The Russian novel that predicted, but underestimated, totalitarianism
I have an object to which, for many years, I have given pride of place to every house I have lived in. It’s a kind of wall hanging, a two-by-three-foot glass display that contains a hand-printed daily schedule. It includes eight and a half hours of sleep; one hour each for breakfast, lunch and dinner; half an hour of exercise; three hours of fresh air; and three hours of after dinner board games and movie watching. Someone stole this beautiful object from a psychiatric ward in the Russian province, to give it to me as a gift. I never tire of looking at it, just as my daughter never tires of pointing out the inscription “One hour of rest: 2 pm-4pm”. How wonderful, to be able to lengthen an hour’s rest for two – to subvert the flow of time.
Every year, when I read “Nous” by Evgueni Zamiatine with my students, I would like the schedule of psychiatric services to be suspended in the classroom, because Zamiatine’s novel imagined a regimented way of life and, too. , seemed to reverse the flow of time. . Born in 1884, Zamiatine was a revolutionary, even a Bolshevik; he was imprisoned and sent into internal exile in the Czar’s Russia, then moved for a time to England, returning just a month before the Bolsheviks came to power. Three years later he wrote down his dystopia, revising it perhaps in 1921 or 1922. By the time he completed his final project, the Bolsheviks had already imposed censorship and created the secret police. It took them a few years to establish Soviet rule over most of what had been the Russian Empire, to expropriate most of the property and to build its first concentration camp, and it took longer to establish a reign of terror. But Zamiatine had already written a novel which described many details of this terror and other terrors to come in the twentieth century.
If you’ve heard of “Us,” you’ve heard that he was premonitory and pioneering, and influenced Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, whose dystopian novels have, in turn, helped shape our understanding of 20th century and beyond. “We” conceives of a single state where people have no proper names; they are marked with a combination of letters and numbers, like inmates in Nazi camps. They wear identical clothes, their hair is evenly cropped, their food is synthetic and purely utilitarian, and their houses are identical and transparent. (Soviet life, with its forced uniformity on the one hand and its extreme rarity on the other, was ultimately a less aesthetic version of this leveled existence.) They live on a centralized schedule, a high-tech display that evokes my psyche. . schedule of the parish and specifies everything, up to the time of the antics, with a partner appointed by the central authority. They speak a reverse language; the tyrant is called the Benefactor. The center of community life is public performance, which is glorified and perfected: human life reduced to a small amount of clean water and ashes. Zamiatine imagined this twenty years before Nazi Germany began the sanitized, industrial mass murder of people who had been reduced in numbers. Zamiatine’s dystopia is a walled, domed city, and its inhabitants are unaware of the existence of a bigger world. He imagined this years before the Iron Curtain closed on the Soviet Union.
Although Zamiatine wrote “We” several years before the word “totalitarianism” appeared in political discourse, and a full three decades before political theorists defined and described it, he did more than predict some of his words. characteristics ; he foresaw his determining condition, which is the destruction of the individual. Hannah Arendt, in “The origins of totalitarianismAnd elsewhere, argued that totalitarianism was a new form of government, distinct from the tyrannies that preceded it. The tyrants of the past demanded obedience – the outward performance of certain behaviors – but totalitarian regimes seek to subsume, to erase the core of the human being. Obedience is not enough, nor the fulfillment of love; the regime demands that and everything in between. The outlines of the ego disappear and humans merge into what she calls “a man of gigantic dimensions.” Zamiatine found the word for it: we.
“We” could not be published in Soviet Russia. It was translated into English in 1924, then into Czech and French. A few years after the Czech publication, Zamiatin – at the time a writer in good standing, the head of the Leningrad branch of the Writers’ Union – was denounced by all newspapers and publishing houses in the USSR. He had to resign from his post, become an outcast. In 1931, he emigrated to Paris, by exemption. At this point, the Soviet borders were effectively closed.
All of the above is correct, and all of it is pretty obvious. Contemporary Russian literary critic Dmitry Bykov, however, argued that Zamiatin’s predictions were wrong. “He was afraid of the wrong thing,” Bykov told a conference in 2016. “He envisioned an exemplary totalitarian state, built on absolute reason, on logic. . . and a forced totalitarian benevolence. Zamiatin’s dystopia was clear, sterile, perfect – and therefore soulless and deadly. In fact, Bykov continues, it was not a tyranny of perfection that made twentieth-century totalitarianism so terrible; it was a tyranny of the worst.
To be sure, the horrors of the twentieth century were, as the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argued, functions of modernity. The Holocaust unfolded on rails, schedules, and technology that made mass and anonymous murder possible. Zamiatine was a man not only of words but also of science; he studied engineering and worked in shipbuilding, as one of the creators of a giant Russian icebreaker. He had a keen sense of how technology could transform human existence, and it may have enabled him to imagine humans reduced to numbers and handfuls of ashes. What he hadn’t foreseen, as Bykov noted, was the overwhelming call for the worst of human nature, the very call that connects the darkest moments of the twentieth century to autocrats and wannabes. 21st century autocrats. They urge their followers to let go of conventions of dignity and expectations of morality and be their own worst, together.
The regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had enough similarities that researchers could create a new category that included them: totalitarianism. Both regimes have relied on propaganda and terror; both saw their populations as superfluous. But there was one significant difference that continues to haunt us to this day: While Hitler openly appealed to the worst of humanity, the Bolsheviks built their state in the name of fine humanist ideas. The Bolsheviks envisioned a state in which everyone was perfectly equal, everyone received according to their needs and contributed according to their abilities, and each existed in perfect harmony with the others. Zamiatine’s dystopia is consistent with these ideas and foreshadows their corruption. As the son of an Orthodox minister and himself a Russian revolutionary, Zamiatin had a deep understanding, even a love for, the ideals of communitarianism. When he visualized the deplorable result of a relentless application of these ideas, he used what he surely once considered a beautiful word –we– to describe it.
In a world without personal borders, a world without deviation, conflict, serendipity, difference, a world without “I”, there can be no “we”. the we of “we” is a mass rather than a community of people. Zamiatine imagined that if a totalitarian subject proceeded to pursue his desires rather than following the main calendar and the orders of the Benefactor, he would become incapable of living in the we. He should be repaired, executed or expelled. In the novel, the protagonist, D-503, is diagnosed as having developed a soul, a condition that must be remedied before he can be reintegrated into society.
As Zamiatine’s story is usually told, this is also what happened to her. After the publication of “We” abroad, he was excluded from all Soviet institutions and was forced to ask Stalin to let him emigrate. This is the story I have summarized above. This is good, but it is not quite true. Zamiatine’s initial loss of professional and social status preceded the publication of “We” abroad, and it likely preceded the novel’s completion. In 1921, in an essay titled “I’m Afraid,” he wrote about what he saw as an emerging Soviet system for choosing ideologically reliable writers and only allowing them to be published. He categorized writers as “agile” or “non-agile” and claimed that the latter group – those unable to precisely meet the expectations of the new regime – had been silenced: