In June 1931, Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote to Stalin asking for the commutation of his death sentence to international exile. Within this openly insolent letter, Zamyatin included the following assertion: “Just as the Christians once invented the Devil as a convenient personification of every kind of evil, so the critics have made me the devil of Soviet literature.” It is in this statement that this dissertation finds its genesis. Zamyatin’s assumption of the Devil’s symbolic associations introduces the central thesis of his novels Islanders (1917) and We (1921), and provides a fruitful entry point for thinking critically about the role of the symbol in both texts.
The Devil has been an enduring conception of human society across cultural, religious and temporal divides, and almost without exception, and regardless of the numerous forms in which it has been manifest or symbolised, the Devil has been a symbol of fear. Fear is the fundamental source of the Devil’s power because it operates as a force to influence, manipulate and instigate action. The symbolic association of the Devil with fear is ubiquitous. It is evident in events that are as mundane as the anxiety which prompts a young child to remember nightly prayers, to acts as significant as a citizen informing on a neighbour during the Spanish Inquisition. The Devil then, is a symbol connoting power and influence, and it can be employed to ensure the continuation of, and a compliance with, Christian discourse, even if it is only ostensible conformity. It is important to note that these examples demonstrate the ability of the symbol to inspire controlled action, actions that operate in a confined, predictable sense. I posit that the Devil’s symbolic impact can be extrapolated to wider societal discourse in general, and that symbols and symbolism are not just used to disseminate religious thought, but to propagate and maintain political discourses such as Capitalism, Communism and Monarch(Tsar)ism. As Michel Foucault states in ‘The Order of Discourse’, “discourse is… the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized.” By labelling Zamyatin the Devil, he felt that he “…became an object of fear to my former friends, publishing houses and theatres. My books were banned from the libraries.” This careful application of the Devil to Zamyatin, was therefore, a clear and deliberate attempt to nullify Zamyatin’s thoughts and influence through the controlled action this symbol can instigate.
Perhaps paradoxically, however, the fear that the Devil inspires can also instigate chaotic action, action that departs the intended boundaries of control. Fear, for example, could spur the murder of an individual, which naturally contravenes established religious and social discourse. This is the conflict that Zamyatin explores in Islanders and We: the battle between the symbol as a force for controlled action, enforcing the entropy of discourse, and the symbol as a force for chaotic action, which instigates the energy of revolution. Indeed, I-330 the heroine of We states:
There are two powers in the world – entropy and energy. One leads to blissful rest, to a happy equilibrium; the other – to the destruction of equilibrium; to a tormentingly endless movement.
In this dissertation, therefore, I seek to prove, with specific reference to Islanders and We, that Zamyatin deliberately and cleverly exploited the inherent dichotomy of ‘the symbol’ to write two polemical works intended to inject chaotic energy and revolution into the entropy and settled equilibrium that existed in the dominant discourses of English and Russian societies – the nations in which he wrote Islanders and We respectively.
While it might seem a hypocrisy that Zamyatin wished to destabilise one societal discourse, just to seemingly replace it with another, he does not put forward a discourse, but a “thesis” as Mirra Ginsburg terms it. This difference is crucial. A thesis is a theory, open to investigation and support or opposition, and it does not seek control. In contrast, discourse seeks to control and shape society to a desired outcome, a settled equilibrium. Discourse also contains boundaries, summarised by Judith Butler to be “the limits of acceptable speech”, thereby acting as a tool for control. Zamyatin’s concept is different. His central thesis of energy versus entropy is intended to relinquish all control, to open all ideas, thoughts and discussion to perpetual investigation and “tormentingly endless movement”. He does not desire the controlled action of contrived symbols, which dissipate energy and enables the entropy of a dominant discourse to become established; instead he wants the chaotic, uncontrollable energy of revolution that a symbol can unleash.
In We, Zamyatin decided to couch his thesis of endless movement in mathematical terms, “Revolution… is infinite. There is no final revolution, no final number”, and in the thermodynamic terms of entropy and energy. This thermodynamic lexicon is particularly important. It suggests that the instability inherent to the unharnessed symbol, when conjoined with the wandering mind of a character or reader, operate like reactants in a chemical equation, combining to produce new products and release a destabilising rush of energy. Indeed, Zamyatin said “Explosions are not very comfortable.” His idea of the explosion, however, recognises that explosions are ephemeral. Once ignition occurs, the energy generated diffuses and new reactants must be found for the next explosion. As the energy of the explosion, or revolution, dissipates, the resulting entropic discourse can be controlled to benefit the ruling elite. It is unsurprising then, that any threat to the entropy of an established discourse was stifled by the ruling power, be it the British Parliament, the Tsar or the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Symbols therefore, can be used to generate and accelerate change, but as they naturally lose their chaotic energy, a new entropic state is subsequently established. Indeed, Zamyatin states, “…revolutionaries who defeat the old immediately become conservatives and guardians of ‘standards’. The victors themselves become a reactionary element which hinders further development.” This suggests that he understood the outcome of the Russian Revolution to have settled into yet another entropic state, a new equilibrium. This contradicted his thesis of endless movement, and in his view, this new entropy needed the disturbance of new explosions and new symbols. For Zamyatin, the writer’s role was to fashion new symbols and inspire energy. So threatening was Zamyatin’s role to societal discourse that it “…was decried as ‘false and pernicious bourgeois ideology’ by Soviet critics and subjected to violent criticism.” Establishing control and regulation of symbols was, therefore, a constant priority in the visual and written propaganda – the natural battleground of symbolism – of England and Russia.
It was this harnessing of the power of the symbol that Zamyatin detested. He viewed symbols as being progenitors for change, rather than tools used to perpetuate entropy and equilibrium through blind artistic endeavour within the lines of an acceptable ideological discourse. Zamyatin wrote, “Proletcult art is at present a step backward to the 1860s”. His reference to the 1860s contends that Socialist Realism, which re-appropriated Realism as popular under the Tsars, was a return to the entropy of the Tsars, only this time, under the hammer and sickle. Indeed, Lenin stated, “Literary work should be part of the whole proletarian movement, a cog and wheel of the one and only, great social-democratic machine”. This statement only confirms the entropy Zamyatin perceived, that despite the energy of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia had only settled into a new equilibrium and the symbols used to create that explosion were now entrenched and used to limit discourse. Propaganda and symbols were being used to enforce entropy and not generate revolution.
