“…Written 20 years before Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by the author who did know what he is talking about. Chilling insight into the real psychological horror of totalitarian ideology. WE tells the story of the minutely organized United State, where all citizens are not individuals but only he-Numbers and she-Numbers existing in identical glass apartments….”
We (Russian: Мы) is a dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. It was written in response to the author’s personal experiences during the Russian revolution of 1905, the Russian revolution of 1917, his life in the Newcastle suburb of Jesmond, and his work in the Tyne shipyards during the First World War. It was on Tyneside that he observed the rationalization of labour on a large scale.
We is set in the future. D-503 lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass, which allows the secret police/spies to inform on and supervise the public more easily. The structure of the state is analogous to the prison design concept developed by Jeremy Bentham commonly referred to as the Panopticon. Furthermore, life is organized to promote maximum productive efficiency along the lines of the system advocated by the hugely influential F.W. Taylor. People march in step with each other and wear identical clothing. There is no way of referring to people save by their given numbers. Males have odd numbers prefixed by consonants, females have even numbers prefixed by vowels.
We is generally considered to be the grandfather of the satirical futuristic dystopia genre. It takes the totalitarian and conformative aspects of modern industrial society to an extreme conclusion, depicting a state that believes that free will is the cause of unhappiness, and that citizens’ lives should be controlled with mathematical precision based on the system of industrial efficiency created by Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Christopher Collins in Evgenij Zamjatin: An Interpretive Study finds the many intriguing literary aspects of We more interesting and relevant today than the political aspects:
An examination of myth and symbol reveals that the work may be better understood as an internal drama of a conflicted modern man rather than as a representation of external reality in a failed utopia. The city is laid out as a mandala, populated with archetypes and subject to an archetypal conflict. One wonders if Zamyatin were familiar with the theories of his contemporary C. G. Jung or whether it is a case here of the common European zeitgeist.
Much of the city scape and expressed ideas in the world of We are taken almost directly from the works of H. G. Wells, the (then) very popular apostle of scientific socialist utopia whose works Zamyatin had edited in Russian.
In the use of color and other imagery Zamyatin shows he had breathed the same subjectivist air as had Kandinsky and other European Expressionist painters.
George Orwell averred that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) must be partly derived from We. However, in a 1962 letter to Christopher Collins, Huxley says that he wrote Brave New World as a reaction to H.G. Wells’ utopias long before he had heard of We. According to We translator Natasha Randall, Orwell believed that Huxley was lying. Kurt Vonnegut said that in writing Player Piano (1952) he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”
George Orwell began Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) some eight months after he read We in a French translation and wrote a review of it. Orwell is reported as “saying that he was taking it as the model for his next novel.” Brown writes that for Orwell and certain others, We “appears to have been the crucial literary experience.” Shane states that “Zamyatin’s influence on Orwell is beyond dispute”. Russell, in an overview of the criticism of We, concludes that “1984 shares so many features with We that there can be no doubt about its general debt to it”, however there is a minority of critics who view the similarities between We and 1984 as “entirely superficial”. Further, Russell finds “that Orwell’s novel is both bleaker and more topical than Zamyatin’s, lacking entirely that ironic humour that pervades the Russian work.”
Jerome K. Jerome has been cited as an influence on Zamyatin’s novel. Jerome’s short essay “The New Utopia” (1891) describes a regimented future city, indeed world, of nightmarish egalitarianism, where men and women are barely distinguishable in their grey uniforms (Zamyatin’s “unifs”) and all have short black hair, natural or dyed. No one has names: women wear even numbers on their tunics, men wear odd, just as in We. Equality is taken to such lengths that people with well-developed physique are liable to have lopped limbs. In Zamyatin, similarly, the equalisation of noses is earnestly proposed. Jerome has anyone with an over-active imagination subjected to a levelling-down operation—something of central importance in We. Even more significant is the appreciation on the part of both Jerome and Zamyatin that individual, and by extension, familial love, is a disruptive and humanising force.
We was the first work banned by Goskomizdat, the new Soviet censorship bureau, in 1921, though the initial draft dates to 1919. Zamyatin’s literary position deteriorated throughout the 1920s, and he was eventually allowed to emigrate to Paris in 1931, probably after the intercession of Maxim Gorky.
The novel was first published in English in 1924 by E.P. Dutton in New York in a translation by Gregory Zilboorg, but its first publication in the Soviet Union had to wait until 1988, when glasnost resulted in it appearing alongside George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. A year later We and Brave New World were published together in a combined edition.
In 1994, the novel received a Prometheus Award in the “Hall of Fame” category.