Evgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin, born on 1 February 1884 in Lebedyan, Tambov guberniya. His father was a priest. His mother was an educated woman who loved literature and played the piano. As a child, he claims that his friends were books. Years later, he wrote:
"I still remember how I shivered over Dostoevsky's Netochka Nezvanova and Turgenev's First Love. These were my elders and, perhaps, a bit terrifying. Gogol was a friend."
In 1902, he graduated from the Voronezh Gymnasium with a Gold Medal, which he pawned some months later for 25 rubles. He went on to enroll in the Shipbuilding Institute in Petersburg. During summers, he did practical work in factories and ships, including one journey from Odessa to Alexandria, with many stops in between. He was in Odessa during the mutiny on the Potemkin. He joined the Bolsheviks and took part in the revolutionary events of 1905. At one point, his room was a clandestine printing press. For his political activities, in 1905 Zamyatin was arrested, beaten up, locked in solitary for several months, then banished from Petersburg. He managed to return to the capital some time later, however, and illegally graduated from the Shipbuilding Institute in 1908, after which he joined its faculty.
Zamyatin's literary debut was publication of the story Odin ("Alone") in the journal Obrazovanie in 1908. No one noticed. In 1911, the tsarist secret police finally corrected a typographical error in their orders which enabled them to catch up with Zamyatin and banish him to Lakhta. There he wrote Uezdnoye ("District Tales"), which scored his first literary success. In 1913, Zamyatin's rights were restored with a general amnesty granted on the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. Then, in 1914, he published the anti-military tale Na Kulichkakh ("At The End of The World") in the journal Zavety. Tsarist authorities saw this tale as an insult to the Russian officer corps. Every issue of Zavety was confiscated, and Zamyatin and the publisher were arrested. Zamyatin was shipped off to the north for a time, then tried under charges of anti-militarism and subversion. He was acquitted. This period provided impressions for the tale Sever ("North") (1918) and the story Africa.
In 1916 and 1917 Zamyatin worked on Russian ice-breakers in England, giving him inspiration for his satire of English life, Ostrovityane ("Islanders") (1917). In the autumn of 1917, he returned to Russia and worked on the construction of the Soviet ice-breakers "Ermak" and "Krasin". At the same time, he was invited by Gorky himself to work on the editorial board of Vsemirnaya Literatura, with special responsibility for English and American literature. Zamyatin, of course, continued to publish stories. Of particular note is Peshchera ("The Cave") (1920), in which life in an unheated room in Petrograd is compared to living in a prehistoric cave. Or as one critic described it:
This is a story of the degredation and poverty of people, clinging to a single idea -- to get food and fuel. It is a crystalized nightmare, slightly reminiscent of Poe, with the difference that Zamyatin's nightmare is extraordinarily truthful.
Zamyatin called his style of writing Neorealism, a microscopic examination of events, characters, and details. He once explained it thusly:
What after all is Realism? If you examine your hand through a microscope you will see a grotesque picture: trees, ravines and rocks instead of hairs, pores, grains, and dust....To my mind this is a more genuine realism than the primitive one.
The Realists held up a mirror and saw your smooth, pink skin. The Neorealists saw the grotesque, frightening reality behind this. This Neorealism, as Zamyatin saw it, was born of a dialectic synthesis of Realism with Symbolism. Invoking the image of clouds around a mountain summit, Zamyatin explained:
The Realists writers accepted the clouds as they saw them: rosy and golden, or black and heavy with storm. The Symbolists had the courage to climb to the summit and discover that there was nothing pink or golden there, nothing but slush and fog. The Neorealists were on the mountaintop with the Symbolists and saw that the clouds are fog. But having come down from the mountain, they had the courage to say: "It may be fog, but it's good fun all the same."
This highlights another important aspect of Neorealism for Zamyatin, humor:
Humor and laughter are the hallmark of a vital, healthy man who has the strength and the courage to live. They express the joy in living felt by the old Realists and by the Neorealists, and they distinguish the Neorealists from the Symbolists. In the Symbolists you find only a smile, a contemptuous smile at the contemptible earth. But you never hear them laugh. . . . We hear laughter in the works of the Neorealists, and this tells us that they have somehow overcome, subjugated the eternal enemy, life.
Zamyatin preached the importance of heresy. As he described it in 1919:
The world is kept alive only by heretics....Our symbol of faith is heresy. Tomorrow is an inevitable heresy of today, which has turned into a pillar of salt, and to yesterday, which has scattered to dust....This is the constant dialectic path which in a grandiose parabola sweeps the world into infinity.
True literature can be created only by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.
Zamyatin's major work is, no doubt, the anti-Utopian novel My ("We"), which he finished in 1920. The very first anti-Utopian novel in western literature, Zamyatin called it "my most jesting and most serious work." It is set in the future One State, which is ruled over by the perfect laws of mathematics. All citizens have numbers, not names, and practically every moment of their time is regulated by the Book of Hours. Even sex is rationed with pink coupons. D-503, a leading mathemetician, is working on the Integral, a spaceship intended to force happiness on the inhabitants of the rest of the universe, because, after all, it is their "duty to compel them to be happy." Unexpectedly, D-503 becomes infected with an irrational number, that is to say, love. This drives him to further illegal acts such as shirking work, developing a soul and imagination. The object of his love, I-330, turns out to be a revolutionary, and he gets involved in her plots. The revolutionaries are foiled, and all law-abiding citizens are then rewarded with a Great Operation, which removes all imagination and turns them back into happy, toiling members of the perfect society, that is to say, zombies.
This novel raised up a storm of controversy and Zamyatin was subjected to extraordinarily harsh criticism. From 1929 on, he was no longer published in the Soviet Union. In 1931, he wrote a letter to Stalin, asking permission to go abroad. Perhaps because of the intervention of Gorky, Stalin agreed and Zamyatin was allowed to go to Paris, while retaining his Soviet citizenship.
He was readmitted to the Writers Union in 1936, but never made it back to his homeland. He died in Paris on 10 March 1937.