Zamyatin, true to his thesis, opposed this symbolic entropy by placing literature in the hands of “madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics”. He believed that only these individuals could create the true literature of energy and revolution, because they existed outside societal discourse. The works of others were not literature, they were mere conformity. Zamyatin himself adopted these tenets, prompting the title of Ginsburg’s translated collection of Zamyatin’s essays A Soviet Heretic. As a madman, a heretic and a dreamer himself, Zamyatin strove in his writings to exploit the underlying subjectivity of the symbol and to free its energy to act on the entropy of societal discourse. The potential impact of Zamyatin’s aim is supported by Foucault in ‘The Order of Discourse’, where he states that a madman’s:
…word may be considered null and void, having neither truth nor importance… On the other hand, strange powers not held by any other may be attributed to the madman’s speech: the power of uttering a hidden truth, of telling the future, of seeing in all naivety what the others’ wisdom cannot perceive.
I argue then, that Zamyatin lurks beneath the surface of all his works, and that “The reader of Zamyatin’s essays sees and hears the writer who in his fiction has deliberately concealed himself behind an objective narrative or a fictional narrator.” He operates like the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, subverting the intended objectivity of symbolic objects – the equivalents of the Apple in Islanders and We – tempting his characters, and by extension his reader, to plunge into chaos and remove the comfortable entropy and equilibrium of their own discourse.
Before the details of the symbols specifically employed in Islanders and We can be discussed, it is necessary to understand the historical, political and artistic context that led to the emergence of propaganda in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and how the use of symbols was key in propaganda’s ability to maintain the entropy of discourse. With these two points established, I can then explain my assertion that the symbol is inherently unstable, and through close textual analysis of Islanders and We, examine how Zamyatin exploited the symbol to counter entropy.
The Emergence of Propaganda
As the 19th century flowed into the early 20th century, Europe was subjected to arguably, the greatest period of change and dynamism in its history. The emergence of the Industrial Revolution over the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries had mechanised labour, and comparatively reduced the strains and demands placed on workers. Developments in technology increased the speed of manufacture, and burgeoning trade was combining with improved transport to help make the world a smaller and more connected place. It was a time of cautious optimism and hope. While the Industrial Revolution brought with it considerable problems and societal challenges, such as the exploitation of workers and rising poverty in newly formed inner-city slums, many writers were taken by the positive possibilities that technological developments could have on the future. Utopian works like H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905) reflected the overarching contemporary view and were an accurate barometer of bourgeois political, societal and social discourse. This feeling of optimism and hope extended far beyond artists and academia, into the mind-set of the general public, thereby illustrating the utility of the arts in propagating social norms, functions and customs, and entrenching the discourse of a society. Utopian interpretations of the future would face considerable strain after the Great War, for example in T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land, as would the credibility and honesty of the relationship between author and reader. However, I postulate that a trusting relationship between writer and reader existed in the pre-war period, and that this trust gave philosophers of the mid-19th century considerable sway and influence as they composed and espoused their political writings and manifestos. Many of these endeavours receded into insignificance or remained unread, but others like Marx and Engel’s seminal The Communist Manifesto (1848) irrevocably changed the international landscape. Competing ideologies like Capitalism and Communism, and Monarchism and Democracy, enjoyed widespread and fervent belief, and injected revolutionary energy into Europe’s settled discourse. This energy would explode in the Revolutions of 1848, and due to competition between the Great Powers, this ideological battle would spread across the globe. The February and October Revolutions of 1917 in Russia, the Scramble for Africa and The Great Game in Asia, occurred during Zamyatin’s time, but ideological competition was to continue into the 20th Century with the Cold War and its guerrilla tactics and proxy conflicts like the Vietnam War.
Ideology was the heart of these 19th and 20th century conflicts, and combatants on both international and local stages sought to control it. Whether the combatants sought to maintain the entropy of discourse or inject the energy of revolution, they all nurtured and supported their ideology, and to do this they turned to propaganda as a form of warfare. It is true that since antiquity, armies have sought to undermine, cajole and terrify their enemy through a range of psychological means, such as catapulting severed heads over city walls, but during the late 19th and early 20th century the focus on propaganda rose exponentially. Never before had opposing forces attempted to overthrow or maintain their respective authority and ideology through such widespread, deliberate propaganda campaigns. Indeed, in reference to the Great War, Peter Buitenhuis in The Great War of Words quotes H.G. Wells: “The ultimate purpose of this war is propaganda, the destruction of certain beliefs, and the creation of others. It is to this propaganda that reasonable men must address themselves.” Indeed, Viktor Deni’s 1919 poster entitled ‘Capital’ [Figure 1] was, according to David King in Russian Revolutionary Posters, the “Most famous contribution to the class struggle…” and 100,000 copies were produced in Moscow alone.
Tellingly, ‘Pravda’, the leading paper of the Soviet Union, praised the poster for its impact and observed that “Making the enemy look hilarious is fifty percent of the way to victory.” Collectively, these factors stress propaganda’s direct importance in propagating an ideological belief and establishing it within a wider social discourse, and also explain its ferocious rise in use in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Importance of the Symbol in Propaganda
The foundation for understanding the role of the symbol in Zamyatin’s novels and short stories is to understand the historical and literary movements of his time, as his works are irrevocably linked to the tumult of his period. Symbols for Zamyatin, as we have seen, existed to inspire revolution and endless movement, and were widely employed in the propaganda of his time. Therefore, by examining the historical and political conditions and ideologies from which propaganda sprang, in the period from the Industrial Revolution to World War One, in concert with contemporary literary and artistic forms, such as the pamphlet, Impressionism and literary modernism, the role that symbols played in propaganda can be better understood. This understanding will allow an exploration of Zamyatin’s use of symbols in Islanders and We, and in turn, establish my assertion that a symbol holds an inherent dichotomy of meaning. A symbol can both reinforce the status quo – what Zamyatin terms entropy, or produce energy which generate change and movement.
