Yevgeny Zamyatin: a brief biography

Yevgeny Zamyatin is among my literary heroes. A subversive writer who protested first the Czarist and then the Bolshevik governments in Russia during the tumultuous period between 1900 and the 1930s, Zamyatin was multi-talented and pretty damn close to fearless. He wrote novels, short stories, political essays, literary criticism, and plays; edited literary magazines and journals; served on editorial and theatrical boards; mentored the Serapion Brothers Literary Group; lectured on Russian literature, naval engineering, and creative writing; and designed warships for Russia and England during World War I.

Somehow, with all that on his plate, he also managed to find time to be exiled on three separate occasions. The first time, he was a student in St. Petersburg (known in the Soviet years as Petrograd) who regularly participated in demonstrations against the Czarist government and was caught hiding an illegal printing press in his dorm room. He was exiled from the city in 1905, but he sneaked back in to finish his degree in 1906. Through a bureaucratic loophole, he was able to stay and begin his teaching career at the Polytechnic Institute. He was exiled from the city again in 1911 and then sent to Ukraine in 1913 to get him out of Russia. He worked on warships in England from 1916-1917, where he became an associate of George Orwell (Orwell’s 1984 would be heavily inspired by Zamyatin’s ideas and his novel We). Zamyatin managed, again, to sneak back into St. Petersburg, this time for the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Although Zamyatin had been a Bolshevik since his student days, he was (like many others) repulsed by the brutality of the civil war that followed the Revolution, as well as the pressure for conformity which the new Bolshevik government imposed on society. Zamyatin was as quick to criticize the authorities of the Soviet regime as he had been those of the Czarist regime, earning him epitaphs such as “The First Dissident,” “The Devil of Soviet Literature,” “The Soviet Heretic,” and “the most left-wing man in Russia.” His 1920 novel We became the first novel banned in the USSR; it wasn’t even published yet, and had only been read in literary circles in manuscript format. (It was published abroad in 1924 and would go on to inspire Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Vonnegut’s Player Piano.) Truth in literature, empathy toward others, and a deep awareness of reality were paramount in Zamyatin’s philosophy. He once wrote, “It is not possible to build on negative emotions. Genuine literature will come only when we replace hatred for man with love for man,” (The Goal).

In 1931, after being systematically banned from publication and from the theater, and removed from his teaching positions, he wrote a letter to Stalin requesting to leave the Soviet Union to live abroad. Here is a quote from that letter which pretty well displays Zamyatin’s lack of fear:

I know that I have the very uncomfortable habit of saying what is not advantageous at a given moment, but whatever I believe to be the truth. I never concealed what I think of literary servility, toadyism, and coat changing. I have always thought and I continue to think that such things are as degrading for the writer as they are to the revolution.”

Yevgeny Zamyatin to Yosef Stalin, 1931

As much to Zamyatin’s surprise as anyone’s, Stalin granted passports to Yevgeny and his wife. The Zamyatins traveled in Germany and Czechoslovakia before settling in Paris, where they met Marc Slonim, the man who had published We. Sadly, Zamyatin’s health deteriorated rapidly; he had heart disease. Slonim sheltered him and helped nurse him through his final years before Zamyatin died in 1937.

The striking thing (to me) about Zamyatin’s ideas, his philosophy, his writing advice, is how deeply rooted they are in his particular moment in time and place, and yet how universally they apply. Some of Zamyatin’s quips and quotes could belong just as well to an L.A. punk rocker of the 1970s or a Zen philosopher as a subversive shouting his message from the early days of the USSR.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, the “Devil of Soviet Literature”

A few fun facts:

  • As a child, Zamyatin was bitten by a rabid dog. He didn’t tell anyone until two weeks later, because he wanted to see what it would feel like to have rabies. Luckily for him, he didn’t contract the disease
  • Zamyatin struggled with math as a child; he chose to study engineering specifically to challenge himself
  • Zamyatin applied Einstein’s theory of relativity to his writing style, which is why he avoids chronological narration, changes point of view, utilizes multiple planes of action, and expands time relative to the moment in his work
  • Zamyatin was deeply inspired by Dostoevsky, particularly his concept that the irrational is the ultimate source of freedom and individuality (most famously expressed in The Brothers Karamazov in the Grand Inquisitor sequence)

Zamyatin quotes:

  • “We have long become overgrown with calluses; we no longer hear people being killed,” The Dragon: Fifteen Stories
  • “If I mean anything to Russian literature, I owe this completely to the Petrograd Secret Service.”
  • “Irony, sarcasm, and satire are the most effective weapons of progress…for stopping man kneeling before someone or something.”
  • “There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, whereas a book explodes a thousand times,” A Soviet Heretic
  • “Who knows who you are…a person is a novel: you don’t know how it will end until the very last page. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth reading to the very end,” We
  • “Knowledge! What does that mean? Your knowledge is nothing but cowardice… You just want to put a little wall around infinity. And you’re afraid to look on the other side of that wall,” We

If you’re curious to read some Zamyatin, I can’t recommend enough the short story “The Cave.” It’s my favorite of his works that I’ve read. The novel We, as you can tell from this post, is probably his most important piece in terms of influence on literature.

