July 26, 2006


The Novel Moscow Feared: The precursor to "1984" wasn't published in its author's land until 1988. (JOHN J. MILLER, July 26, 2006, Opinion Journal)

Authors sometimes gripe about the long wait between the completion of a book and its publication. Perhaps the sad case of the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin will help them put things in perspective: He finished his novel "We" in 1921, but it didn't appear in print in his native land until 1988.

The problem wasn't that Zamyatin and his manuscript were obscure or unknown. Rather, it was that they offended communist censors, who correctly understood "We" to be a savage critique of the totalitarianism that was starting to take shape in the years following the Russian Revolution.

They managed to suppress "We" inside the Soviet Union, but they weren't able to keep it from making a deep impression elsewhere: Two of the most iconic novels in the English language--"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley and "1984" by George Orwell--owe an enormous debt to Zamyatin.

That's because "We" is the ur-text of science-fiction dystopias: It described an Orwellian society almost three decades before Orwell invented his own version. Although the book has never been especially hard to find in the U.S.--editions have been in print since 1924--it will now become even more readily available, thanks to Natasha Randall's new translation, published this month by the Modern Library.

Orwell actually had a tough time tracking down the novel for himself.

One novel of totalitarianism does remain stubbornly forgotten, Aerodrome.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 26, 2006 9:45 PM

And the current political climate makes the book that much more relevant today. Or are you of the opinion that Zamyatin and Orwell limited their observations to only a certain breed of totalitarian society?

Posted by: Ted at July 27, 2006 12:09 AM

There are hardly any totalitarian societies left, but they do need to be dealt with.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 12:18 AM

I thought W was turning the US into one?

Posted by: Dave W at July 27, 2006 12:55 AM

You thought wrong.

Posted by: erp at July 27, 2006 7:29 AM

I love the people like Ted who think that the US is becoming a totalitarian state. Obviously they have no idea whatsoever what real totalitarianism is. Hint: Michael Moore is not only still alive, but quite wealthy. If we were living in the totalitarian state that Ted thinks we are, Moore would have caught a bullet with his head a long time ago. But keep dreaming Ted! Don't ever let reality intrude into your reality-based politics!

"One novel of totalitarianism does remain stubbornly forgotten, Aerodrome."

Orrin, it's been forgotten because it sucked.

Posted by: Bryan at July 27, 2006 7:32 AM

Ted's right, of course, that there is far more totalitarianism now than 80 years ago, due to modern technology increasing the ability of gov't to oppress populations. Plus the apparently infinite willingness of the West to let other people live in hellholes such as China, Cuba, NK, Syria, etc.

Posted by: b at July 27, 2006 11:58 AM

Isn't the "ur-text of science fiction dystopias" More's "Utopia"? I remember being somewhat shocked at how much it sounded like your typical People's Democratic Republic hell-hole when I first read it.

Posted by: carl at July 27, 2006 7:06 PM

Plato's Republic

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2006 7:11 PM
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