There are a number of factors influencing the emergence of coordinated, controlled and widespread use of the symbol, but I believe it finds its genesis in the Industrial Revolution, as did systematic propaganda. The rapid development of technology had made the world a smaller, or rephrased, a more claustrophobic place. Increasing population and its concurrent concentration into urban areas enabled knowledge and information to spread more easily and widely than in the remote and small rural communities that existed previously. Close living facilitated meetings and coordination between those of similar interests and views, and at the same time literacy rates increased as the printing press continued to evolve and produce more books and pamphlets at a reduced price.  These factors increased the dissemination of a wide range of scientific, political and philosophical works, and their consumption by people from all strata of society resulted in a situation which provided a favourable opportunity to instil ideas dangerous to the traditional and accepted discourse of a society. This opportunity was not overlooked and it helped stoke the fires of dissent and revolution that in 1848 swept across the continent. New readers grasped the power of print to alter discourse, particularly in the form of pamphlets which were simple, quick and cheap to produce. One by one, France, Germany, Poland, Italy and the Austrian Empire were consumed in revolution, while the other European powers scrambled to stop what they considered to be ideological poison crossing their borders. These national and regional revolutions, unconnected except in spirit, would be quickly extinguished, and despite the dissolution of the absolute Danish monarchy and the abolition of serfdom in the Austrian Empire, it would result in few enduring reforms. I assert that a significant contributing factor for these revolutions’ rapid bloom and decline was the widespread use of easily produced pamphlets. The effect was not sustained because the pamphlets produced by revolutionary movements often contained divergent and opposing views. Due to their brief and constrained format, pamphlets employed symbols, colour and emotive statements that could be quickly and easily understood, but did not contain developed arguments or views on how increased representation, or a considered course of action, could be sustained once power had been assumed. Pamphlets were designed to incite, agitate and generate action. Buitenhuis states, “The pamphlet… had its origins in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth century controversies between religious sects, and it has often displayed the evangelical fervour and excess of its origins.” It is here, in the ephemeral form of the pamphlet, that the uncontrolled energy of revolution possible in the symbol is evident. A symbol can discredit one discourse and inspire the energy of revolution, and at the same time a multitude of competing, uncoordinated symbols can combine to have little effect.
Of note, England and Russia successfully prevented firebrands from igniting unrest in their lands. This was in part due to geographic isolation, and in part due to historical and social factors that instilled a firmer reverence for power and the elite. As Walter Bagehot said in relation to Britain’s royalty in his The English Constitution, “Above all things, our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it you cannot reverence it.” Similarly, Solomon Volkov in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars explains, “Traditionally in Russia, all depictions of the Monarch were controlled diligently: the Ministry of the Imperial Court handled these matters”. This demonstrates an ability in both nations to manage an effective and encompassing propaganda machine to prevent such poking, or at the very least, the absence of a coherent opposing machine to destabilise national discourse. This ability was critical in preventing the spread of significant unrest, “For poking about with clear definitions and candid statements serves all high purposes known to man, except the easy conservation of a common will.”
Tsarist Russia’s and England’s control during the 1848 Revolutions would, however, again be challenged in the coming decades as developments in philosophical and scientific theory became widely known and understood. Perhaps two of the most famous developments were Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and his notion of man as animal outlined in On the Origin of Species (1859), and Jean-Michel Charcot’s, Sigmund Freud’s and Carl Jung’s investigations into the nature of the human mind published in works such as Freud’s Studies on Hysteria (1895). The combination of these theories would question previous notions of objective truth, proposed by influential philosophers like Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). It would alterhow humans viewed themselves, each other and the world they inhabited, and introduce subjectivity, typified in the rejection of traditional notions of quiddity in favour of haecceity. Subjectivity corroded the intended meaning and objectivity of symbols, employed to foster and preserve an accepted societal discourse. In the late 19th century, subjectivity began to appear in the arts. It appeared in the visual arts in the movements of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Expressionism. These movements deliberately departed from objective and realistic depictions, and chose less grand subject matter than Romantic art. Claude Monet’s ‘Haystacks’ (1890-1891) [Figure 2] and Georges Seurat’s Post-Impressionist ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte’ (1884-1886) [Figure 3], focused on the mundane scenes of haystacks and a public park respectively.
The everyday scenes were just that – everyday and transient. Impressionists increased the luminance of their works to capture the transience of light. Bright colours were left largely unmixed and seemingly unfinished on the canvas. Claude Monet, whose work ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872) [Figure 4] began Impressionism described the process:
When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you – a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.
The focus was on capturing transient and subjective impressions on the canvas, rather than contriving a heavily layered painting accurately representing the objective totality of a subject. This approach was founded in subjectivity. It declared that some things were knowable only to the extent your immediate sensory perception would permit. It suggested that ultimate objective truth was unknowable, that things were only defined by individual subjective impression. Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy outlined this view:
The particular shade of colour that I am seeing may have many things said about it – I may say it is brown, that it is rather dark, and so on. But such statements, though they make me know truths about the colour, do not make me know the colour itself any better than I did before: so far as concerns knowledge of the colour itself, as opposed to knowledge of truths about it, I know the colour perfectly and completely when I see it, and no further knowledge of it itself is even theoretically possible.
The tenets of sensory perception and the instability and subjectivity of this process were initially praised in post-Revolutionary Russia, and avant-garde art, fiction and poetry flourished. However, as the Communists sought further control, they became less enamoured of artistic interpretations and subjectivity that could challenge the entropy of their discourse, precipitating the eventual rise of state-sponsored Socialist Realism in the early 1930s. The uncontrolled, chaotic action of the Bolshevik’s rise to power was unsuited to the controlled actions and equilibrium required to build the nation according to their discourse.
Sensory perception and subjectivity passed into literature in the form of literary modernism, a movement which included Zamyatin. Modernist writers such as Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf focused on common scenes ensuring that the traditional importance placed on objects, people and events began to shift. Henri Bergson in his 1911 introduction to William James’ Pragmatism, referred to the “superabundancy” of life, which reflected the modern literary onslaught of sensory perceptions and impressions. Like the visual art from which these texts developed, they are imbued with subjectivity, a recalculation of who and what was important. They focused on common events and actions, involved the symbolic use of solid, singular colours, and employed an unreliable narrator – all of which Zamyatin would use in Islanders and We.
