Relations Between Town and Country: “We” in the Context of Russian Modernist History and Literature
Evgeny Zamyatin was born and raised in Lebedyan, a small village located in the Russian countryside, before moving to St. Petersburg, the then Russian capital, in order to study engineering (Charnaya, date unknown). Therefore, Zamyatin had firsthand experience on the similarities and differences between rural and urban life long before writing “We” (1921) Indeed, the divide between the mentalities of rural and urban inhabitants was a very pertinent topic to Soviet authors who were at the time witnessing their country’s intense industrialization; Evgeny Zamyatin’s treatment of the town vs. country divide is prominent in “We” (1921), especially through his use of different colors and D-503’s description of “The Ancients” in different passages. Noteworthy in its own right, the depiction of these contrasting areas also reveals affinities between Zamyatin’s work and the texts of his modernist peers.
In the first place, D-503’s resentment towards the outside world is described very early in the novel. For instance, at the very beginning of record 2 (p. 6), D-503 notes that the yellow pollen coming “from beyond the Green Wall, from the wild invisible plains […] somewhat hinders logical thinking”. Hence, the outside world is uncivilized and contains elements (i.e. pollen) that can undermine D-503’s logical thinking, hereby hurting his usefulness to the United State. In a transparent city, Zamyatin’s use of the color green can be associated with nature, national significance, and the unknown, since this malleable form of protection from the barbarian outside world is what gives meaning to the citizens of the United State, as stated by D-503: “I cannot imagine to myself a city that is not enveloped by a Green Wall” (p.11). Green, in this instance, gives D-503 and the other “numbers” a sense of identity, since it explicitly tells them where their world ends, and consequently what they are not and it furthermore reinforces their “us vs. them” mentality. D-503 more explicitly adheres to the “us vs. them” mentality while describing the Green Wall later in the novel, when he asserts that: “Man eased to be a wild animal only when he built the first wall” (p.57). The Green Wall thus acts as a very meaningful national symbol to D-503, as it gives him pride and significance as a “number”. Moreover, I concur with my classmate Laurel Stewart’s analysis on the “close reading” discussion board, D-503’s mention of a “green ocean beyond the wall” (p.57) when he is in fact describing trees suggests that the novel’s narrator ignores basic concepts such as a forest and mistakenly uses the term “ocean” instead. Thus the author’s use of the color green can be associated with the concepts of nature, national significance, and the unknown. Likewise, yellow is also a significant color used throughout the novel and is more precisely associated with irrationality than green. Green can be indirectly linked to the concept of irrationality whereas Zamyatin directly links yellow to this concept. Indeed, in the short citation provided at the beginning of this paragraph, D-503 hints at the fact that the color yellow is not homegrown in the United State. It hails from the irrational outside world, and hence is not scientific and even hinders logical thinking (p.11). Also, D-503 associates yellow with the fangs of the animals inhabiting the “other side of the wall”, calling them beasts (p.117). Another instance of which can be found on page 57, when D-503 describes an encounter with a creature living on the other side of the wall: “through the glass, looking at me […] some kind of beast, yellow eyes, stubbornly repeating one and the same thought comprehended by me” Once more, D-503 shows contempt in regards to who or what is living outside the limits of the United State and links yellow with barbarity and otherness reinforced by his incapacity to understand what the creature is telling him. To summarize, Zamyatin depicts the concept of country as uncivilized and irrational through his use of the colors yellow and green. In addition, Zamyatin also uses colors to characterize the United State which in this analysis serves as the city in the “city vs. country” debate. At the beginning of Record 2, D-503 is amazed by the blue sky and says that “on such days you can see into the bluest depths of things, you see certain of their amazing equations” (p.6). Hence, blue here is presented as a color that contributes to D-503’s rational, mathematical thinking. Granted, such a sky most probably does not exclusively pertain to the United State, but it is easily understandable as to why D-503 would so appreciate such a sky. The protagonist of “We” (1922) hates surprises, and there is nothing more reassuring than a completely blue sky. It is as predictable as the machines that D-503 so cherishes. Furthermore, is it worth noting how the completely rational to completely irrational colors figure on the color spectrum since Zamyatin depicts the color blue as being the color of the rational city, and the Green Wall then divides and protects the city from the yellow beasts inhabiting the country (or the outside world). This exactly matches the color spectrum since blue added to yellow equals green. Additionally, the other color that can be linked to the city, and thus with the concept of rationality is the absence of color. D-503 describes the absence of color in very positive terms: “I perceived everything. The absolute straight streets, the glass pavements shimmering with rays of light, the divine parellelipeds of transparent dwellings” (p. 8). From this short excerpt, the reader understands that D-503 holds the absence of color in a high regard for the same reasons as for why he appreciates a pristine blue sky. It denotes predictability because in creating an entire state without walls, the Benefactor deprived the “numbers” from their privacy and they cannot keep secrets from one another. To summarize, Zamyatin links the color blue and the absence of color (or transparent) to the concept of a rational industrialized city that heavily contrasts with the surrounding uncivilized country.
