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The 20th century prominent Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” belongs to one of the subgenres of social fiction – Dystopia. His dystopian novel precedes the dystopias of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. It is significant that George Orwell considered himself as the successor of Zamyatin’s novel. As one of the best representatives of the genre of fantasy and science fiction of the 20th century, American writer and literary critic Ursula Kreber Le Guin notes, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” is the greatest science fiction novel that had yet been written.
Although Zamyatin’s “We” came under the pressure of Soviet censorship, it was met with great interest by foreign critics. In his native country, the novel, which was considered as a political mistake, came under fire of mass criticism. “We” was published in Russia only 70 years after it was written. Considering this background, the first Georgian translation of the novel (translator – Tata Nikoladze), which was published in 2018, is of particular importance. In fact, one way or another, it was through this translation that modern Georgian readers got to know with Zamyatin, which created a kind of basis for the rediscovery and study of the not so widely known writer and his novel – “We”.
The novel “We” was written in 1920 – shortly after the writer’s return from England to Russia which was filled with a revolutionary atmosphere (according to some reports, the work on the text continued until 1921). Due to the censorship of Soviet Russia, it was impossible to publish the novel in his homeland, although the writer was reading it at literary evenings in Moscow and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). Thus, due to wide interest, “We” was distributed as a manuscript. In addition, the novel attracted the attention of foreign readers and Zamyatin received numerous offers to publish it.
The structure of the story – “text within the text” – which is one of the main markers of the novel, is the basis of the process of its creation and realization of the values and interests of the character who has become an author. The form of a diary, the notes add a confessional character to the novel. The main character, who is an apologist for the existing system, tries to use mathematical formulas to prove the wisdom of the principles on the basis of which the One State was formed. The philosophy of forced happiness is perfectly demonstrated by the writer. Freedom, which according to Christian belief is most precious to a man, was shown to us as
delusion in the novel, which is “facilitated” by the writer’s free variation of biblical allusions through irony.
George Orwell unequivocally considered himself as the successor of Zamyatin’s novel “We”, he precisely understood the essence of his originality in the conclusion of a short but accurate review of the novel. In 1906 the Tsarist government imprisoned Zamyatin, in 1922 he suffered the same fate at the hands of the Bolsheviks. By this time, the writer had no excuse to admire the existing political regime, and it is important to note that his novel was not just the result of impulsive anger: “It is in effect a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again” (Orwell 1968: 75). It is unlikely that Orwell meant only the process of uncontrolled development of technology in the concept of “machine”, because “machine”, that is, in the 20th century, the human civilization itself was presented to us as an inanimate and uncontrollable object.
At the end of 1945 Zamyatin’s “We” finally ended up in Orwell’s hands and in January 1946 he published a review of the novel in the social-democratic magazine “Tribune”. Orwell was most struck by the similarities between Zamyatin’s “We” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”: “Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world […] The atmosphere of the two books is similar, and it is roughly speaking the same kind of society that is being described, though Huxley’s book shows less political awareness and is more influenced by recent biological and psychological theories” (Orwell
Both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley relied on Zamyatin’s model of the novel (although Huxley did not admit having read Zamyatin’s novel, unlike Orwell, who not only read “We”, but also wrote a review of it). It is clear that Orwell borrowed from Zamyatin not only the plot and main characters, but also many characteristics of the society he describes. American writer, playwright and essayist Kurt Vonnegut, talking in an interview with “Playboy” magazine about his “Player Piano”, has noted that he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of “Brave New World”, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (Allen 1999: 93).
According to Huxley, reading of H. G. Wells’s “Men like Gods” caused in him a reaction that turned into a directed obsession, leading to a cynical anti-idealism. Thus, before he had finished reading the book, he had already decided to make an unforgiving parody of the most optimistic utopias of Wells.
Since Huxley deliberately decided to satirize the utopian ideas of Wells, the question arises: where should we look for the foundations of his own dystopian ideas? Zamyatin generously answers this question in an interview with Frédéric Lefebvre: “Pierre Drie La Rochelle told me a few days ago that during the meeting he asked Huxley if he was familiar with my novel. The coincidence, of course, turned out to be accidental. However, such a coincidence suggests that similar ideas are scattered around us, in the ominous air we breathe” (Замятин 1988: 16).
As it’s known, particular events mentioned by Zamyatin in the novel came true in the future and the writer’s position towards certain issues attracts attention even today and does not lose its relevance. Although the novel had to remain in the shadows for some time, we can say for sure that the organized model of the 20th century dystopian novel was first proposed by Yevgeny Zamyatin. In modern literature, there is no doubt that the appearance of the novel “We” in the 20th century gave impetus to the process of establishing a new genre – dystopian novel.