The rapid pace of political, social, philosophical and scientific change, would interact with artistic interpretation in this period to influence Zamyatin and shape the course of history. No longer would the elite’s control of discourse remain unchallenged as the ideas of self-determination were galvanised by the democratisation of knowledge and art. The increasing accessibility of knowledge, ideologies and new theories after the summer of 1848 would substantiate and highlight propaganda’s importance in maintaining discourse. According to George Dangerfield, Britain managed to avoid revolution during the Great War, but Russia could not, because:
War, when it came, was nothing more than a necessary focus: political furies, sex hatreds, class hatreds were forgotten; with all the simulations of patriotic fervour, the united energy of England hurled itself against Germany.
I believe this to be true, that a distinct difference between Russia and Britain was Britain’s effective management of a propaganda machine. This popularised the war effort and relegated domestic discontent to the back burner. To maintain and shape this discourse, the British Government sought to rally writers to its cause and asked them to combine and assist the war effort. On 2 September, 1914, they met with the head of the War Propaganda Bureau:
Around the table sat William Archer, Sir James M. Barrie, Arnold Bennett, A.C. Benson, R. H. Benson, Robert Bridges, Hall Caine, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Hope Hawkins, Maurice Hewlett, W. J. Locke, E.V. Lucas, J. W. Mackail, John Masefield, A. E. W. Mason, Gilbert Murray, Sir Henry Newbolt, Sir Gilbert Parker, Sir Owen Seaman, George Trevelyan, H. G. Wells, Israel Zangwill, and assorted government officials. Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Quiller Couch were unable to come but sent message offering their services.
With a few exceptions, notably Bertrand Russell (whose absence could have been predicted by his The Problems of Philosophy) and George Bernard Shaw, this is a comprehensive compilation of influential English writers. It was an outstanding success and with the major purveyors of thought harnessed, the British government was able to propagate a:
…propaganda myth which prevailed, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, until the end of the war. The Allies, they wrote, particularly Britain, had no responsibility for starting the war, which was a product of German militarism and lust for conquest. The Germans, Huns of ancient memory, left behind them in invaded territories a trail of ruins, blood and terror, murder and rapine. The French, on the other hand, the most urbane and civilised people in the history of the world, were defending their ancient homeland from enslavement. The plucky British army was filled with loyal and cheerful soldiers, enduring their rounds of trench duty without complaint. These common soldiers, drawn from all over the Empire, were led by incisive and efficient generals.
This simple and objective portrayal of Britain and her Allies united against the evils of the bestial Hun, successfully harnessed domestic energy, and directed it into orderly action against Germany. Indeed, Buitenhuis supports propaganda’s centrality to the war aim stating:
The stage was set for a war which involved civilians as never before in history. So it was imperative that the population should be hardened in their resolve by the publication of war aims, statements of principles, and endeavours to excite their antagonism against the enemy.
This organised propaganda would help the British distance and falsify “…the sordid reality of trench warfare, the inept staff-work and poor leadership, and the wastage of men and material.”
Tsarist Russia on the other hand, had no effective propaganda machine. This meant the Tsarist regime was unable to suppress the domestic “poke[ing]”. The energy of unrest, which resulted from the Tsar’s ineffective leadership and deep-seated unpopularity with both the privileged and poor of Russian society, was not effectively redirected into the war effort. The energy of discontent grew without outlet and the entropy of discourse boiled over into the uncontrolled energy of revolution. The Tsar’s poor leadership was hardly unique for a European monarch, but what was different was the use of propaganda. The Tsar’s opponents harnessed the power of a symbol: the infamous Bloody Sunday, January 22, 1905. Undoubtedly a tragedy, Bloody Sunday was neither an exceptionally brutal nor extraordinary event in the annals of Russian history. However, as a symbol of a regime imposing systemic oppression and abuse on its citizens, it resonated deeply and rallied dissent. So successful was its clarion call, that it is widely recognised as the pivotal event precipitating the Revolution of 1905.
Traditional discourse purported the Tsar to be fatherly and caring, a leader whose good nature kept him apart from inefficacy and corruption of his officials. Bloody Sunday however, shattered this perception, destroying any remaining goodwill the Tsar enjoyed from the Russian people. As Walter Lippman opined, “The disintegration of a symbol, like Holy Russia, or the Iron Diaz, is always the beginning of a long upheaval.” Valentin Serov’s portrait of Tsar Nicholas II (1900) [Figure 5], which was the first publicly displayed painting of a living Tsar, reflects this disintegration. The painting depicted him “…as a person sympathetically, even as it underscores his main political liability: the lack of energy and leadership.”
This portrait was the antithesis of the symbolic depiction of Tsar Peter the Great [Figure 6].
“The Bronze Horseman – a dynamic Peter on a rearing steed that is Russia – was immortalized by Pushkin and remains in the Russian image of a forward-looking ruler. The work radiates energy, joy and grandeur.” The painting of Nicholas II “…thus became the final piece in the trinity of notable portrayals of Romanov Rulers: from tsar-as-leader to tsar-as-keeper to ‘non-tsar.’” This symbolic degradation of the Tsar had a direct impact on Russian reality. It simultaneously discredited Nicholas II and helped various factions, including the Bolsheviks, to marshal the people into a force for energy and revolution.
The symbolic contrast between Peter the Great and Nicholas II was echoed on the international stage, in the contrast apparent between Russia and England. This contrast is illustrated in Zamyatin’s personal correspondence. It is also evident in the differences between Islanders, which he wrote while in England, and his previous works written in Russia. Corresponding with his wife, Lyudmila Usoya in 1914, Zamyatin described Newcastle and the surrounding countryside:
Newcastle itself is so unpleasant. All the streets, all the houses are identical, do you understand me, – completely identical, like the grain barns in Petersburg near the Aleksandr Nevskii monastery. When we went past, I asked: ‘What are those storehouses? – ‘They’re houses that people live in.’… Next day it turned out to be possible to go to London; it was about a six-hour journey. And the very same, identical barn-like towns flashed by, shorn to the same zero number. What a terrible lack of imagination.
