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Yevgeny Zamyatin’s most important piece of fiction was his novel My (1952; We, 1924), which was written in 1920-1921. A satirical examination of a future utopian state, the novel affirms the timeless value of individual liberty and free will in a world which places a premium on conformity and reason. This work exerted a significant influence on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Zamyatin also wrote plays, adaptations, and film scenarios. His early dramatic works are historical plays—Ogni svyatogo Dominika (1922; The Fires of Saint Dominic, 1971) and Attila (1950; English translation, 1971)—while a later work, Afrikanskiy gost (1963; The African Guest, 1971), provides a comic look at philistine attempts to cope with Soviet reality. The author’s most successful adaptation for the screen was a version of Maxim Gorky’s Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths, 1912), which Zamyatin transformed into a screenplay for Jean Renoir’s film Les Bas-fonds (1936; The Lower Depths, 1937).

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Although Yevgeny Zamyatin is best known in the West for his novel We, it has been his short fiction that has been most influential in the Soviet Union, since We was not published there until 1987. In his short fiction, Zamyatin developed an original prose style that is distinguished by its bold imagery and charged narrative pacing. This style, along with Zamyatin’s writings and teachings about literature in the immediate postrevolutionary period, had a decisive impact on the first generation of Soviet writers, which includes such figures as Lev Luntz, Nikolay Nikitin, Venyamin Kaverin, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. In addition, Zamyatin’s unswerving defense of the principle of artistic and individual freedom remains a vivid element of his literary legacy.

Other Literary Forms

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Yevgeny Zamyatin is better known as a short-story writer and novelist than as a playwright. His main short stories (many of which are novellas) are Uyezdnoye (1913; A Provincial Tale, 1966), Na kulichkakh (1914; A Godforsaken Hole, 1988), Ostrovityane (1918; The Islanders, 1972), Bol’shim detyam skazki (1922; tales for grownup children), and Nechestivye rasskazy (1927; impious stories). His most famous short story, “Peshchera” (“The Cave”), is a sad story of an intellectual couple finding slow death in their frozen apartment in Petrograd during the revolution. Replete with allegories and metaphors, it presents reality in a highly structured and unreal fashion. Zamyatin would perfect that approach in his futuristic, anti-utopian novel My (wr. 1920-1921, 1927 [corrupt text], 1952; We, 1924). In a fictitious city, called the One State, a “benevolent” dictator holds a firm grip on all citizens, with the help of secret police. Through the eventual uprising and destruction of the One State, some characters undergo a metamorphosis that bodes well for a better future. Zamyatin’s other novel, the unfinished Bich Bozhy (1939; scourge of God), is a veiled reference to Joseph Stalin and his despotic rule. Zamyatin also wrote significant nonfiction, Kak my pishem: Teoria literatury (1930; how we write; a theory of literature), Gerbert Uells (1922; H. G. Wells, 1970), and Litsa (1955; A Soviet Heretic, 1970), in which he promulgates his views on literature.

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Although Yevgeny Zamyatin was one of the most important Russian writers of the twentieth century, he did not receive official awards for his achievements, largely because of his ideological opposition to the communist regime in the Soviet Union. He was highly respected by his colleagues, especially by younger writers, a fact that brought Zamyatin at least some satisfaction. The direct persecution of Zamyatin by the authorities, who regarded him as a dangerous apostate, led to his exile and early death. The extent of this persecution can best be seen in the fact that only two of his plays, The Flea and The Society of Honorary Bell Ringers, were produced in the Soviet Union. Zamyatin’s plays were warmly received by critics and the audience, as illustrated by the enormous popularity and numerous performances of The Flea before Zamyatin fell into complete disfavor with the authorities. Probably his two other plays, The Fires of St. Dominic and Attila, would have been just as popular, not only because of their allusions to and reflection of everyday life in the Soviet Union under the communist dictatorship but also because of Zamyatin’s dexterity as a playwright.

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The Russian literary lexicon includes a number of terms relating to prose fiction that have no exact equivalents in English. Among these is the term povest’, defined by Alex M. Shane in his study of Yevgeny Zamyatin (zuhm-YAWT-yihn) as “a fictional narrative of intermediate length”; as Shane notes, this term “frequently has been translated into English by the somewhat nebulous terms ’long short story,’ ’short novel,’ or the pejorative ’novelette.’” Shane himself prefers “tale” as a translation of povest’, but many readers will find “novella” the most useful equivalent.

Zamyatin published roughly a half dozen povesti, or novellas, in addition to several dozen short stories, including fables and other forms of short fiction. The dividing line between his short fiction and his long fiction is not always clear-cut, however, and to trace the development of his distinctive narrative techniques, one must consider his fiction as a whole.

Zamyatin was an influential critic and literary theorist as well as a writer of fiction, publishing articles on such writers as H. G. Wells, O. Henry, Anatole France, Andrey Bely, Anton Chekhov, and Maxim Gorky and devoting several broad essays to the evolution of art in general. In these essays, Zamyatin developed an interesting theory of artistic change based on a Hegelian dialectic.

Writing on Russian literature, Zamyatin perceived a “thesis” in the realism of the 1890’s and early twentieth century, represented by writers such as Chekhov and Gorky. The “antithesis” came in the form of the Symbolist movement: The Symbolist writers delved into aspects of reality lying beneath the surface of everyday life; their literary techniques became more complex than those of the realists as they tried to capture the inner essence of things. Finally, a synthesis appeared in the form of neorealism, the representatives of which depicted everyday life with the knowledge that there is more to life than appears on the surface. While focusing on everyday reality, they utilized the complex techniques developed by the Symbolists to convey their visions with more power and verisimilitude. Zamyatin considered himself a neorealist along with Bely, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and others. Zamyatin’s observations on Russian art and literature help to illuminate a complicated period in the history of Russian culture.

