The Russian Evgueni Zamiatin (1884-1937) wrote his totalitarian dystopia novel We in 1920-1921; a century later a new English translation appears. There is in Us the total absorption of the individual by the State; the vigilance of almost every act and thought; the liquidation of opponents and a climate where the least criticism is taken as disloyalty to the regime; the replacement of identity by numbers; the creation of a wall that serves less to prevent an invasion than to enclose citizens; the trials as spectacle. All under the rule of a leader Unchecked and know-it-all benefactor, at the head of a Single State and who considers rights ridiculous: if the Single State makes decisions for the greatest possible happiness of the people, who needs rights? Zamiatin wrote We before Benito Mussolini formulated: « Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State. »
When he read We in the mid-1940s, George Orwell wondered how Zamiatin could portray totalitarianism at the top. « Writing near the time of Lenin’s death, he could not have the dictatorship of Stalin in mind. » Well no, and he didn’t need it. Lenin’s mandate already gave him plenty of material, starting with political persecution. Disagreeing with the autocrat was already disloyalty to the Revolution. Zamiatin saw not the future but the present and what lurked in the shadows. We is not the product of an imaginative mind but of a cold and horrified observer.
Zamiatin placed his novel in the twenty-sixth century. Reading it today makes you feel that this century is already closer than you would think. It’s the bad news. The good news is that in that novel and in that twenty-sixth century, already very close to our time, women are the first daring, wise, dissident, reluctant, free, true, fed up with the Benefactor. (Sources: TLS, 2/12/21; Yevgeny Zamyatin: WE. Introduced by Margaret Atwood, Canongate, 2020).