1921 · 1946 · 1984 · 2018 A Genealogy of the Totalitarian Novel
What Yevgeny Zamyatin's We Says About Us
“Ideas are more difficult to kill than people,” a figure in Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, American Gods, announces ominously in one of the protagonist Shadow’s phantasmagoric dreams, “but they can be killed, in the end.” Gaiman’s chilling sentiment refers as much to ideas as it does to religions—appearing as its protagonist wanders through a lurid dream museum of forgotten gods—and it suggests that just about anything, over time, can fade away into the quiet stillness of being forgotten, until it disappears entirely, like the deceased in Pixar’s Coco when no one living remembers them anymore. Yet some ideas nonetheless resist burial, resist evanescing into the placeless place of the truly dead. They return when we need them most, even if we don’t always realize, at first, that we need them.
This notion of the persistence of important ideas animates Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, a too-little-known dystopian narrative from 1921 that has a peculiar resonance in 2018—as it did for George Orwell in 1946, shortly before he wrote 1984. Zamyatin had composed the novel under the increasingly bloody grip of Lenin’s Russia, and though We is set centuries in the future, its technocratic society bears obvious resemblance to 20th-century dictatorships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the iconoclastic Zamyatin—who had been jailed by the Bolsheviks prior to writing We—found his novel swiftly condemned and suppressed by the regime in power. So successful was the suppression campaign, indeed, that it would be years before the book began attracting attention, and, even then, it never managed to rise high out of the night-swamp obscurity it had been condemned to, despite praise by Orwell and Ursula Le Guin, the latter of whom declared it in 1973 “perhaps the finest science-fiction novel ever written.” A 2018 hardcover edition of the book, featuring black-and-white illustrations by Kit Russell reminiscent of the wordless novels of the early 20th century, seeks to restore the book to the spot it deserves next to the better-known dystopias it may have influenced, like Brave New World and 1984.
When I finished the book, I was struck as much by its disturbing ending as by how it conjured up elements of contemporary American and European politics. Seventy-two years ago, when Orwell came across Zamyatin’s odd, oneiric novel in a French translation, he, too, remarked on its political power and resonance. Indeed, it is possible that without We, Orwell’s signature work, 1984, would not exist. We “is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age,” he wrote in the Tribune, three years before 1984 was published; Animal Farm had come out just the year before he reviewed We.
While Orwell acknowledged—rightly—that the book was no contender for the best-written of tomes, he devoted much of his review to pointing out why We was politically superior, in his mind, to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Although “Zamyatin’s book is less well put together,” he wrote, “it has a political point which the other lacks.” Orwell imagined that “Brave New World must be partly derived from” the obscure Russian novel, as “[b]oth books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence,” but added that “Huxley’s book shows less political awareness” because
[i]n Huxley’s book the problem of “human nature” is in a sense solved, because it assumes that by pre-natal treatment, drugs and hypnotic suggestion the human organism can be specialised in any way that is desired. A first-rate scientific worker is as easily produced as an Epsilon semi-moron, and in either case the vestiges of primitive instincts, such as maternal feeling or the desire for liberty, are easily dealt with. At the same time no clear reason is given why society should be stratified in the elaborate way it is described. The aim is not economic exploitation, but the desire to bully and dominate does not seem to be a motive either. There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind. Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure. Zamyatin’s book is on the whole more relevant to our own situation. In spite of education and the vigilance of the Guardians, many of the ancient human instincts are still there.
In other words, Zamyatin’s novel, for all the futuristic peculiarities of its central society, manages to feel more believable on a human level, largely because of the deep desires animating We’s protagonist, once he falls in love with a woman and begins to regain the imaginative faculties his totalitarian government has worked to suppress—despite the fact that in We, “love” and “imagination” are outlawed, outmoded concepts.
For Orwell, We conjured up a universal vision of a dystopia, less about any single country than about the possible perils of technocracy that could theoretically befall any society. “It is in effect a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again,” Orwell concluded his review in a sentiment at once alarmist and genuinely alarming. (In terms of influence, Huxley, however, claimed that he had written Brave New World long before coming across Zamyatin’s text, but the idea of the Russian’s influence persisted, such that decades later, Kurt Vonnegut was able to inform Playboy that in order to write Piano Player, he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”)
What does one do, Orwell asks, when a genie from a gleaming iron lamp, steam billowing from its tip like a locomotive, only grants the wishes of those in power, and one of those wishes is for us, below, to smile and do their bidding, never even knowing we are under a spell?