Here, no symbol of revolutionary energy is even hinted at, all colour is removed. Complete entropy is palpable in Zamyatin’s use of “zero”. He is unrelenting in his depictions of the uniformity of the English. Indeed, in the town of Jesmond, thecompressed and concentrated version of Newcastle he creates in Islanders, even the colour of the vases on each house’s windowsill is regimented, its energy controlled and subdued. Although it is true that many of Zamyatin’s other works, such as ‘A Provincial Tale’ and ‘The Healing of the Novice Erasmus’ focus on the grey uniformity of rural Russian life, these stories, unlike Islanders, contain moments of spontaneity and uncontrolled action. This is reflected in his personal recollections. For example, in his 1929 autobiography, he includes mention of the energy of revolution in the midst of uniformity:
“After that – school, as gray as the cloth of our uniforms. And sometimes, in the grayness – a marvellous red flag raised on the fire tower, symbolising, not the social revolution, but twenty degrees of frost. But in the dull, regular routine of school life, it also meant a welcome one-day revolution.”
I assert that Britain’s effective control of the symbol, and Russia’s inability to contain it, is the root cause of Russian discord and revolt. British propaganda was able to hide the horrors of the war, and propagate an entropic discourse that controlled actions and dissipated the energy of revolution. This control is what Zamyatin symbolised as grayness.
It was only in the devastation that the Great War exacted that the irrationality of lived experience became obvious, prompting writers such as H.G. Wells to sheepishly regret their contribution to the war. Many now turned to criticising the government and the folly of the war, and it is in this reversal, that the symbols’ inherent dichotomy is again exposed. A quick examination of “One of the most strident pieces he [H.G. Wells] ever wrote …The War That Will End War …brought out early in 1915″, is a good example. The phrase, “the war that will end war” was initially patriotic and rousing. In it the power of a pithy statement is obvious. Like Uncle Sam’s famous “I want YOU!” it can streamline experience, capture and control a population’s energy and imagination in times of flux, and act as a symbol. Walter Lippmann reflects this in his discussion of the symbol:
…the symbol is both a mechanism of solidarity, and a mechanism of exploitation. It enables people to work for a common end, but just because the few who are strategically placed must choose the concrete objectives, the symbol is also an instrument by which a few can fatten on many, deflect criticism, and seduce men into facing agony for objects they do not understand.
This suggests an inherent nature in man to follow authority, because:
…the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it.
However, once the discourse in which a symbol is applied is rejected, and the control of an entropic discourse is upset, then the energy of revolution appears. Indeed, the phrase “the war that will end war” changed in meaning and intent, and “became an ironic catchphrase for subsequent generations”, a phrase spat out in dissent. Even during the Great War it received some criticism, demonstrating the symbol’s inherent instability:
…G.K. Chesterton sagely remarked: ‘Tell a soldier defending his country that it is The War That Will End War is exactly like telling a workman, naturally rather reluctant to do his day’s work, that is The Work That Will End Work.
As the objectivity of the symbol is lost, it becomes an object of ridicule, nullified, and even dangerous. Lippmann, with respect to Allied unity, which disappeared almost immediately after the war ended, stated “think then of how within each nation the symbolic picture of itself frayed out, as party and class conflict and personal ambition began to stir postponed issues.”
The Bolsheviks were well aware of this danger. To counter it they strove to maintain a war climate and the entropy of a controlled discourse, but this time the threat was not internecine conflict, rather it was the threat of opposing ideologies. A close examination of Viktor Deni’s previously mentioned poster, ‘Capital’ [Figure 1], demonstrates this. ‘Capital’ employs extensive symbolism, reducing the representation of the ultimate objective capitalist to a corpulent, ugly man, defined by a collection of stereotypical capitalist objects: dinner dress, a monocle, top hat and cane. The symbolic representation of nations, ideas, and economic and social systems as an individual is frequently employed in propaganda. For example, Alexsander Apsit’s ‘The Internationale’ (1918/19) [Figure 7] pictures Capitalism as a monster, and during the Great War posters like ‘The Central Committee for National Patriotic Organizations Imperial Patriotic Meeting’ (1915) [Figure 8], depicted England as the venerated St. George and Germany as the barbaric Dragon. Ironically, German propagandists also used the icon with the roles reversed. This suggests that the opposing forces contained within a symbol, revolution and energy, inertia and entropy, were widely recognised and keenly battled over.
The Symbol in Zamyatin’s Islanders and We
Zamyatin wrote broadly and his creative art “…of critic, essayist, memoirist, and lecturer”, was well recognised and regarded. “During [the] post-revolutionary period Zamyatin was widely recognised as one of the leading figures in Russian literature; some Soviet critics considered him to be on a par with Gorky and Bely in stature and influence.” Zamyatin was also acutely aware of the power of symbols and the subjectivity inherent in them. It is hard to imagine then, that Zamyatin did not piercingly perceive the destabilising effects that his writing and reputation could have on the symbols that the Bolsheviks used to establish a new, entropic discourse in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution. This notion is supported by the Communist response to Zamyatin’s work. They knew of his earlier writings criticising the Tsarist regime, and that exile and the interdiction of the publication of a short story by the St Petersburg District Court in 1913 had neither deterred him from writing, nor kept him out the city. Zamyatin’s choice to now to turn his sights on the Bolshevik regime in We, clearly illustrated his rejection of any discourse that contravened his thesis of entropy versus infinite revolution. Zamyatin rejected the new entropy of the Bolsheviks and would agitate against it as virulently as he had the Tsarists. Therefore, for the Bolsheviks to ignore his work would be folly, especially considering the extent to which they had utilised the symbol in their propaganda.
