In submitting this book to the American public the translator has this to say:
The artistic and psychological aspects of the novel are hardly to be discussed in a Foreword. Great as the art of the writer may be and profound as his psychological insight may seem to one, the impression is largely a matter of individual reactions, and this aspect must naturally be left to each individual’s judgment and sensibilities.
There is, however, one side of the matter which deserves particular mention and even emphasis.
This is perhaps the ﬁrst time in the history of the last few decades that a Russian book, inspired by Russian life, written in Russia and in the Russian language, should see its first light not in Russia but abroad, and not in the language in which it was originally written, but translated into a foreign tongue. During the darkest years of Russian history, in the forties, sixties, eighties and nineties of the last century many Russian writers were forced by oppression and reaction to live abroad and to write abroad, yet their writings would reach Russia, as they were intended primarily for the Russian reader and Russian life. Most of Turgenev’s novels were written while he was in France, and with the exception of his last short story, which he dictated on his deathbed, all his novels and stories were written in Russian. Hertzen, Kropotkin, and at one time Dostoevsky, were similarly obliged to write while away from their native land.
Here is a book written by an artist who lived and still lives in Russia, and whose intimate love for Russia and her suffering is so great that he ﬁnds it impossible to leave Russia even in these days of stress and sorrow. But his book may not appear in the country where it was written. It is a great tragedy — this spiritual loneliness of the artist who cannot speak to his own people. In bringing out this book in English, the author tries to address himself to the world without having the opportunity of being heard by his own people. This situation, however, is to a great extent symbolic of the spiritual mission of Zamiatin, for no matter what the language in which he writes originally, and no matter how typically national his artistic perception and intuition, he is essentially universal, and his vision transcends the boundaries of a purely national art. Moreover, is it not true that the more genuinely national a man’s art, and the more sincerely national his personality, the more universal he becomes? Abraham Lincoln is much more than just an American national ﬁgure, and I doubt if the appeal of Lincoln’s personality would be so universal if he were not so typically American. It would be difficult to ﬁnd personalities more national than ToIstoi or Dostoevsky, and this is perhaps the reason why they stand out as two of the most universal minds with a universal appeal that the nineteenth century has given us.
Zamiatin is not so great as the men referred to above, but despite his youth, he has already proved to have that quality of greatness that characterizes a personality with a universal appeal.
We is, as Zamiatin himself calls it, the most jocular and the most earnest thing he has written thus far. It is a novel that puts before every thoughtful reader with great poignance and earnestness the most difficult problem that exists today in the civilized world — the problem of the preservation of the independent, original, creative personality. Our civilization depends upon the energetic movement of great masses of people. Wars, revolutions, general strikes — all these phenomena involve great masses, large groups, enormous mobs. Despite the fact that there is hardly a corner in the world where the average man does not make the trite complaint, “What we need is leadership,” the world seems for a time, at least, to have lost its capacity to produce real leaders. For our great successes in mechanical civilization, our exceptional efforts in efﬁciency, tend to bring into play large masses rather than great individuals. What, under these conditions, is the lot of the creative personality? The tragedy of the independent spirit under present conditions is pointed out in a unique way in We. The problem of the creative individual versus the mob is not merely a Russian problem. It is as apparent in a Ford factory as under a Bolshevik dictatorship.
Of course, the sincere, honest, and frank treatment of this problem seems offensive to anyone who prefers to be a member of a mob or to keep this or that part of humanity in the state of a mob. That is why We could not be published in Russia, and will probably be disliked by those whose spiritual activities are reduced to the mechanical standards of a mechanical civilization which is devoid of original creative effort.
A few words should be said about the method by which Zamiatin tries to drive home his main ideas to the reader. It is the method of “laughter through tears,” to use an old expression of Gogol’s. It is the form that is dictated by a profound love for humanity, mixed with pity for and hatred of those factors which are the cause of the disindividualization of man today. It is the old emotion of ancient Catullus: “Odi et amo.” Zamiatin laughs in order to hide his tears; hence amusing as We may seem and really is, it barely conceals a profound human tragedy which is universal today.
The reader may be interested in knowing something about Zamiatin himself. Zamiatin does not like to talk about himself, and the translator does not think he has the right to tell more than to quote Zamiatin’s own answer to a request addressed to him a couple of years ago to write his autobiography:
“I see you want my autobiography by all means, but I assure you that you will have to limit yourself only to an outside inspection and get but a glimpse, perhaps, into the dark windows. I seldom ask anybody to enter.
“As to the outside, you will see a lonely child without playmates, lying on a Turkish divan, hind-side up, reading a book, or under the grand piano while his mother plays Chopin. Two steps away from Chopin, just outside the window with the geraniums, in the middle of the street, there is a small pig tied to a stake and hens fluttering in the dust.
“If you are interested in the geography, here it is — Lebedian, in the most Russian Tambov province about which Tolstoi and Turgenev wrote so much. Chronology? The end of the eighties and early nineties, then Voronesh, the Gymnasium pension, boredom and rabid dogs on Main Street. One of these dogs got me by the leg. At that time I loved to make different experiments on myself, and I decided to wait and see whether I would or would not get the rabies and, what is most important, I was very curious. What would I feel when the time would come for the rabies (about two weeks after the bite)? I felt a great many things, but two weeks later I did not get the rabies, therefore I announced to the inspector in the school that I got the rabies and must go at once to Moscow for vaccination.
“In the Gymnasium I would get A plus for composition and was not always on good terms with mathematics. Perhaps because of that (sheer stubbornness) I chose the most mathematical career—the shipbuilding department of the Petrograd Polytech.
“Thirteen years ago in the month of May — and that May was remarkable in that the snow covered the ﬂowers — I simultaneously ﬁnished my work for my diploma and my ﬁrst short story. The short story was published in the old Obrazovanye.
“Well, what else do you want? That meant that I was going to write short stories and was going to publish them. Therefore for the following three years I wrote about nothing but ice cutters, steam engines, refillers, and ‘The Theoretical Exploration of the Works of Floating Steam Shovels.’ I couldn’t help myself. I was attached to the chair of Ship Architecture and busied myself with teaching in the shipbuilding faculty, where I teach until now.
“If I mean anything in Russian literature, I owe this completely to the Petrograd Secret Service. In 1911 this service exiled me from Petrograd and I was forced to spend two years in a non-populated place in Lachta. There, in the midst of the white winter silence and the green summer silence, I wrote my ‘Provincial.’ After that the late Ismaylov expressed in print his belief that I were very high boots and was a long-haired provincial type, carrying a heavy stick, and he was later very much surprised that I ‘didn’t look a bit like that.’ Incidentally, ‘not a bit like that’ I became in England where, during the war, I spent about two years, building ships and visiting the ruins of ancient castles. I listened to the banging of the German Zeppelin bombs and wrote a short novel ‘The Islanders.’
“I regret immensely that I did not witness the Russian Revolution in February and know only the October Revolution, because it was in October, a life preserver around my body and all the lights out, passing German submarines, that I returned to Petrograd. Because of this I felt like one who never having been in love gets up one morning and ﬁnds himself married about ten years.
“Now I write little, perhaps because my requirements toward myself become greater. Three new volumes are in the hands of the publisher and begin to be published only now. The fourth will be my novel We, the funniest and most earnest thing I have written. However, the most serious and most interesting novels I never wrote. They happened to me in my life.”
Zamiatin continues to live in Russia and continues to live with Russia, but such is the sarcasm of Fate that the ﬁrst Russian novel giving a real psychological synthesis of the Russian Revolution and its greater universal meaning, this novel written by Zamiatin, should remain unknown to the Russian people.
New York, NY. 1924