fit in a world ruled completely by logic and mathematics. Zamyatin reveals this primitiveness that, in We, has not been obliterated by 1000 years of rule. The only way to completely deaden this part of man, the One State resolves, is to remove the imagination. The result is the struggle, internal and external, between the order of the One State and D’s love for I-330. After all, the “real, algebraic love for humanity must inevitably be inhuman, and…the inevitable mark of truth is cruelty” (199). The question is freedom with I-330, or the ‘happiness’ of rationality with all choice destroyed by logic. After all, D-503 “longed for that day when someone would tell him what happiness is, and then would chain him to it” (200). Had that day finally come? Zamyatin’s novel offers us a shockingly prescient diagnosis of the inhumane, totalitarian states that would dominate the twentieth century.