The world knows Yevgeny Zamyatin as the author of “We,” a milestone of 20th-century dystopian literature that presents an apparently ideal world where the Single State has suppressed freedom in the name of happiness. Both George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” have echoes of “We” in them. However, long before he wrote “We,” Zamyatin himself was influenced by the British writers he translated and the country itself.
Born in 1884 in Lebedyan, Tambov province to an orthodox priest father and a pianist mother, Yevgeny Zamyatin had a clear talent for writing and a clear weakness for math, which he later ironically claimed was probably why he chose a math-based career. Zamyatin enrolled at the shipbuilding department of the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University, where he showed his nonconformist streak – he spent a few months in jail in 1905 for political agitation. “If I have any significance in Russian literature, I owe this all to the St. Petersburg Secret Police,” he later wrote.
Despite these early brushes with the law, Zamyatin began working as an engineer and was sent to Newcastle in 1916 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 – and were renamed accordingly. So, in an ironic twist, Zamyatin, one of the most outspoken early critics of the Soviet regime, actually designed the first Soviet icebreakers: “Lenin,” “Krasin” and others. The 18 months he spent in England were a melancholy time for the writer; in letters to his wife, Lyudmila Usova, Zamyatin complained that he could hardly communicate with the locals due to the language barrier, that the food upset his stomach, and that he had a permanent headache. Not to speak of constant German bombing raids – World War I was at its height. “Often in the evenings, as I drove home from the plant in my tiny Renault, I was met by a dark, blinded city that had put out all the lights – that meant that German zeppelins were somewhere nearby, and the bombs would soon come crashing down,” – Zamyatin wrote in his autobiography. “At night, at home, I would listen to the sound of the explosions – some of them far away, some closer, – checking the designs for “Lenin” and writing my novel about Englishmen, 'The Islanders.' As they say, both the novel and the icebreaker turned out quite well.”
Zamyatin’s time in England came to an abrupt end in 1917 when he discovered that there had been a revolution in Russia. Although he returned to St. Petersburg just in time for the October Revolution, he described missing the February Revolution as “never having been in love, then waking up one morning already married for 10 years or so.”
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