We

by

Yevgeny Zamyatin

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We Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Yevgeny Zamyatin

Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin was born on February 1, 1884, in Lebedyan, Tambov Governorate, in the Russian Empire. His father was a Russian Orthodox priest and his mother was a musician. While studying naval engineering in Saint Petersburg from 1902-1908, Zamyatin joined the Bolsheviks, though he would later become ambivalent toward or critical of many of the Soviet Union’s policies later in his life. Zamyatin’s engineering background plays out in the mathematical themes present throughout We. He was arrested during the Russian Revolution of 1905 as a student activist and exiled to Siberia. He escaped, returned to Saint Petersburg, and lived there illegally. He was arrested and exiled again in 1911 and amnestied in 1913. Zamyatin began to write satires during his arrest, most notably “In the Backwoods,” which was published in 1914. After being sent to work in England, Zamyatin returned to Russia and was given literary work by socialist realism writer Maxim Gorky, during which time he published a horror story called “The Cave.” He was arrested by Soviet authorities again in 1919 and 1922. We, which is regarded as his most famous work, was written between 1920 and 1921. In 1931, Zamyatin appealed to Stalin to leave the Soviet Union, as his position as a writer put him at heightened risk of political persecution. Stalin approved Zamyatin’s request, and he and his wife moved to Paris. While in Paris, Zamyatin collaborated with director Jean Renoir on his 1963 adaption of Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which Zamyatin co-wrote. Zamyatin died in poverty in 1937.
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Historical Context of We

We is Zamyatin’s critical response to the transformation of Russian politics and culture at the turn of the century as the country underwent the shift from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union. Specifically, Zamyatin explores the negative consequences of the Soviet Union’s practical application of Taylorism and its negative consequences on labor practices and their impact on workers. Taylorism, named for its founder, American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, is a theory of workflow management that applies science to manufacturing practices in an effort to maximize industrial productivity. Developed in late 19th-century America, Taylorism emphasizes logic, rationality, and empiricism. In America, Henry Ford applied Taylor’s principles to maximize production efficiency in his automobile factories. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky embraced Taylorism as a means to strengthen the Soviet Union’s growing industrial infrastructure and the power of the Soviet Union’s “super population.” In practice, maximizing efficiency at all costs resulted in the transformation of workers from members of an empowered super population to dehumanized cogs in an unfeeling, unempowered industrial machine. In his own words, Zamyatin’s rhetorical purpose in composing We was to illustrate the “hypertrophy of the power of the machine and the power of the state—any state.” In this way, We—specifically its thematic emphasis on the collective versus the individualshould be read as a critique of the mechanization of people in general, not only as it applies to Soviet political ideals.

Other Books Related to We

We is a work of dystopian science fiction—one that explores, specifically, the dire consequences of a collectivist ideology enforced by a ruthless authoritarian regime. Numerous writers cite Zamyatin’s work as a direct influence on their own. Some examples include Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). George Orwell claims that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) must have been influenced directly by We, but Huxley supposedly rejected Orwell’s position. We’s skeptical approach to mechanization also resonates within the Modernist tradition of expressing anxieties toward urbanized society post-WWI. An example of a prominent literary work in this vein is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).
Key Facts about We
  • Full Title: We
  • When Written: 1920-1921
  • Where Written: The Soviet Union
  • When Published: First publication in English in 1924. Earliest Russian text published in 1952.
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Setting: The One State
  • Climax: D-503 and I-330 fail to seize control of the Integral for MEPHI. The Benefactor tells D-503 that I-330 never loved him: she was only using him to get to the Integral.
  • Antagonist: I-330
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for We

Synesthesia. In her introduction to We, translator Natasha Randall writes that Zamyatin reportedly told the artist Yuri Annekov that he attaches qualities of sound and colors to certain letters. For example, “L is pale, cold, light blue, liquid light. R is loud, bright, red, hot fast.” This trait plays out in Zamyatin’s heavy use of color imagery and symbolism in We.

Off Limits. After its completion in 1921, We was the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board.