Columnist Ed West on Eugene Zamyatin, author of the first classic dystopian novel of the 20th century

By Michael Grossberg

When it comes to the birth and development of dystopian literature, Russian dissident writer Eugene (Yevgeny) Zamyatin may have the dubious distinction of being one of the most overlooked novelists of that disturbingly timely and emerging 20th-century genre.

Zamyatin’s We was the first dystopian novel of the 20th century, helping to pave the way for others, most notably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Ayn Rand’s similarly-themed Anthem.

Yet, sadly, references to Zamyatin are rare in today’s culture, media and magazines.

So it’s nice to see an insightful column that not only mentions Zamyatin but offers revealing commentary about his fiction and places him within the historical and literary context of Russia in the early 1900s.

British writer Ed West’s column, “Wrong Side of History,” is worth checking out in general as a maverick and anti-authoritarian blog that offers observations (and humor) that you’re not likely to find elsewhere.

Yevgeny Zamyatin in a 1923 drawing by artist Boris Kustodiev (Creative Commons license)

But West’s recent West column is worth mentioning in particular because it incorporates a relatively rare reference to Zamyatin, whose dystopian and anti-authoritarian novel We was inducted early on – in 1994 – into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

After having been a prominent old Bolshevik in support of Lenin and Communism, Zamyatin became deeply disturbed by the policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – especially censorship of literature, the media and the arts and the widespread Soviet suppression of freedom of speech.

Even libertarian fans of We will learn a lot from West’s essay about Zamyatin, who was a major literary voice immediately after the Russian Revolution and known for his satirical humor.

For context, West’s informative and amusing column on “The one about the utopian ideology which killed millions” begins this way:

“‘Stalin is in his limo, alone with his driver. ‘Let me ask you a question,’ he says to the chauffeur. ‘Tell me honestly, have you become more or less happy since the Revolution?’

‘In truth, less happy,’ says the driver.

‘Why is that?’ asks Stalin, his hackles raised.

‘Well, before the Revolution I had two suits. Now I only have one.’

‘You should be pleased,’ says Stalin. ‘Don’t you know that in Africa they run around completely naked?’

‘Really?’ the chauffeur replies. ‘So how long ago did they have their revolution?’

“Bolshevism was an ideology inherently rich in black humour, being a utopian creed which promised heaven on earth and delivered queues, poverty and show trials. It was the gulf between dream and reality which offered such material for jokes – anekdoty or anecdotes – and whispered comedy became one of the USSR’s few genuine growth areas. This is the subject of Ben Lewis’s Hammer and Tickle, a history of humour under communism, which was published in 2009.

“There was initially something of a humour boom after the Russian Revolution. ‘Between 1922 and 1928 seven satirical magazines were published every week in Moscow and St Petersburg with a combined print run of half a million – the same as the daily edition of Pravda; this was the first flowering of Communist humour.’

“Zamyatin, most famous for the proto-Orwellian We, also wrote The Last Tale About Phita in 1922 in which ‘a mayor decides that, in order to make the inhabitants of his town happy, he will make everyone equal. He orders them to live together in a large barracks, then shaves every citizen’s hair off to put them on a par with the bald, and makes them mentally disabled to equalise their intelligence’,” West writes.

Now that’s something I didn’t know: Zamyatin, to his credit, wrote that satirical story decades before Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Harrison Bergeron,” his similarly plotted and themed Prometheus-Hall-of-Fame-winning cautionary tale about the consequences of radical and coercive egalitarianism. (Vonnegut’s story was inducted in 1994 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Check out the Prometheus Blog appreciation here.)

West goes on:

“Mikhail Zoshchenko’s The Match features a delegate from the Matchmakers’ Union giving a speech to assembly workers where he tells them that ‘total output is bounding ahead’ and the quality and quantity of goods improving. The speaker then tries lighting his cigarette and the flaming tip of the badly made match snaps off and hits him in the eye.

“This satire boom would not last, and towards the late 1920s Stalin closed down most of the satirical magazines. As a character in Milan Kundera’s The Joke puts it, ‘No great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm or mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes everything it touches’. The regime was following the pattern of revolutionary movements in becoming more conservative as they established power.

“Political jokes were banned as ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and the authorities replaced them ‘with their own brand of dull official humour, which they disseminated in satirical magazines…. There were now two kinds of humour: official and unofficial – the written and the spoken, the public and the private. In the censored void, a culture of the spoken joke would develop, a collective satirical work produced by the whole population’,” West writes.

A LIBERTARIAN CRITIQUE OF POWER

More people today – not only libertarians or LFS members but anyone who cares about art, culture, artistic freedom, freedom of expression and the right to dissent – should remember and honor Zamyatin and his fiction.

Because of his use of literature to critique Soviet politics, Zamyatin is considered one of the first Soviet dissidents.

We, the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board, was smuggled to the West for publication, sparking outrage within the Union of Soviet Writers and leading to Zamyatin’s exile from his homeland.

Here, for reference, is an excerpt from the Prometheus Blog appreciation of Zamyatin’s classic novel:

We imagines a world of repressive conformity and stagnant stasis within a totalitarian State…. Zamyatin bravely pioneered and imagined what later came to be known as dystopian literature.

“For better and worse, that dark and cautionary new genre was inspired by the millions of innocent people whose lives were destroyed by the Russian Revolution under Lenin’s communism. The genre took on even more moral weight after the world witnessed the horrors of all the other statist-collectivist variants (from socialism to national socialism and fascism) whose authoritarian excesses and violent extremes of dictatorship, war, famine, poverty and social collapse so brutally marked and disfigured the 20th century.

We, written in 1920-1921 by the Russian writer and first published in English translation in 1924 in New York, was so critical of collectivist authoritarianism that it wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1988, when the era of glasnost led to its first appearance with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. A year later, the two dystopian novels were published together in a combined edition.”

Read the rest of the appreciation here.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant elements of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch  videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

 

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Columnist Ed West on Eugene Zamyatin, author of the first classic dystopian novel of the 20th century”

  1. Teacher: Tell me, comrade, what is the definition of capitalism?
    Student: The exploitation of man by man.
    Teacher: And what is the definition of socialism?
    Student: The reverse!

    (I saw that one in Arthur Koestler’s The Action of Creation, back in the 1960s, and it’s been one of my favorites ever since.)

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