Advertisements

Knight at the Crossroads

The new header image on my site, in case you’re wondering, is part of a photo (of an oil painting) I took in the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg in 2013. The painting is Knight at the Crossroads by Victor Vasnetsov, completed in 1878. Here is the full painting, pulled from Wikimedia:

TheKnightAtTheCrossroads

Crossroads are a big thing in many folk tales, including Russian folk tales, but in Russia, crossroads are frequently used as a metaphor for the pull between East and West, Asia and Europe, tradition and modernization. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Vasnetsov’s imagery would’ve been even more striking than it is for me to look at, today, as a non-Russian – and it is striking, even out of its context.

10 Things I’ve Learned Overseas

I’ve written an actual summary about the academic side of my field school experience in Spain, but I’m waiting for a couple fact-checks before I send it to websites to be posted.  In the meantime, here is a silly/philosophical (sillosophical?) list of things I’ve learned while studying abroad in Russia and Spain over the last two summers:

1. How to nap in a wheelbarrow.  I’m serious.  It’s very comfortable, and I don’t even normally take naps.

P6140210

2. Don’t fear the metro.  It’s the trusty steed of the modern city, no matter what country you’re in.

3. How not to spill water on myself while drinking out of a botijo (see photo) unless it’s really hot and I want to spill water on myself.

IMG_2869

4. Russia is not cold in June/July.  Spain is cold in the morning and the evening in June.  Even weather defies stereotypes.

5. How to talk to people without knowing the right words.  Most of the time, knowing the most important words and doing your best with the rest of the sentence will get you through, especially if you gesture a lot (which I do).  I even managed to be funny a few times (usually on purpose in Spanish, not so intentionally in Russian)!

IMG_2946

6. On that note – just so you know – “tired” and “old” are not the same word in Russian, and “caliente” when applied to a person in Spanish does not mean “experiencing a high temperature.”

7. Singing and dancing are not about how good you are at them, they’re about how much fun you’re having.  If you’re around people who disagree with that philosophy, you’re probably in America – and you should find more fun Americans.

8. Working hard does not mean making your entire existence revolve around your job.

IMG_1993

9. You can, in fact, forget how to ride a bike.

10. There’s no point worrying about 90% of things that happen – either you’re wasting energy worrying when you could be working on the solution, or you’re wasting energy worrying when you can’t do a damn thing about it.

IMG_0760

Ask Me Anything….

I have plenty of topics I *could* blog about.  I’m trying to expand the scope of things I write about here, and I’m curious as to what those of you who read this blog want more of!  So if there is anything you’d like to know more about (my writing, my recent trip to Russia, archaeology and/or my academic pursuits, my chinchilla, or whatever), ask me a question in the comments section of any of my posts, and I will write a post to answer.

In the meantime, here is a post about how awesome the food is in Russia.

IMG_0384

pork & potatoes stewed with onions, dill, and bell peppers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Petersburg has so many good restaurants – and even the pub grub is fantastic – I can’t even scratch the surface of all there is to try.  There are more sushi bars than you can shake a stick at, too – and apparently it’s a big thing to have pizza and sushi in the same meal…which I didn’t try, although it sounds like a great idea to me!

IMG_1878

pelmini – meat dumplings with sour cream

My favorite Russian dishes were probably the pork & potato stew (which was called different names on different menus – if you know the “official” name of this dish, let me know!), pelmini, and beef Stroganoff (which Americans always serve with noodles, but Russians serve with either mashed potatoes or fries).  Speaking of the fries, they MUST be fried in lard or duck fat or something over there, because they’re too good not to be horrendously bad for you.  I could happily die 20 years earlier than my natural lifespan if I could eat fries that good on a daily basis!  Who needs unclogged arteries???!

IMG_2054

beef Stroganoff & the best fries on the planet

On the other hand, I felt like I was eating much healthier while I was abroad, because the meals are more balanced.  You don’t get a whopping huge portion of meat and starch at a Russian restaurant.  You get a pretty reasonable portion for one human to eat, and you get about an equal portion of veggies, soup, or a roll (stuffed with veggies or fruit jam). Since I absolutely love fruit and fruit juices, the fact that there was an incredible selection of fruit juices on every menu and at the grocery didn’t hurt, either…pure strawberry or cherry juice with any given meal is my idea of heaven.  There’s also mors, which is berry juice, and kompot, which is juice with fruit and cucumber slices in the bottom of the glass.  And then there’s kvass, which is a drink made from bread (somehow), and which tastes like bread, tea, and beer had a lovechild together and then took the alcohol out (mostly).  It’s a weird flavor, but oddly crave-able.

