by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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Zamyatin was an engineer and at the same time keenly interested in literature, particularly experimental writing and science fiction. He had read and written extensively on British author H. G. Wells, and We is in part a negative answer to Wells’s optimistic belief, expressed in the British novelist’s book The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind (1914), that physics could replace religion as the basis of a moral code.

We is also a biting satire on the teachings of the new Communist rulers and writers of Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Communist propagandists virtually worshiped the machine and claimed that humanity would be happier the more it came to work like a large machine—that is, logically, with no caprices of free will on the part of the pieces that make up the machine.

Probably the strongest influence on Zamyatin’s thought came from Russian literature and a work by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) called “The Grand Inquisitor,” which was actually a chapter from his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Here all the moral questions of We can be found in one form or another: the value of free will versus the stifling imposition of order by some authority; the willingness of most people, no matter the cost, to follow whoever promises peace and freedom from want; the need of all people to believe in something; and the unavoidable changes that all beliefs undergo as they slowly turn into sterile dogma.

Zamyatin wrote this novel at about the middle of his career, and it represents his mature thoughts on how society changes. It was little read in Soviet Russia because the only Russian-language version was published abroad, and although it was modified slightly to disguise its author, Soviet functionaries recognized it immediately as Zamyatin’s work. This led to trouble with the authorities, eventually costing Zamyatin his job as head of the writers’ union and prompting him to emigrate from Soviet Russia. After leaving in 1932, he was largely forgotten, though some writers continued to use his early works as models for their writing.

The publication of a translation of We in England in 1924 made it available to many later British writers, most notably Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), a nightmarish vision of a factory-like society in the world to come, was in part influenced by Zamyatin’s earlier dystopia. George Orwell included some features of We in his novel Nineteen Eighty-four, though, unlike Zamyatin, he depicts a utopian society in advanced decline.

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