To stop such a spell, Zamyatin suggested—a spell requiring no magic—one needs a different kind of power: a revolution.
We follows D-503, a man who lives in the 26th century in a fiercely regulated, walled-in metropolis run by a totalitarian government christened OneState. His numerical moniker is the norm: humans are known as Numbers, and combinations of letters and numbers serve as names. OneState is entirely regulated: all Numbers are expected to live as if they were part of a great machine in sync, with all Numbers lifting their spoons to their mouths at the same moment every day, going on “obligatory walks” down “unalterably straight streets,” all Numbers expected to be in certain places at certain times, even for sex.
If this seems like a dearth of freedom, it is—and D-503 relishes it. Indeed, Zamyatin’s protagonist believes that freedom is primitive, “unbelievable,” and “disorganized wildness.” Liberty leads only to criminality and pain, he says; only by being perfectly restricted and controlled, like cogs in a machine, can humans achieve happiness. “[F]reedom and crime are closely related,” he declares, and “if human liberty is equal to zero, man does not commit any crimes.” Beauty is unchanging rhythm, like the fact that two and two make four, a truth D-503 frequently reflects on. When D-503 witnesses INTEGRAL, a machine designed to expand and colonize anywhere outside of OneState, being built, he reflects on the “beauty of this grandiose mechanical ballet…. Why is the dance beautiful? Answer: because it is nonfree movement, because all the fundamental significance of the dance lies precisely in its aesthetic subjection, its ideal nonfreedom.”
In a surprisingly progressive move for the book’s time, the Numbers can elect, through mutual consent, to have sex with anyone seemingly regardless of gender by filling out forms and gaining pink tickets that represent each Number—but sex, too, can only happen during a prescribed block of time, and no one is allowed to form romantic attachments. Pregnant Numbers have their babies removed by the government. Originality is generally frowned upon, not unlike in Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” whereby the government has mandated equality by forcibly crippling its citizens, so that no one is smarter, taller, or stronger than anyone else. By the end of We, OneState has begun urging its citizens to undergo “the operation”—a petrifying brain procedure to remove any possibility for having an imagination.
At the helm of OneState is an enigmatic figure called The Benefactor, who the Numbers worship like a god, and who is supported by a Panoptic police force called The Guardians. Who the Guardians are observing is not always obvious, creating a carceral state of constant potential surveillance reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham and Foucault, except—scarily—that many of the prisoners not only blissfully accept their prisonerhood, but actively believe not being incarcerated would be barbaric and inhumane. The Benefactor destroys dissenters in grand public ceremonies in which they are vaporized through what Orwell argued was simply an updated version of the guillotine in a town square. Dissent is evil and worthy of destruction; obedience keeps life going, breeds happiness. While OneState—even by virtue of its name—is meant to appear egalitarian, D-503 calmly accepts the society’s unequal hierarchies, an ardent, patriotically brainwashed advocate of OneState’s autocracy.
When D-503 meets a woman he has never seen before, however, he begins, in increasing incomprehension, to fall for her. Unbeknownst to him, she is a member of a large underground resistance, which plans to topple OneState and stop INTEGRAL; outside the Wall, she and the other revolutionaries have learnt, other humans—or humanlike simians covered in fur of various colors—live in a sylvan society that seems to offer greater unity and love than OneState. She introduces D-503 to the verboten: alcohol, nicotine. His writing shifts dramatically as he gains an imagination or “soul,” becoming more and more vivid, jagged, and erratic, until it is more hallucinatory than de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Near the end, it is unclear what is real and what is a dream. Being drugged or inebriated isn’t the cause of his visions; unlike de Quincey or Huxley’s texts, the primary drug here is imagination, which opens up his world—but also festinates his becoming branded a potential enemy of the state. Whereas Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita describes real political chaos through a topsy-turvy, fantastical, sardonically winking narrative, We generally adopts a serious tone, rendering its psychedelic chapters even more disconcerting.
By the end, D-503 has been taken by the government to remove his own imagination through “the Great Operation.” “They extracted a kind of splinter from my head,” he puts it, “and now my head is easy and empty. Or I should say, not empty, but there’s nothing strange there that keeps me from smiling (a smile is the normal state of a normal person).” Once delirious with desire, D-503 has become a human machine once more, declaring war on “the enemies of happiness” who don’t wish to live under OneState’s soulless regime.
He has become hollower than the men in T.S. Elliot’s Conradian poem, his world having ended neither with a bang nor a whimper, but with an empty, helpless smile, aware and yet not at all aware just how empty his smile has become.
