Monday 12 April 2010

The Genius of Zamyatin

I love Russian literature almost as much as I love English literature, though the two are as different as is possible to imagine. Writing, either in the form of prose or poetry, goes a long way to defining the character of a nation. Though this is generally true it's perhaps truest of all in relation to Russia and the spirit of the Slav people. I would go so far as to suggest that its impossible to achieve a full understanding of nineteenth century Russia without a reading of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol, particularly Dead Souls, the latter's rollercoaster masterpiece.

But it's someone else I'm thinking of, another writer of more recent vintage. He is the altogether remarkable Vevgeny Zamyatin, a writer of peculiar genius, who died in exile in Paris in 1937. He is best known for We, his dystopian novel that was to have such an influence on George Orwell, one of the streams that led to the creation of Nineteen-Eighty Four. Although written in the early 1920s We was too radical for the Russia of Zamyatin's day, only finally published in his native land in 1988, with the communist dictatorship teetering the threshold of destruction.

I came across We in my late teens, and immediately fell madly in love with the writer! I simply could not believe how remarkable it was for the time and the day. Once I read it I immediately set off on a quest to discover as much as I could about Zamyatin, and there is so much more than We. He wrote some wonderful short stories, stories clearly rooted in the tradition of Russian folklore, rich in imagery, rich in form and rich in the beauty of language. Some are poignant, others tragic.

There was one in particular that I think will stay with me always. It's called Comrade Churyagin has the Floor, a madly funny account of a peasant uprising in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. The landlord’s estate is invaded and the mob immediately threatens to destroy some of the antique statues he has collected. The landlord protests, saying that the semi-naked bearded figure is none other than Mars, the god of war. The peasants mishear this as Marx and then parade around with the thing! Then follows the "dawn of an entirely class conscious day."

Zamyatin, though he had been associated with the Bolsheviks, and imprisoned under the Tsarist regime, was far too individualist to breath within the literary straight-jacket that was pulled ever tighter around Russian literature after the Revolution. He was, by his own definition, a heretic; for without heresy there is no originality, no development and no growth. In the deepest sense of the term he was a revolutionary, understanding revolution to mean a state of constant flux and change.

But in 1917, so far as the communists were concerned, history came to a stop; there were to be no more revolutions beyond theirs. The only acceptable art was the art that slavishly served the state. Zamyatin fell victim to this kind of thinking well before the advent of Stalinist socialist realism. Early on Trotsky described him as an 'internal émigré'. In the press he found himself attacked repeatedly as a 'bourgeois intellectual.

Finally, unable to find any outlets for his work, and subject to a growing campaign of vilification, he wrote to Stalin in the summer of 1931, asking that he be allowed to leave Russia, a request that was granted after the intervention of Maxim Gorky. If he had stayed much longer its certain that he would have shared the same fate as Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel, along with so many other creative talents destroyed by the worst forms of expediency, political mediocrity and moral baseness.

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