Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120
Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin was born on February 1, 1884, in Lebedyan, a small town in the Russian heartland. The writer would later point out with pride that the town was famous for its cardsharps, Gypsies, and distinctive Russian speech, and he would utilize this spicy material in his mature fiction. His childhood, however, was a lonely one, and as the son of a village teacher, he spent more time with books than with other children.
After completing four years at the local school in 1896, Zamyatin went on to the Gymnasium in Voronezh, where he remained for six years. Immediately after he was graduated, Zamyatin moved to St. Petersburg to study naval engineering at the Petersburg Polytechnic Institute. Over the next few years, Zamyatin became interested in politics and joined the Bolshevik Party. This political involvement led to his arrest late in 1905, when the student was picked up by the authorities who were trying to cope with the turbulent political agitation that swept the capital that year. Zamyatin spent several months in solitary confinement, and he used the time to write poetry and study English. Released in the spring of 1906, Zamyatin was exiled to Lebedyan. He soon returned to St. Petersburg, however, and lived there illegally until he was discovered and exiled again in 1911.
By this time he had been graduated from the Institute and had been appointed a lecturer there. He also had made his debut as a writer: in 1908, he published the story “Odin” (“Alone”), which chronicles the fate of an imprisoned revolutionary student who kills himself over frustrated love, and in 1910, he published “Devushka,” another tale of tragic love. Although neither work is entirely successful, they both demonstrate Zamyatin’s early interest in innovative narrative technique. A more polished work of his was Uezdnoe (1913; A Provincial Tale, 1966), which Zamyatin wrote during the months of renewed exile in 1911 and 1912. Zamyatin’s penetrating treatment of ignorance and brutality in the Russian countryside was greeted with warm approval by the critics. On the other hand, his next major work, Na kulichkakh (1914; at the end of the world), provided such a sharp portrait of cruelty in the military that the publication in which the story appeared was confiscated by the authorities.
In 1916, Zamyatin departed Russia for Great Britain, where he was to work on seagoing icebreakers. His experience abroad provided the impetus for two satires on the British middle classOstrovityane (1918; The Islanders, 1972) and “Lovets chelovekov” (“The Fisher of Men”). Zamyatin returned to Russia after the abdication of Czar Nicholas in 1917 and embarked upon a busy course of literary endeavors. The period from 1917 to 1921 was a time of remarkable fecundity for the writer: He wrote fourteen stories, the novel We, a dozen fables, and a play. This body of work evinces an impressive diversity of artistic inspiration. Zamyatin’s subjects range from the intense passions found in rural Russia (“Sever,” “The North”) to the dire conditions afflicting the urban centers during the postrevolutionary period (“Peshchera,” or “The Cave”; “Mamay”; and “Drakon,” or “Dragon”) to ribald parodies of saints’ lives (“O tom, kak istselen byl inok Erazm,” or “How the Monk Erasmus Was Healed”).
In addition to his own literary creation, Zamyatin dedicated himself to encouraging the literary careers of others. He regularly lectured on the craft of writing to young writers in the House of Arts in Petrograd, and he took part in numerous editorial and publishing activities. Among those whose works he helped to edit were Anton Chekhov and H. G. Wells. For many of these editions, he also wrote critical or biographical introductions, and such writers as Wells, Jack London, O. Henry, and George Bernard Shaw received Zamyatin’s critical attention. As a result of this editorial work and his involvement in such literary organizations as the All-Russian Union of Writers, which he helped to found, Zamyatin’s own productivity began to decline after 1921, particularly his prose.
At the same time, Zamyatin found himself in the awkward position of having to defend himself against those who perceived something dangerous or threatening in the ideas his work espoused. In his prose fiction and in numerous essays, Zamyatin consistently articulated a belief in the value of continual change, innovation, and renewal. Seizing upon the thermodynamic theory of entropy—the concept that all energy in the universe tends toward stasis or passivity—Zamyatin warned against the dangers of stagnation in intellectual and artistic spheres. Exhorting writers to be rebels and heretics, he argued that one should never be content with the status quo, for satisfaction with any victory can easily degenerate into stifling philistinism. By the same token, Zamyatin denounced conformist tendencies in literary creation and decried efforts to subordinate individual inspiration to predetermined ideological programs.