We is unlike our world today—but it is also very much like it, beneath the surface. Today, We seems both a conventional critique of 20th-century totalitarianism and a strikingly strange, disquieting text that stands on its own. When regimes resist our ideals, it becomes easy for visions of cruel, dictatorial governance to seem germane, if not eerily prescient; of course, when we toss about comparisons too readily, they lose some of their power. To be sure, the nightmarish circus chaos of the Trump regime lends itself to a variety of comparisons to dystopian texts, even as some are more of a reach than others. (One apt comparison I haven’t yet seen is to the blend of corruption, narcissism, desperate cruelty, and comical absurdity of an also obscure 1972 political satire from St. Vincent, Ruler in Hiroona, by G.C.H. Thomas.)
If Trump or his ideological ilk had zero resistance and absolute power, it is almost certain we would live in a country resembling OneState, where dissenters are publicly humiliated and then, if their offense is severe enough, destroyed, and where, if the Ben Shapiro wing of conservatism reigned, Shapiro’s signature catchphrase, “logic and reason,” would be lionized, yet logic by itself is not infallible—as any Philosophy 101 study of syllogisms with faulty premises shows—and reason bereft of empathy leads to large-scale suffering. We evokes multiple strains of contemporary conservatism—and then pushes each to an extreme.
Perhaps the most striking political image in America today and in Zamyatin’s novel is the idea of a wall—a crass, simplistic image wielded by Trump to represent keeping supposedly dangerous immigrants at bay, and a more sophisticated image in We representing keeping the outside world itself away. In We, the “Green Wall,” which encloses the entire metropolis, creates an enclosed, insular society, its population’s mental scope literally narrowed and demarcated by the city’s borders. What exists outside the wall does not matter, D-503 informs readers; what was there before OneState was savagery and failure. “[B]y this wall,” he says, “we isolated our machine-like, perfect world from the irrational, ugly world of trees, birds, and beasts.” (This sentiment also echoes the Trump administration’s unsettling commitment to eradicate more and more of the natural world by revising the Endangered Species Act in service of development and oil-drilling.) D-503 has been so brainwashed that he gladly accepts not knowing what lies beyond an obvious border, gladly accepts not eating the fruit of the Garden’s snake-wrapped tree.
It doesn’t matter if Trump’s mythic, moronic wall ever gets built; it was always meant primarily as spectacle. It’s the idea of the wall and the fact that so many of his supporters fetishize it that matters. Those who gladly welcome such walls—even metaphorical, ideological ones—are little different from D-503, each brainwashed into believing that safety only exists in a small, tidy, familiar, regulated space, and that the world outside this space is dangerous and must be avoided. (Ironically, these are the same people who frequently castigate the notion of “safe spaces,” despite their fabled wall representing a large-scale version of just such a space.)
To be sure, Zamyatin’s book fits into 2018 in another sense: its casual racism. Despite D-503 living in the 26th century, he still tosses around the colonialist anti-black language of the century Zamyatin was writing in, an aspect of the book Orwell never addresses, perhaps reflecting, in part, Orwell’s own murky relationship with such prejudices as a figure at once a product and opponent of British imperialism. The “primitive” version of D-503 who has a soul and desires is described by the narrator in negative, primal terms as a “Negro,” and it is implied that even the humanlike beings who live outside the Wall all have white skin, despite possessing fur in varying shades; whiteness, it seems, is supreme here.
For all its radical futurism and imaginative esprit, Zamyatin’s novel is still very much a product of its time—a time, sadly, not as different from our own as some Americans would like to believe.
Zamyatin believed that the spirit of revolution never really dies, just as Gaiman wrote of gods. Instead, revolutions, like deities whose adherents have sailed to new lands, evolve, adapt, metamorphose to fit their new environments. “A literature that is alive does not live by yesterday’s clock, nor by today’s, but by tomorrow’s,” Zamyatin wrote in an essay, “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters.” He then begins to use language echoing the imagery of his novel: “errors are more valuable than truths: truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs… This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today’s truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.”
It may be simplistic to say there are no truths, but Zamyatin’s larger point is sound: that we must be free and willing to err, to go against the grain, to disturb in the service of finding a greater, if truer and still temporary, peace. When there is something to fight, we must resist. “Revolution is everything, in everything,” he wrote. “It is infinite. There is no final revolution.”
Perhaps that, more than anything, is Zamyatin’s great value in 2018, nearly a century after his novel was condemned because it, then, seemed too revolutionary. Error can be exceedingly deadly—but, sometimes, it saves us, as well, by disturbing us just enough to notice what’s wrong.