Bolshevik propaganda was well organised and omnipresent. However, those creating it were aware that it was just that, propaganda. Consequently, the authors and artists creating it posed a special danger to the Bolsheviks and were the subject of considerable doubt, and intensely scrutinised. Individuals featured in posters, who did not pass scrutiny, were later killed or exiled by the regime, and conveniently removed from subsequent editions of the posters in which they featured. Even famed propagandists like Gustav Klutsis, who composed Communist political art throughout the 1920s and 30s, and was instrumental in developing Stalin’s cult of personality, were not safe and suddenly disappeared. The Bolsheviks therefore, were not going to ignore Zamyatin:
Continued attacks on Zamyatin throughout the twenties by Communist critics who had no taste for his ‘pernicious’ ideology culminated in a defamatory campaign which ostracized him from Soviet literature in the autumn of 1929.
The symbolic power of his works was clear and troubled the Bolsheviks.
With the inherent dichotomy of the symbol, that is, its alternate power to maintain an equilibrium and entropy or to ignite revolution established, I can now turn to the use of the symbol in Zamyatin’s works.
Islanders was published before We, and it lays the foundations for many of We’s themes. In Islanders, Zamyatin experimented with techniques which I believe were further developed or perfected in his later work, and although the symbols used in Islanders and We are physically different, they still operate in the same dichotomous manner. Zamyatin’s developing use of symbols can best be seen in a close examination of the colour of the symbols he employed. Colour is naturally an integral and obvious component of a symbol. Indeed, colour itself often operates as a symbol. During the Russian Civil War, the combatants even defined themselves by colour, notably the Red Army of the Bolsheviks and the White Army of the Tsarists. Colour as a symbol then, continued to play a significant role in post-Revolutionary propaganda, as can be seen in Dmitry Moor’s posters, which overwhelmingly employed a black and red colour scheme, respectively signalling death and revolution. The black suits, top hats and monocles of capitalism, and the black robes of the priesthood signified their evil nature; while the red clothing of the participants in the glorious Communist revolution reinforced their vitality, fortitude and brave fighting spirit [Figure 9]. Similarly, in Britain, Great War propaganda posters frequently employed black to denote the evil and demonic intent of the Germans [Figure 10].
Zamyatin employed the same techniques that contemporary propagandists like Moor, Deni, Apsit and Masterman used to reduce and objectify an individual, idea or concept, in order to foster either a pleasing or adverse impression of them in the reader or viewer. However, he rejected the totalising objective interpretations that these propagandists placed on their symbols and colours. This concept of the inherent subjectivity of symbols, motifs and icons is consistent with Zamyatin’s subjective “Modernist views”, and is derived from the rapid change and turmoil that existed in the confluence of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is in the synthesis of these two opposites that a third divergent path is created. Indeed, these three paths of the symbol are reflected in Zamyatin’s “affirmation, negation, and synthesis” theory outlined in his 1921 essay, ‘On Synthetism’. Here, he posits that art operates to affirm, negate or synthesise discourse, and I posit that the three paths of the symbol can alo be mapped accordingly. Firstly, objective symbolism and colour in propaganda, which maintains and strengthens discourse operates as affirmation. Secondly, the subjectivity of symbolism and the representation of colour in Impressionism and Modernism which undermines an all-encompassing societal discourse, operates as negation. Thirdly, the mixing of both objective representation and subjective symbolism in varying measure operates as synthesis. This third path is evident in both Islanders and We, and it complements Zamyatin’s association with the Devil, heretics and madmen, as he at once is defined by societal discourse, yet he rejects it. This is reflected in his following statement:
The syllogism is closed, the circle completed. Over it arises a new circle – new and yet the same. And out of these circles is the spiral of art holding up the sky.
Thus for Zamyatin, the objectivity and subjectivity of symbols could be exploited to achieve different aims, but importantly, the synthesis of two becomes the “spiral of art holding up the sky”. A symbol’s and colour’s power comes from the constant shifting of context and the combinations in which they are mixed. This is supported by Sona Hoisington and Lynn Imbery in their essay ‘Zamjatin’s Modernist Palette: Colors and Their Function in We’, where they assert that: “Like the post-Impressionists. Zamjatin recognized that our perception of color changes when its environment, i.e., surrounding colors, changes.” Zamyatin conceived that symbols, like colour, generate impressions and emotions by working on a subjective and relative scale that alters with time and context. Symbols and colour, according to Zamyatin, were to be synthesised and mixed to create an impression and idea that would spark a reader to use their own context to come to their own subjective understanding. Different readers would arrive at different understandings. Zamyatin states:
…you give the reader’s mind only the initial impulse, compelling him to connect these scattered signposts of ideas with the links of association, to supply the lacking elements himself… the unfilled spaces between them leave him free for partial creative activity. In short, you make the reader a participant in the creative process and the results achieved by one’s own creative effort, rather than another’s, are always sharper and more vivid.
This closely resembles Monet’s description of his art, and mirrors Seurat’s technique of pointillism, in which paint is not worked or contrived, but applied singularly to create a transient, immediate impression for the viewer’s eye to mix themselves. Interestingly, Zamyatin was diagnosed with synaesthesia, a neurological condition where the stimulation of one sense induces an involuntary response in a second sense. For Zamyatin, this meant he perceived letters and sounds as having a colour, which undoubtedly would have enhanced his interest in the symbolism of colours.
Therefore, the Communists’ claim that the red of their flag was the ultimate red of the final, total revolution, is challenged in Zamyatin’s works. In We, revolutionary red appears in a range of “richer, brighter, or deeper hues of red, and thus they serve to intensify the emotions linked to them”. For example, crimson appears repeatedly in moments of passion: “Crimson flowers, like blood: the lips of women”. In using a palette of red, the meaning and impression of Communism’s revolutionary red is weakened and enervated because of the infinite shades of red possible. Red is now freed from the stagnancy of Communist discourse and is open to many interpretations.
The subjectivity of colour and the derogation of its meaning in a society’s discourse in Zamyatin’s work can be established by close examination of the symbols and colours attributed to the Vicar, Campbell, Didi and O’Kelly in Islanders, and the Benefactor, D-503 and I-330 in We. To simplify the multitude of characters, colours and symbols, I have diagrammatically displayed the relationships between them. My diagrams are based on the diagrams of Hoisington and Imbery. However, because their analysis only involved We, I have necessarily broadened my diagrams to include Islanders. I have deliberately omitted I-330 at this stage, and will discuss her role and relationship later.