Given the fact that one of the ideological underpinnings of the new Soviet state was a belief in the primacy of the collective over the interests of the individual, Zamyatin’s fervent defense of individual freedom could not help but draw the attention of the emerging establishment. The writer was arrested in 1922 along with 160 other intellectuals and became subject to an order for deportation. Yet without his knowledge, and perhaps against his will, a group of friends interceded for him and managed to have the order withdrawn. After Zamyatin’s release in 1923, he applied for permission to emigrate, but his request was rebuffed.
During the latter half of the 1920’s, the political climate in the Soviet Union became more restrictive, and Zamyatin was among a number of talented writers who were singled out for public denunciation and criticism. He found that the doors to publishing houses were now closed to him and that permission to stage his plays was impossible to obtain. Zamyatin did not buckle before the increasingly vituperative attacks directed toward him. Indeed, he had once written that “a stubborn, unyielding enemy is far more deserving of respect than a sudden convert to communism.” Consequently, he did not succumb to pressure and make a public confession of his “errors,” as some of his fellow writers were forced to do. On the contrary, he stood up to this campaign of abuse until 1931, when he sent Joseph Stalin an audacious request for permission to leave the Soviet Union with the right to return “as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men.”
With Gorky’s help, Zamyatin’s petition was granted, and he left the Soviet Union with his wife in November, 1931. Settling in Paris, he continued to work on a variety of literary projects, including translations, screenplays, and a novel entitled Bich bozhy (1939; the scourge of God). Because of his interest in film, he envisioned a trip to Hollywood, but these plans never materialized. He died on March 10, 1937.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
Yevgeny Zamyatin was born in 1884 in the central Russian town of Lebedyan, in the Tambov province, south of Moscow. His father was a priest, who held strict religious and conservative views. After finishing high school in the nearby city of Voronezh, Zamyatin was graduated from the University of St. Petersburg with a degree in naval engineering. In 1905 he joined the Bolshevik Party and subsequently was arrested for his revolutionary activity and jailed briefly. He began to move toward a more liberal socialist view. Zamyatin published his first story in 1908, followed by his first exceptional story, A Provincial Tale, and by a satire about the army life in Vladivostok, A Godforsaken Hole, which established him as one of the best among the younger Russian writers.
As a naval engineer, Zamyatin was sent to England in 1916 to oversee the building of ice-breaker ships for the Russian government. There, he was able to observe the English way of life and English people. His experiences resulted in an impressive work, The Islanders, which advanced his status as a writer. Returning to Russia, he was engulfed in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Even though he had once belonged to the Bolshevik Party and later to a leftist socialist party, he was highly critical of the way the revolution was carried out. When he criticized the barbarity and violence of the Bolsheviks, they began to view him with suspicion, a distrust that lasted until his death. At the same time, he was very active in literary circles, working closely with Maxim Gorky, a younger writer. Although young himself, Zamyatin had already acquired a reputation as an excellent stylist and was able to instruct younger, mostly proletarian writers in Petrograd who had no prior literary education. However, his heretical views, not only on literature but also on political matters, led to short imprisonments in 1919 and 1922. Finding it more and more difficult to publish his prose works, Zamyatin turned to writing plays, in the vain hope of getting them performed.
In 1921 Zamyatin wrote his most important work, We, which became the breaking point in his relationship with the authorities. He was unable to publish the novel in the Soviet Union, but its existence became well known, not only in literary circles but also through his public readings of the novel. When the novel was published in Russian by émigré writers in Czechoslovakia in 1927, the vilification of Zamyatin reached such level that he was forced to write a letter to Stalin, asking to be allowed to emigrate, with the somewhat wishful plea that he be allowed to return when the stringent conditions changed. To many people’s surprise, Stalin gave his permission, and Zamyatin left for Czechoslovakia in 1931 and settled in France. It is believed that Gorky interceded for him with Stalin, thus sparing him further persecution, perhaps even death.
In France, Zamyatin led a secluded life, working on Attila (a veiled allusion to Stalin) and preparing his collected works for a publication. The difficulty of life in exile, away from his source of inspiration, and the need to make a living forced him to try his hand at writing film scenarios. His health began to deteriorate, and he died almost a forgotten man in 1937, having become better known abroad than in his homeland.