We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a strange, wild ride that I can only describe as a mixture of Ayn Rand’s Anthem and George Orwell’s 1984. Though We was published long before either of these books were even beginning to be written. It likely influenced Rand and Orwell when writing their own novels. We was written and published exactly 100 years ago and has an interesting history of its own. It was first translated and published in English in 1924, but it almost didn’t get published or survive the political changes happening in Russia after the first World War.
There are strong elements of Russian communism within the novel but the novel as a whole offers a critique of the political system, which created tension between Zamyatin and his own country. In fact, the international publication of We became the reason the Russian government began repressing writers in 1929. Zamyatin elected a self-imposed exile after this book was attacked and removed from Soviet libraries and he was forbidden to publish any future work. He and his wife moved to Paris (with permission from Stalin) in 1931. He later died in 1937 never returning to the country he considered home.
The novel was written at the beginning of what we now know as the communist period of Russian history. We was an examination into a future where such a political system was made perfect, at least in reference to the citizens becoming merely parts of a whole known as The One State. The citizen’s live within a walled city and their days are mapped by the hour and the schedule is strictly followed. Their apartment-style living quarters are made of a futuristic glass material allowing absolutely no privacy. They are all furnished minimally and exactly the same way. However, there are blinds that can only be drawn when an approved “pink ticket” is inserted. This provides privacy for one hour and the tickets are approved only for sexual activity.
Our lead character, D-503, gradually faces changes to his own conditioned way of thinking. The number designation, instead of a name, is echoed in Rand’s Anthem which also presents a society focused on a collective instead of the individual but with different results. I noticed a handful of similarities in plot with Orwell’s 1984. However, and again, We preceded both of these novels, but I must admit I liked the latter novels more. That is not to say that We presents its own, intriguing dystopian vision which is important in its own way.
The book did get fairly abstract at times, especially since it is written in journal form through the perspective of D-503 and often uses mathematics to make analogies. They are easily understood but several entries are not fully formed or lack description. I cannot say whether or not the translation from Russian into English accounts for the lack of clarity or if it was written that way with purpose. I’ll let you be the judge.
If you are a fan of dystopian novels, which I must admit that I am, you will likely enjoy this book. Dystopian novels are unique because they offer a vision into an imagined future based on events from our own history. They are a commentary of the time they were written but set in worlds where practices of that time, often injustices, are allowed to persist and become normal behaviors within futuristic societies. They are written almost as warnings of what may come to pass. The same applies here but perhaps with more historical contexts.
But it is up to you if you decide to read it. I am merely providing some information that may help you make that decision. Perhaps this is the first time you have heard of this book. I know I only discovered it recently and likely never would have heard of it if I hadn’t read a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin in which she mentions it only briefly. Should you take the plunge into this strange world, I hope you enjoy it or at least take something of value from its pages.