In Figure 11, the characters are displayed according to whether they affirm the entropic discourse, negate the entropy of society through active dissent, or synthesise these opposing qualities. I have bolded the characters of We.
Figure 11: Distribution of characters according to affirmation, negation or synthesis of respective discourse
In Figure 11 each character’s position is determined by their surface relationship with the respective societal discourse. As such, the diagrammatic distribution is clear and uncomplicated. The Benefactor and the Vicar affirm the entropy of discourse; O’Kelly and Didi negate it; and D-503 and Campbell synthesise them, as demonstrated by their position in the overlap. Further examination of each position in the diagram results in its association with a colour. These colours are derived from Andrej Belyi’s objective, hierarchical, metaphysical understanding of colour. Belyj’s hierarchy is as follows:
…black with evil, grey with deception and illusion, yellow with impending chaos, red with carnal sins and infernal conflagration, pink with the promise of redemption, sky blue, gold and white with the heavens and eternity.
I have illustrated this in Figure 12:
Figure 12: Belyj’s objective colour hierarchy
Belyj’s colour hierarchy is an objective scale well suited to the controlled objective interpretations of symbols that the propagandists of the Great War desired. Belyj was a contemporary of Zamyatin, and Hoisington and Imbery attest that Zamyatin was influenced by him:
Like the Russian Symbolists and particularly like Belyj, whose prose fiction he admired, Evgenji Zamjatin was attracted to color, and color plays a major role in his works.
This assertion is supported by the focus of two of his essays: ‘On Synthetism’ and ‘Andrey Bely’. Here, Bely is a different spelling of Belyj.
The complementary nature of Figure 11 and Figure 12 demonstrates that objective totality of colour, as employed in propaganda and informed by Belyj, maps neatly onto the character’s positioning in relation to their affirmation, negation or synthesis of their respective discourse. Thus, according to Belyj, the Benefactor’s white robes and the Vicar’s gold teeth correlate to “heaven” and “eternity”. As the leaders of One State and Jesmond respectively, this illustrates their status and role as the prime instigators of their society’s discourse and their natural affirmation of it. In contrast, O’Kelly’s red hair and burlesque dancer Didi’s “dance – in red” reflect their “carnal sins and infernal conflagration”.
D-503 and Campbell are not as tightly bound to a symbol and colour as the Vicar, Benefactor, Didi or O’Kelly. This reflects their synthesised existence in the overlap. They are symbolised, however, by a number of often contradictory symbols. For example, Campbell wears a black jacket and a white shirtfront, as do all the “Sunday gentlemen” of Jesmond, but this façade is ruined when he is hit by a red motor vehicle, the colour of revolution, in the opening pages. The collision breaks his ribs – white structures that protect red organs – which I believe represent his internal thoughts and emotions. Campbell’s injury requires the removal of his jacket, revealing that he is not wearing an accompanying shirt. The white shirtfront without a shirt discloses that he has only a surface conformity with a heavenly and eternal societal discourse, while the release of his red blood and damaged ribs signals the emergence of repressed emotions and a desire for carnal sin that deeply offends and contravenes the accepted discourse. The red motorcar, a new and revolutionary technology, also provides the catalyst for the revelation of his personal struggle between the pure, heavenly eternity of societal discourse and the “carnal sins and infernal conflagration”.
Clothing as a symbol of surface conformity is repeated in the light gray-blue of D-503’s uniform. Like Campbell this is contradictory. According to Belyj, light blue-indicates affirmation, while gray indicates deception. D-503 is then outwardly conformist, but privately harbours doubts about the state. In We, this synthesis also appears in the colourful clashes and riots of his dreams, which match the descriptions of the bright colours that flourish outside One State’s Wall.
The simplicity of Figure 11, representing each characters’ affirmation, negation and synthesis of discourse, and its comparison with Belyj’s rigid colour hierarchy, is however, not consistent with Zamyatin’ s belief in the inherent subjectivity of symbols and colour. Therefore, this subjectivity complicates Zamyatin’s representation of colour in We and Islanders. Here Hoisington’s and Imbery’s assessment of Zamyatin’s relative colour scheme is useful. Hoisington and Imbery analysed We and mapped his use of colour. Figure 13 is based on Their diagram of Zamyatin’s dynamic colour milieu, but I have adapted it to cover both We and Islanders.
Figure 13: Hoisington and Imbery’s relative colour scale
Hoisington and Imbery state, “Five of the important colors in We – blue, yellow, gold, pink, and white… repeatedly undergo transformation.” I agree with this, and it supports my previous discussions of the use of colour in Impressionism and literary modernism. Thus, the addition uncontrolled subjectivity confers on the Apple, in the Garden of Eden, varying shades of sweet, ripe, revolutionary red, and tempts characters and readers alike to take a bite of the uncontrolled chaotic energy of revolution promised in its flesh. Here, it is important to note the divergence between Islanders and We. Islanders was published in 1917, when the revolutionary of the Bolsheviks was the only shade of red, but by 1921 when Zamyatin wrote We, he was already discomfited by the entropy of the discourse of the Communists as they consolidated power, and many shades of red emerged.
Here the easy correlation between the characters’ surface compliance with the discourse of Jesmond and One State begins to face strain. Hoisington’s and Imbery’s relative colour scheme adds nuance to the symbolism of the colours of the Vicar and the Benefactor. No longer are they purely sources of affirmation and entropy. They are moved into the realm of synthesis to join Campbell and D-503. The Vicar’s gold teeth and the Benefactor’s white robes indicate that they have gained energy and contain elements which threaten the entropic discourse of each society. On Belyj’s objective colour scale, both were heavenly and therefore irreproachable, but on a subjective and relative colour scale, they are no longer as absolute or unassailable as societal discourse would wish. Examined subjectively, the characters’ conflicting attributes begin to emerge as colours, revealing both energy and entropy.