In addition to his essays and prose fiction, Zamyatin also wrote several original plays, adaptations, and film scenarios. His first two plays, Ogni svyatogo Dominika (pb. 1922; The Fires of Saint Dominic, 1971) and Attila (pb. 1950, wr. 1925-1927; English translation, 1971), depict historical subjects: The former exposes the repressiveness of the Spanish Inquisition, while the latter deals with the epoch of the struggle between ancient Rome and its barbarian invaders. Later works include Afrikanskiy gost (pb. 1963; wr. 1929-1930; The African Guest, 1971), an original farce on accommodation to the Soviet system, and several adaptations of other writers’ work for the screen. His most successful adaptation was of Gorky’s Na dne (pr., pb. 1902; The Lower Depths, 1912) for Jean Renoir’s film Les Bas-fonds (1936).

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Yevgeny Zamyatin’s most impressive contribution to world literature is his satiric anti-utopian novel We, which he wrote from 1920 to 1921. A biting portrayal of a society in which the human spirit is curbed by a totalitarian state, We had an important influence on George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). In his own country, however, Zamyatin’s shorter prose works made a greater impact than his novel, which was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. His innovative approach to narrative technique helped to shape the writing style of a number of contemporaries, and this impact was doubly enhanced by Zamyatin’s role as literary critic and teacher in the post-Revolutionary period. Among those who attended Zamyatin’s lectures on art and literature were writers Lev Lunts, Nikolay Nikitin, Veniamin Kaverin, and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Zamyatin’s unique prose style and his unrelenting criticism of philistinism and human injustice have lost none of their power over the years, and his work continues to retain its vitality and relevance today.

Bibliography

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Billington, Rachel. “Two Russians.” Financial Times, January 5, 1985, p. 18. This discussion of Zamyatin’s Islanders notes that the anti-British story helped to make Zamyatin’s name in Russia.

Brown, Edward J. “Zamjatin and English Literature.” In American Contributions to the Fifth International Congress of Slavists. Vol. 2. The Hague: Mouton, 1965. Discusses Zamyatin’s interest in, and debt to, English literature stemming from his two-year stay in England before and during World War I.

Cavendish, Philip. Mining the Jewels: Evgenii Zamiatin and the Literary Stylization of Rus’. London: Maney, 2000. A thorough study of the folk-religious background of Zamyatin’s sources of inspiration. It traces his attempts to reconcile the folkloric tradition and the vernacular through his artistic expression. In the process, drawing from the past and from the language of the people, he creates literature that is basically modernistic.

Collins, Christopher. Evgenij Zamjatin: An Interpretive Study. The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton, 1973. In this ambitious study, Collins advances a rather complex interpretation of Zamyatin, mostly of We, on the basis of Carl Gustav Jung’s idea of the conscious, unconscious, and individualism.

Cooke, Brett. Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin’s “We.” Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002 .From the series titled Studies in Russian Literature and Theory. Includes index and bibliography.

Kern, Gary, ed. Zamyatin’s “We”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1988. A collection of essays on Zamyatin’s magnum opus, We, covering the Soviet view, mythic criticism, aesthetics, and influences and comparisons. It includes one of the best essays on the subject, Edward J. Brown’s “Brave New World, 1984, and We: An Essay on Anti-Utopia.”

Mihailovich, Vasa D. “Critics on Evgeny Zamyatin.” Papers on Language and Literature 10 (1974): 317-334. A useful survey of all facets of criticism of Zamyatin’s opus, in all languages, through 1973. Good for gaining the introductory knowledge of Zamyatin.

Quinn-Judge, Paul. “Moscow’s Brave New World: Novelist Zamyatin Revisited.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 1988, p. 8. A brief biographical background to accompany a story about the publication of Zamyatin’s antitotalitarian novel We in Moscow.

Richards, D. J. Zamyatin, a Soviet Heretic. New York: Hillary House, 1962. Overview of the main stages and issues in Zamyatin’s life and works. Excellent, brief presentation of all facets of a very complex writer. Brief but pithy discussions of the plays, especially of Attila.

Russell, Robert. Zamiatin’s “We.” London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000. Critical study of Zamyatin’s masterpiece includes bibliography and index.

Shane, Alex M. The Life and Works of Evgenij Zamjatin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. The most comprehensive overall study of Zamyatin in English. Shane covers Zamyatin’s life and the most important features of his works, chronologically, in a scholarly but not dry fashion, and reaches his own conclusions. Pertinent discussion of plays. Extensive bibliographies.

Shane, Alex M. The Life and Works of Evgenij Zamjatin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A comprehensive work on Zamyatin in English, covering, exhaustively but pertinently, his life and the most important features of his works, including short fiction. Shane analyzes chronologically Zamyatin’s works, in a scholarly but not dry fashion, and reaches his own conclusions. Contains bibliography.

Slonim, Mark. “Evgeny Zamyatin: The Ironic Dissident.” In Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917-1977. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. A good portrait of Zamyatin as a leading literary figure of his time. Brief discussion of his plays within the framework of his entire opus. Excellent background details about his plays.

“Soviets to Publish We.” The New York Times, June 25, 1987, p. C25. An article on the Soviet decision to publish We, the long-banned antitotalitarian novel.

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