Critical Context

Zamyatin’s We represents a modern, impressionistic style of writing characteristic of early twentieth century avant-garde art. In a public lecture delivered in 1918 entitled “Sovremennaya russkaya literatura” (“Contemporary Russian Literature”), Zamyatin described himself as a neo-realist who viewed life through a microscope in order to discover the incredible nature of “true reality that is concealed under the surface of life.” Zamyatin’s concentrated, microscopic vision accounts for the exaggerated images characteristic of his style. As the post-revolutionary Soviet regime consolidated its control of the arts, modernist innovations were discouraged, and Zamyatin felt increasingly isolated. Ostracized when excerpts from We were first published in Prague in 1927, Zamyatin resigned from the All-Russian Writers’ Union in 1929 and emigrated to France in 1931.

Although Zamyatin foresaw the trend toward thought control and censorship which characterized Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime, We is more than a prophetic satire of Stalin’s Russia. It is a warning against conformist trends in the West, which Zamyatin detected and satirized in his novella Ostrovityane (1918; The Islanders, 1972), a preliminary sketch for We written as a satire on British middle-class respectability when Zamyatin served as a naval engineer in Great Britain during World War I.

In its assertion of the value of the irrational in life and the importance of individual freedom, We continues a Russian literary tradition represented by Dostoevski. The elements of fantasy and scientific speculation in the novel reflect Zamyatin’s interest in the works of H.G. Wells, whom Zamyatin read and admired. We’s anti-utopian themes belong to twentieth century consciousness, anticipating Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and directly influencing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949).