The Vicar’s gold teeth, according to Hoisington and Imbery, represent either the controlled exercise of power or the uncontrolled life force of the sun. In We gold is the colour of the badges of the Numbers, displaying their number and keeping the time of their strictly governed day in accordance with The Table of Hours. Gold also represents the life force of the sun that grows the green foliage of revolution outside One State. The number of teeth the Vicar reveals when smiling at various points in Islanders, is either comforting or sinister, depending on the context. For the Sunday gentlemen and their wives, the Vicar’s teeth symbolise heavenly, fatherly care, and therefore, the more gold the Vicar reveals in a smile, the more comforting it is. However, for Campbell and O’Kelly, the gold teeth are threatening. The more gold teeth revealed, the more they believe the Vicar wants to consume them. Gold therefore, stimulates opposing reactions. The power of gold as a symbol is undermined and destabilised, which offers an entry point for alternate and revolutionary interpretations, like the undermining of the Tsar led to Bloody Sunday and the alteration of the meaning of Wells’ ‘The War That Will End War’.
Alternate interpretations also exist in the Benefactor’s white robes. In Belyj’s scale, white represents heavenly purity, indeed the Benefactor is described to be a “wise white spider”. However, the Benefactor’s white robes also represent sterility. He can be construed as clinical and detached, like the doctors who conduct D-503’s lobotomy. This interpretation reframes his heavenly attributes, accentuating his ability to stifle human subjectivity and eliminate any opposition to a society’s accepted discourse.
Islanders was written in 1917, and I believe Zamyatin was irrevocably shaped by the upheavals of the time in which he lived. I argue the injury to Campbell relates to the White and Red Movements in Russia at that time. His white ribs representing the structure and protection of a comfortable equilibrium, while the red of his flowing blood the released energy of revolution. For Zamyatin, the interpretation of symbols and colour was subjective, but impressions do not vary only in context, but also over time. Therefore, by 1921 when the Bolshevik Revolution had settled into entropy and Zamyatin wrote We, his use of symbols and colour had grown and altered, and this temporal aspect must be considered in any comparison of the two novels. So, Didi and O’Kelly in Islanders remain defined by their single shade of red, keeping them in their circle of negation and revolution. While in We, the complexity and subjectivity of Zamyatin’s use of colour as a symbol reaches its denouement in the portrayal of I-330.
I-330 differs from every other character in Islanders and We. She is attributed an endless number of symbols and colours: yellow dresses, crimson lips, white teeth, golden eyes, a black dress and black X-shaped eyebrows. This combination has no correspondence with Belyj’s objective colour scale, just as
I-330 cannot be placed within Hoisington’s and Imbery’s understanding of Zamyatin’s relative colour scale. I-330 possesses distinctions which contravene their definitions. I contend that this is because I-330 operates as the ultimate symbol of infinite revolution.
In Islanders, O’Kelly and Didi are associated with the colour red and act as agents of change and revolution. In We, I-330 is their parallel, but Zamyatin, now discontented with the entropy and stagnation settling on Russia, requires his character to inspire infinite revolution. In order to propagate infinite revolution, I-330 mustexist outside of any semblance of scale or discourse. If she can be placed on a scale or within any bounds, she cannot represent “tormentingly endless movement”, and her revolution would merely sink back in the entropic discourse of the Communists. Zamyatin reflects in I-330’s erratic actions in the text. She is more often in D-503’s dreams and thoughts than with him physically, and when she does appear, it is unexpected and she departs abruptly. She leaves D-503 flustered and unsure, “And I don’t know – perhaps it was somewhere in her eyes or eyebrows – there was a kind of strange and irritating X to her, and I couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t give it any numerical expression.” Zamyatin deliberately uses X to describe her. In an algebraic equation, X acts as an unknown, a variable that admits an infinite range of values. I-330 too, acts as an unknown, with an infinite number of interpretations, the personification of endless subjectivity.
Here it is important to return to Mirra Ginsburg’s earlier assertion in her introduction to A Soviet Heretic:
The reader of Zamyatin’s essays sees and hears the writer who in his fiction has deliberately concealed himself behind an objective narrative or a fictional narrator.
I would extend this to include a fictional character. I contend that in We, I-330 is the character Zamyatin hides behind. Indeed, I-330’s execution by One State is almost Zamyatin prophesising his own fate. She is the personification of Zamyatin’s conception of the uncontrolled energy of infinite revolution. I-330 operates then, as the ultimate heretic, the Great Serpent, as an algebraic unknown, not only colouring the Apple ever-darker shades of red, but combining in a rainbow of colours and meanings, and remaining undefined by Belyj’s or Hoisington’s and Imbery’s colour scales. Therefore, I have amended Hoisington’s and Imbery’s diagram to include I-330. I have depicted her apart and separate in an attempt to portray Zamyatin’s concepts, because the symbolism of colour used to describe other characters is not sufficient or expansive enough to capture his ideas of endless movement and the unleashed energy of infinite revolution.
Figure 14: My relative colour scale
Yevgeny Zamyatin was undeniably a product of the intensely rapid of the social, political and artistic change of the 19th and 20th centuries. As a “critic, essayist, memoirist, and lecturer” he understood the power of the symbol in maintaining the entropy of objective discourse through controlled action, but keenly recognised too, the symbol’s inherent instability, the yawning chasm of subjectivity that undercut its rigid hierarchy. But Islanders and We do not merely reflect this dichotomy. Instead, Jesmond and One State are completely constructed around this objective/subjective understanding. On the surface, Zamyatin presents the comfortable equilibrium of Jesmond and One State, in which energy is controlled by a societal discourse, as maintained by the careful, hierarchical management of symbol and colour. It is underneath this calm, objective narrative that Zamyatin lurks. He moves in this space as the Devil, formless and constant, providing in his Apple the energy of the opposing pole, the required reactant for the uncontrolled energy of endless revolution. Here he waits for the wandering mind, the tentative touch, tempting the reader to sink their animal teeth into the unknown and embrace the infinite hues and tormentingly endless movement of revolution. It is in this battle that Zamyatin’s central thesis of entropy versus revolution can be seen. But importantly, for the reader who tastes the Apple’s flesh, the battle does not remain bound by borders of Jesmond and One State. Zamyatin’s infinite revolution and uncontrolled action explodes outward, to inject shifting, subjective energy into the settled entropic reality of Britain and Russia, and by extension the modern reader’s personal discourse.
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