Furthermore, Zamyatin’s speaks directly about this essay’s main topic when describing the Great Two Hundred Years’ War “the war between city and village” (p.16). Evidently, the city won over the village, since D-503 had previously rhetorically asked: “does it not then follow from this that the most sedentary form of life (ours – is at the same time the most perfect (ours) ” (p.10). Again, positive attributes are associated to cities whereas villages are perceived as old and outdated. Furthermore, Zamyatin tests the reader’s philosophical knowledge by favoring John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism over Immanuel Kant’s ethics on page 12. Indeed, when D-503 condescendingly discusses the Ancients’ surplus of freedom, he mockingly names Immanuel Kant and seems to favor consequentialism over the Ancient’s concept of right or wrong: “to murder a single person, i.e., to decrease the sum of human lives by 50 years – that was criminal, but to decrease the sum of human lives by 50 million years – that was not criminal” (p.12). Here, D-503 is appalled by the fact that the Ancients had so much freedom even if it was hurting their collective quality of life. To him, obligations and regulations are positive aspects that he links to the successful city of one state. The fact that we prefer Kanthian ethics is laughable to D-503, since he favors Bentam’s consequentialism of putting the collective good ahead of what is right or wrong to humanity. For example, Kant would disagree with removing individual freedoms for the greater good, whereas Jeremy Bentham would wait and see how positive or negative the consequences of such a decision are before judging of its morality (Haines, Date Unknown) TZamyatin links the Ancients with the concept of a village and Kanthian ethics whereas the numbers are linked with the city and utilitarianism. The Ancients’ way of life was, according to D-503, primitive and philosophically incomprehensible.
Zamyatin’s representation of the city vs. the village divide is on par with the works of other Russian modernists. However, it is highly different from important pre-Soviet poems, since cities in pre-Soviet Russia were far from peaceful and rational. For example Alexander Blok (1918) depicted then Russian capital Petrograd as a lawless city under anarchy in his famous poem “The Twelve”. Indeed, the poem’s protagonists promise to “fan the world to fire, fan the world afire with blood” (Blok, 1918. P.379) thus describing the reigning anarchy in the revolutionary Russian capital. Vladimir Mayakovski did the same in his most famous work “Cloud in Pants” (1915), when he wrote that “The Krupps and little Krupps grease-paint the city with creases of menacing brows” (p.436). This image used by Mayakovski referencing to rich Germans (The Krupps) who sold weapons to both sides during the First World War showcase the extreme level of violence reigning in the city. We can thus note that both the works were written in the Pre-Soviet period and show the chaotic atmosphere in the cities of the Russian Empire in the early 20th Century, which greatly differs from Zamyatin’s United State represented in “We”.
Aleksandr Blok, “The Twelve” 375-85 in Russian Literature of the Twenties: An Anthology, ed. Carl Proffer and others. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1987. (Originally published in 1918) ·
Evgenii Zamiatin, “We” 2-139 in Russian Literature of the Twenties: An Anthology, ed.Carl Proffer and others. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1987. (originally published in 1921) ·
Laurel Stewart, “We – Yevgeny Zamyatin. Page 57 passage analysis” posted in “Passage Analysis” on October 14th 2016. ·
Maria Charnaya. “Prominent Russians: Evgeny Zamyatin.” Russiapedia. Date Unknown. Accessed December 10, 2016. https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/evgeny-zamyatin/. ·
Vladimir Mayakovski, “Cloud in Pants,” 430-450 in Russian literature of the Twenties: An Anthology, ed. Carl Proffer and others. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1987. (Originally published in 1915). ·
William Haines, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Date Unknown.Accessed December 10, 2016. https://iep.utm.edu/conseque/.
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Evgeny Zamyatin was born and raised in Lebedyan, a small village located in the Russian countryside, before moving to St. Petersburg, the then Russian capital, in order to study engineering […]