George Orwell Reviews We, the Russian Dystopian Novel That Noam Chomsky Considers “More Perceptive” Than Brave New World & 1984

We know George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, at least by rep­u­ta­tion, and we’ve heard both ref­er­ences tossed around with alarm­ing fre­quen­cy this past year. Before these water­shed dystopi­an nov­els, pub­lished over a decade apart (1949 and 1932, respec­tive­ly), came an ear­li­er book, one tru­ly “most rel­e­vant to our time,” writes Michael Bren­dan Dougher­ty: Yevge­ny Zamyatin’s We, writ­ten in 1923 and set “1,000 years after a rev­o­lu­tion that brought the One State into pow­er.” The nov­el had a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on Orwell’s more famous polit­i­cal dystopia. And we have a good sense of Orwell’s indebt­ed­ness to the Russ­ian writer.

Three years before the pub­li­ca­tion of 1984, Orwell pub­lished a review of Zamyatin’s book, hav­ing “at last got my hands on a copy… sev­er­al years after hear­ing of its exis­tence.” Orwell describes the nov­el as “one of the lit­er­ary curiosi­ties of this book-burn­ing age” and spends a good part of his brief com­men­tary com­par­ing We to Huxley’s nov­el. “[T]he resem­blance with Brave New World is strik­ing,” he writes. “But though Zamyatin’s book is less well put together—it has a rather weak and episod­ic plot which is too com­plex to summarise—it has a polit­i­cal point which the oth­er lacks.” The ear­li­er Russ­ian nov­el, writes Orwell, in 1946, “is on the whole more rel­e­vant to our own sit­u­a­tion.”

Part of what Orwell found con­vinc­ing in Zamyatin’s “less well put togeth­er” book was the fact that under­neath the tech­no­crat­ic total­i­tar­i­an state he depicts, “many of the ancient human instincts are still there” rather than hav­ing been erad­i­cat­ed by eugen­ics and med­ica­tion. (Although cit­i­zens in We are lobot­o­mized, more or less, if they rebel.) “It may well be,” Orwell goes on to say, “that Zamy­atin did not intend the Sovi­et regime to be the spe­cial tar­get of his satire.” He did write the book many years before the Stal­in­ist dic­ta­tor­ship that inspired Orwell’s dystopias. “What Zamy­atin seems to be aim­ing at is not any par­tic­u­lar coun­try but the implied aims of indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion.”

In the inter­view at the top of the post (with clum­sy sub­ti­tles), Noam Chom­sky makes some sim­i­lar obser­va­tions, and declares We the supe­ri­or book to both Brave New World and 1984 (which he pro­nounces “obvi­ous and wood­en”). Zamy­atin was “more per­cep­tive” than Orwell or Hux­ley, says Chom­sky. He “was talk­ing about the real world…. I think he sensed what a total­i­tar­i­an sys­tem is like,” pro­ject­ing an over­whelm­ing­ly con­trol­ling sur­veil­lance state in We before such a thing exist­ed in the form it would in Orwell’s time. The nov­el will remind us of the many dystopi­an sce­nar­ios that have pop­u­lat­ed fic­tion and film in the almost 100 years since its pub­li­ca­tion. As Dougher­ty con­cise­ly sum­ma­rizes it, in We:

Cit­i­zens are known only by their num­ber, and the sto­ry’s pro­tag­o­nist is D‑503, an engi­neer work­ing on a space­ship that aims to bring the glo­ri­ous prin­ci­ples of the Rev­o­lu­tion to space. This world is ruled by the Bene­fac­tor, and presided over by the Guardians. They spy on cit­i­zens, who all live in apart­ments made of glass so that they can be per­fect­ly observed. Trust in the sys­tem is absolute.

Equal­i­ty is enforced, to the point of dis­fig­ur­ing the phys­i­cal­ly beau­ti­ful. Beau­ty — as well as its com­pan­ion, art — are a kind of heresy in the One State, because “to be orig­i­nal means to dis­tin­guish your­self from oth­ers. It fol­lows that to be orig­i­nal is to vio­late the prin­ci­ple of equal­i­ty.”

Zamy­atin sure­ly drew from ear­li­er dystopias, as well as the clas­si­cal utopia of Plato’s Repub­lic. But an even more imme­di­ate influ­ence, curi­ous­ly, was his time spent in Eng­land just before the Rev­o­lu­tion. Like his main char­ac­ter, Zamy­atin began his career as an engineer—a ship­builder, in fact, the craft he stud­ied at St. Peters­burg Poly­tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­si­ty. He was sent to New­cas­tle in 1916, writes Yolan­da Del­ga­do, “to super­vise the con­struc­tion of ice­break­ers for the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment. How­ev­er, by the time the ships actu­al­ly reached Rus­sia, they belonged to the new authorities—the Bol­she­viks…. [I]n an iron­ic twist, Zamy­atin, one of the most out­spo­ken ear­ly crit­ics of the Sovi­et regime, actu­al­ly designed the first Sovi­et ice­break­ers.”

While Zamy­atin wrote We in response to the Sovi­et takeover, his style and sci-fi set­ting was great­ly inspired by his immer­sion in Eng­lish cul­ture. His two years abroad “great­ly influ­enced him,” from his dress to his speech, earn­ing him the nick­name “the Eng­lish­man.” He became so flu­ent in Eng­lish that he found work as an “edi­tor and trans­la­tor of for­eign authors such as H.G. Wells, Jack Lon­don, and Sheri­dan.” (Dur­ing his sojourn in Eng­land, writes Orwell, Zamy­atin “had writ­ten some blis­ter­ing satires on Eng­lish life.”) Upon return­ing to Rus­sia, Zamy­atin quick­ly became one of the “very first dis­si­dents.” We was banned by the Sovi­et cen­sors in 1921, and that year the author pub­lished an essay called “I Fear,” in which he described the strug­gles of Russ­ian artists under the new regime, writ­ing, “the con­di­tions under which we live are tear­ing us to pieces.”

Even­tu­al­ly smug­gling the man­u­script of We to New York, Zamy­atin was able to get the nov­el pub­lished in 1923, incur­ring the wrath of the Sovi­et author­i­ties. He was “ostra­cized… demo­nized in the press, black­list­ed from pub­lish­ing and kicked out of the Union of Sovi­et Writ­ers.” Zamy­atin was unapolo­getic, writ­ing Stal­in to ask that he be allowed to leave the coun­try. Stal­in not only grant­ed the request, allow­ing Zamy­atin to set­tle in Paris, but allowed him back into the Union of Sovi­et Writ­ers in 1934, an unusu­al turn of events indeed. Just above, you can see a Ger­man film adap­ta­tion of We (turn on closed cap­tions to watch it with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles). And you can read Orwell’s full review of We here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Hear the Very First Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Star­ring David Niv­en (1949)

Hear Aldous Hux­ley Read Brave New World. Plus 84 Clas­sic Radio Dra­mas from CBS Radio Work­shop (1956–57)

George Orwell’s 1984 Is Now the #1 Best­selling Book on Ama­zon

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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