Zamyatin, 1920s



‘Often in the evening as I was returning from the yard in my little Renault, I would be met by a dark, blinded city, all lights extinguished. This meant that German Zeppelins were in the offing and their bombs would soon be crashing down. At night, sitting at home, I would listen to the explosions, some far off, some near at hand, as I checked through [icebreaker] drawings and worked on my novel about the English - Islanders.‘ (1)
So writes Yevgeni Zamyatin (1884-1937) one of the most influential and unsettling writers of the twentieth century, referring to his time in Newcastle during World War I. Zamyatin graduated as a naval architect in Petersburg and by 1913 had already suffered prison and exile for his left-wing political sympathies. His career survived this episode, however, and he proceeded to write and lecture in his subject, as well as travel in Russia and abroad in his professional capacity. Although he was a promising fiction writer before his assignment in England, it was his Newcastle novella Islanders, published in 1918 after his return to Russia, which really marked the beginning of his literary career. Zamyatin became a prominent figure in the Russian capital’s artistic circles as the author of plays, powerful short stories and tersely brilliant critical articles.

By now, however, his political stance was deeply unsympathetic to the notion of submerging the individual talent in the communal ‘We’, an idea loudly proposed at the time. True writers were, he declared: ’madmen, hermits, heretics, visionaries, rebels or sceptics, not... government officials.‘ (2) This was a difficult and provocative role to play at a time of gradually increasing post-revolutionary official orthodoxy. Criticism intensified over his manuscript novel, significantly entitled WE, which circulated in 1920-21, but whose first draft dates to 1919. Although a number of public readings were given, the book was eventually banned by Glavlit, the official censorship, the first work to suffer this fate in the Soviet Union. Zamyatin was accused of allowing translations of WE to appear abroad, and his position became increasingly precarious throughout the 1920s. Eventually, in 1931, after a courageous personal appeal to Stalin, he was allowed to emigrate to Paris, where he died six years later.

As Zamyatin, for various reasons, held himself aloof from the Russians who had earlier emigrated to escape the Revolution, and his works were banned inside the USSR, his reputation was slow to grow abroad. George Orwell, who reviewed WE in Tribune on 4 January 1946, had only been able to obtain the book in French (translated in 1929 as Nous Autres). Zamyatin’s stories have become available in English only during the last twenty years or so, and his Newcastle novellas since 1984. WE itself became a Penguin Modern Classic and is now widely regarded as the first of the major modern anti-utopias - and a powerful formative influence on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In Newcastle, Zamyatin worked at the Armstrong Whitworth shipyards in Low Walker, and the adjoining Swan Hunter yards at Wallsend for some eighteen months in 1916-17, overseeing the construction of a number of icebreakers for the Tsarist government. He was one of the very few literary men (H.G. Wells, whom he greatly admired, was another) to have a grounding in science and technology and consequently able to appreciate their fascination, as well as their vast potential for altering the course of human development. Zamyatin used to say that he had two wives - literature and technology. He set out the reason for his mission to England as follows: ‘During the years of the Great War, the Baltic Sea - that “window into Europe” which Peter the Great had cut two hundred years before - was closed by the German fleet. In order to maintain communications with her allies, Russia was obliged to cut a new window into Europe far in the icy North, through the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean. A whole flotilla of icebreakers was urgently needed for this purpose.’ (3)

The pride of the Russian icebreaker fleet was the Yermak of 4817 tons displacement, which Zamyatin calls the grandfather of all icebreakers, still at work well into the twentieth century.(4) Built by Armstrongs at the Low Walker yard in 1898, the ‘Walker Wonder’ testified to the soundness of British ship construction when, as Zamyatin remarks ‘their pound sterling was still solid and reliable’. (5) Zamyatin himself said later that Russia did not begin building large icebreakers until 1935, when the 11,000 ton Stalin class vessels were being laid down, to enter service in 1938. (6) The design of even these harked back to the old Tyne-built Yermak. Incidentally, the departure of the Russian Baltic fleet in 1904 en route to its fatal encounter with Admiral Togo at Tsushima (27 May 1905) was assisted by the Yermak. It is a grim irony that the Japanese guns which destroyed the Russian ships were all made by Armstrongs in Newcastle including the 12" guns of Togo's flagship Mikasa. Tsushima was so ingrained in the Japanese consciousness that during the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Japanese commander flew Togo's famous Z pennant, and addressed his forces in the words Togo had used in 1905 (themselves based on Nelson at Trafalgar).

