If you’ve read George Orwell’s 1984,you’ll quickly recognize its origin in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Both books depict totalitarian societies in which individual liberty takes a backseat to the welfare of the state – obvious references to Stalinist Russia.
Zamyatin’s narrator, D-503, is chief engineer for the Integrator, a spaceship built to carry seeds of their “perfect” society to other worlds. Like his fellow citizens, D-503 is blindly loyal to the state, as we see in the early pages of his diary. To him, humanity has achieved perfection by sacrificing personal wants for the betterment of the whole. “The way to rid man of criminality,” he writes, “is to rid him of freedom.” But doubts creep into his diary when he falls under the spell of I-330, a mysterious woman who lures him to the Ancient House, a kind of museum of the old “primitive” society.
Published in 1924, We is significant as the first dystopian novel. Orwell’s work, great as it is, appeared twenty-five years later and follows Zamyatin’s storyline closely. The survivors of a two-hundred-year war endure a regimented existence behind glass walls. Clocks determine their hours of working, eating, and sleeping. Each person has a number rather than a name, and each lives in a room of transparent walls, curtained only during sexual liaisons. Readers of Orwell’s classic will quickly recognize D-503 and I-330 as almost mirror images of Winston Smith and Julia. Zamyatin’s Guardians preceded Orwell’s Thought Police, and his Well-Doer is an ancestor to Orwell’s Big Brother.
In both novels, human impulses pose challenges to state authority, leading to a crisis. The ultimate question is which will prevail.
At times it is difficult to follow D-503’s descriptions of his life-shattering experiences, perhaps because they clash so violently with his innate beliefs. Nevertheless, We remains a sobering reminder of the horrors that result when mankind puts its faith in human constructs, rather than in God.