The Century-Old Russian Novel Said to Have Inspired ‘1984’

By Jennifer Wilson

My book critic origin story is that I was nearly kicked out of A.P. English for not liking George Orwell’s “1984.” I found the prose stilted (I vaguely recall an invective I launched against his similes) and the overall project didactic. Of all things to be didactic about, I said — totalitarianism. How original — not liking totalitarianism; I mean it just sounds bad. My teacher was aghast (she loved his similes). I had to be transferred to another class.

Born on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the translator Bela Shayevich outright refused to read “1984”: “I had no interest in a book routinely deployed as a vaccine against communism. I was born in the Soviet Union: I didn’t need to hear it from an Englishman.” It was for this reason that she had not read the Russian science-fiction novel that is said to have inspired “1984” — WE (Ecco, paper, $16.99), by Yevgeny Zamyatin — now out in her translation.

When asked to take on “We,” Shayevich — best known for translating “Secondhand Time,” by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich — was surprised to learn that Zamyatin, and Orwell for that matter, was a committed socialist and, most important, a wickedly fun writer. Shayevich describes his style as emblematic of a “jagged and ruthlessly fat-free early Soviet aesthetic.” Though there have been numerous excellent translations of “We,” Shayevich’s best preserves the experimental qualities of Zamyatin’s writing. She subtly conveys from the Russian the jumpy texture that the narrator’s voice takes on as he becomes a kind of jammed robot, ecstatically malfunctioning as he falls in love with a sleek femme fatale, a rogue individualist with a “name” to match: I-330.

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    Set 1,000 years in the future, “We” transports us to an authoritarian society called the One State that is governed by technological efficiency and an enforced suppression of individual identity. The novel is the diary of D-503 (citizens of the One State have numbers, not names), lead engineer of a spaceship called Integral set to travel into outer space to rescue “unfamiliar beings on alien planets who may yet live in savage states of freedom.” The residents of the One State don identical gray uniforms and listen to machine-generated music: “A musicometer,” D-503 tells us, “can produce three sonatas an hour.” Monogamy is a vestige of ancient times (a.k.a. our times), and sex is arranged through a bureaucratic system involving pink tickets. “He’s registered to me today,” interjects D-503’s girlfriend O-90 when she sees him chatting with another woman.

    A mathematician who hates imaginary numbers — “Get √−1 out of me!” he shrieks — D-503 is the golden boy of the One State. He gazes longingly at the Integral, comparing its machinations to a ballet. “Why is this dance beautiful?” he writes. “Answer: because the movements are unfree. The deeper teaching of this dance lies in its absolute aesthetic bondage, its ideal unfreedom.” But the steely blades of the Integral soon find a romantic rival for D-503’s affections. One day, during one of the state-sanctioned Personal Hours, he takes a walk and meets I-330, a sharp-toothed woman with angular eyebrows, whose resemblance to a right angle seems to do it for him. He describes her as “slender, sharp, supple and stubborn, like a whip.”

    Before long, I-330 sneaks him away to the House of Antiquity, a museum of the before-times filled with ephemera of the ancients: books, candleholders, “rows of furnishings in epileptic disarray, impossible to incorporate into any equation.” Later, she surprises him by wearing something other than the prescribed uniform, “an ancient dress — paper thin, saffron yellow: one thousand times more evil than if she’d been wearing nothing at all.” Before long it is clear: I-330 is a rebel, part of a secret group looking to topple the One State and bring back the days of alcohol, Scriabin and poetry not sanctioned by the State.

    Zamyatin was born in Lebedyan, Russia, in 1884. He joined the Bolshevik Party early on and took part in the Revolution of 1905, for which he was imprisoned and exiled to the provinces. After a stint in England (overseeing the construction of icebreakers), he returned to Russia in 1917 and witnessed the October Revolution unfold up close. Euphoric, he threw himself headlong into party work, sitting on the boards of literary organizations and offering lectures on the craft of fiction. He also became a significant literary critic, and his greatest pet peeve was the influence of Taylorism — a 19th-century American philosophy of efficiency — on a new movement of worker-writers called Proletkult. Their leading adherent was the writer Alexander Bogdanov, whose novel “Red Star” (1908) was about a scientist and revolutionary who travels to Mars and finds a perfect socialist society predicated on technology and ruthless efficiency. The Proletkult writers were also too eager, Zamyatin thought, to play the part of court poets, and for an increasingly censorious court at that. In a 1921 essay titled “I Am Afraid” (translated by Mirra Ginsburg), he wrote: “True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics.”

    “We” has the distinction of being the first novel officially banned in the Soviet Union. Glavlit, the Soviet organ responsible for literary censorship, was established in 1922, just a year after Zamyatin completed work on the book. Just before it was outlawed, he sent a copy abroad, and thus “We” was first published not in Russian but in English (in a translation by Gregory Zilboorg), by the U.S. publisher Dutton in 1924. Trouble came when excerpts appeared in Russian in an émigré journal in Prague. To protect Zamyatin, the editor insisted they were retranslations and not — importantly — from an original version the author might have furnished for circulation abroad after the ban. The Soviets erred on the side of suspicion, as was their wont. Zamyatin quickly fell out of favor and was unable to get any of his new work published. In 1931, he appealed directly to Stalin to let him move abroad, with the condition that he would return “as soon as it becomes possible in Russia to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men.” It was arranged for Zamyatin and his wife to move to Paris, where he lived until he died of a heart attack in 1937.

    In 1946, George Orwell got his hands on the English translation of “We” and reviewed it in The Tribune. “So far as I can judge,” he wrote, “it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one.” Orwell’s enthusiasm led to a timely reissue in 1952. In the aftermath of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, “We” struck readers as eerily prophetic. The same is true now. In a foreword to this new edition, Margaret Atwood writes: “Stalin’s show trials and mass purges would not take place for a decade — yet here is the general plan of later dictatorships and surveillance capitalisms, laid out in ‘We’ as if in a blueprint.”

    It all makes the original context of Zamyatin’s novel — largely a literary scabble about technology and the freedom to experiment — feel embarrassingly quaint. Yet, for Shayevich, who describes herself as “a student of the humanities with a fetish for ambiguity and a translator’s resigned reverence for the inexact,” Zamyatin’s original message feels strikingly relevant. Indeed, translation is one of the realms of literature uniquely vulnerable to this era of techno-mania and our addiction to computerized shortcuts. Zamyatin’s novel reminds us, she writes, that “we are affected by what is human in art, not a ‘perfection’ that can be replicated by a machine.” Perhaps this is why so many artists, even those outside the genre of science fiction, continue to return to “We” for inspiration (which, incidentally, the One State considers a medical illness) and hope. With its sharp, uneven edges and chaotic originality, Zamyatin’s novel exposes the notion that human creativity is something that can be quantified, churned into an algorithm and sold as exact science for the fiction that it is.

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