IMG_1019

blini stuffed with mushroom cream sauce & chicken, borscht, and a bottle of kvass

IMG_2049

the end of a double chocolate stout and a Delirium Red

And as long as we’ve mentioned alcohol…the first thing most Americans think of when they think of Russia is, of course, vodka.  And yes, the low-end vodka in Russia is about 100 times better than the medium-end vodka in America.  My hostess explained to me that the tradition in Russia is to toast, take a drink, then eat a little something – a bite-size cube of cheese or a fresh strawberry – to make it easier on the stomach.  Even as strong as the vodka was, though, it was pretty damn smooth.  In the past year, I’ve finally acquired a taste for beer, and St. Petersburg restaurants and pubs have some pretty extensive selection of world beers!  Mostly, I’m a stout fan.  I like beer so dark that it develops an event horizon around the glass.  Found some good stouts in Russia, including a double chocolate stout, and THEN discovered Delirium Red, a Belgian cherry beer that’s somewhere around 12 or 13 % alcohol per volume.  Thought I’d died and gone to heaven…

If I even BEGIN to talk about Russian pastries & desserts, that’s going to need a whole post to itself, because it DESERVES its own post.  I’ll save it for later, but I’ll tantalize you with this photo of a single case of cookies in a St. Petersburg bakery:

IMG_0370

bakery…droooooool!

Now hit me up with some questions!  GO!

Guest Post at SRAS’ Art in Russia Website

My final article for SRAS’ Summer 2013 program is posted!  You can read it here:

Program Review: Art and Museums in Russia

I’m very excited about everything I learned while I was there, and excited to carry these experiences and this inspiration forward – in my academics, my creative life, and my personal life.  It’s been an amazing summer, and I’ve still got a month to do more awesome stuff with myself before I stuff my brain full of more awesomeness this school year!  Woot!

What I Did on My Summer Vacation….

IMG_1164

View from the roof of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

I spent the last 3 weeks in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Now, if you’re thinking that 3 weeks is not very long for a study abroad semester, you are (a) correct and (b) not aware of how much can be packed into 3 weeks with sufficient effort and enthusiasm.  Ha!  I’m happy to say that, for just about every page of my beautiful DK Guide to St. Petersburg, I can point to at least one listing and say, “I’ve been there!”

IMG_2041

One of my favorite paintings in the Russian Museum

I’ve written a series of articles for SRAS (the School of Russian and Asian Studies, the organization which ran my program) – a pre-departure research article (previously posted on this blog) about Russian artist Aristarkh Lentulov, and the following 2 articles about some of the museum studies experience gained during my trip:

1. Archaeological Collections and Curation at the Hermitage

2. Painting Restoration Methods of the Hermitage

IMG_1348

A stormy day over the Hermitage Museum

My final article, a trip summary, has not yet posted to the SRAS blog.  In the meantime, let me say that I absolutely loved St. Petersburg.  It’s a beautiful city, and going in the summertime (when the sun only goes down for a few hours per night, at most) was fantastic!  The amount of art, architecture, and history you can encounter within one block in St. Petersburg is overwhelming.  My travel journal is around 45 pages (single-spaced!) and right now, I honestly can’t think how to sum up that much experience in one little blog post, so I will leave it at my articles and a few photos for now, and post parts of my travel journal from time to time in the next few weeks.IMG_0887

On the Oreninbaum Estate

When I Go to Russia….

For half my life now, I’ve wanted to go to Russia.  In less than a month, I’ll be heading to St. Petersburg for a four-week program on museum studies and the history of Russian art.  The first question most people ask me when I tell them I’m learning Russian is, “Why Russian?”  I find this question incredibly irritating (I’ve never heard anybody question why any other language) but that’s a rant I don’t need to get into here and now….

Anyway, the answer is, because I love Russian literature.  It’s what got me started being interested in Russia, starting with Dostoevsky and expanding to Lermentov, Bulgakov, Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin, and Turgenev.  No, I’ve never managed to really get into Tolstoy, in case you’re wondering.  And though Dostoevsky and I disagree on some major philosophical points, he remains one of my all-time favorite authors.  His ability to make thoroughly despicable people into heartbreakingly sympathetic characters and his intense portrayal of the fragility, beauty, and horror of the human psyche at the height of his literary career is impressive in itself, but his growth and change as an author is possibly even more admirable.  In his early works, he writes like an awkward, dreamy young man (not unlike many of his early narrators).  After his arrest, mock-execution, and exile, his writing flourishes – all his early skill with writing beautifully-crafted words from the heart bursts out of his dream-state youth into full awareness of the realities around him, and his full strength as a writer, as a social commentator, as an observer of human behavior, finally came through.

As a writer, I find the intensity of his development inspiring.  I can’t say that I ever want to experience a last-minute pardon from execution or a decade’s imprisonment in Siberia, but I can say that I hope that any difficult, frightening, awful times in my own life (because, let’s face it, everybody experiences some hard times) will push my writing to new levels, open me up to new and profound possibilities, and strengthen my creativity into something with real power behind it.  A good writer is a nice thing to be, but to be a great writer takes not just ability, but growth.

The Dostoevsky Museum isn’t on my program’s list of sites, but I’ll definitely go on my own to see it, and his grave site nearby.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about that visit when the time comes!