Curiously, Zamyatin makes no mention of the Russo-Japanese war in any of his notes, letters or novels. His own Tyne-built icebreakers were also heavily engaged in the 1918-19 conflict between the allies and Bolshevik forces near Archangel (which he had visited in 1915, living on board the icebreaker Canada) and must have been much in his mind as he was writing the first draft of WE , but he makes no mention of that either. We can only speculate as to the reasons.

During World War I, Armstrongs employed somewhere in the region of 60,000 people, producing a third of all the guns used by the British army on the western front, as well as building a large number of warships and some 1000 aircraft. Zamyatin does not refer to this, or why Zeppelins should have subjected Tyneside to repeated attack in 1915, persisting until November 1916 - that is, even after they had ceased to bomb London. He is content to enumerate the ships which he personally oversaw and leaves it at that. The vessels which he mentions by name, are as follows: (7)

The Sviatogor
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Sviatogor (renamed 1927 Krasin) 4,902 tons gross. Yard number A/W 904. Completed February 1917. There is a small model of this vessel in the Naval Architecture Department of Newcastle University. During the 1918-19 allied intervention against the Bolsheviks in northern Russia, Sviatogor was in action against the Royal Navy and was scuttled. The vessel, however, was raised by the Royal Navy and employed by them in the White Sea, before being taken to Scapa Flow where it was used in minesweeping operations. The ship was returned to the USSR under the Krasin trade agreement in 1921. As the Krasin, the vessel took part in rescuing General Nobile’s airship expedition off Spitzbergen in 1928, thus achieving world fame.

Saint Alexander Nevsky (renamed Lenin) 3,375 gross tonnage. Yard number A/W 905. Completed June 1917. This is also confirmed by an eye-witness in G. Fischer’s memoirs V Rossii i v Anglii, Moscow, 1922, pp 94-5. The vessel was commandeered by the Royal Navy, renamed H.M.S. Alexander, and sent to assist the allied intervention against the Bolsheviks. On 10 July 1918, by a supreme irony, H.M.S. Alexander came face to face with the heavily-armed Sviatogor on the Northern Dvina at Archangel, though conflict was avoided on this occasion. On the departure of the allied forces in 1919, Alexander was handed over to the White Russian forces.

Kosma Minin Yard number SH 1020. Completed November 1916.
Kniaz Pozharsky Yard number SH 1021. Completed December 1916.
These sister ships were each of 2,432 tons. Copies of drawings of the general arrangements of the ships have been obtained from the National Maritime Museum. They were built by Swan Hunter, Wallsend-on-Tyne as confirmed by Fischer. The original shipyard model, covering both ships, is on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum (Albert Dock, Liverpool).

Ilya Muromets. Yard number SH 944. Also completed at Wallsend in December 1915, though it did not reach Russia until early 1917. This vessel was only of 1651 tons and may really have been a supply ship, strengthened for work in Arctic waters. It is not listed in Lloyd’s Register as an icebreaker. It is, however, so listed by Swan Hunter, according to the Tyne and Wear Archive.

Dobrynia Nikitich. Yard number SH 1012. Like the three previous vessels, this is said by Fischer to have been built in 1916, a date confirmed by Lloyd’s Register. The vessel is of 1664 tons and is described in Swan Hunter’s splendid photograph, taken during trials, as an ‘ice-breaking steamer’.

Leazes Park
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Zamyatin was always proud of his association with these ships, particularly the Saint Alexander Nevsky - indeed, he claimed that he had prepared the original draft for this vessel and that all the drawings were personally checked by him and signed ‘Chief Surveyor of Russian Icebreakers Building. E. Zamiatin’ (8). The finished plans of the ship at the National Maritime Museum have no such stamp, however, and it may be that Zamyatin was referring to some preliminary drawings.

Zamyatin’s time in Newcastle was thus a full and rewarding one professionally. Nevertheless, he has told us nothing directly about his actual working life in the shipyards which were the targets for the marauding Zeppelins. For that matter, although he wrote two dazzling novellas, Islanders and A Fisher of Men (described by Martin Amis as ’remarkable in every way’) (9) satirising the Newcastle middle classes, and recognised as the forerunners of his masterpiece, WE, he published only the briefest and most tantalising hints about his life in England at all. (10) Apart from icebreaker supervision in various towns, including Sunderland, South Shields and Glasgow, where he attended ship launches in 1916 and 1917, he endured Zeppelin and aircraft bombing, learned to drive a car and visited castle ruins. That is all he has to say about an episode which was crucial to his development as a writer.

Elucidating details of Zamyatin’s time in England has been a painstaking business. Staff records of the Armstrong Whitworth concern are very sparse; there is no document to give a clue as to Zamyatin’s status, salary or address, nor was he a member of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders. Links between the Tyne and Russia had existed since the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Mitchell, based at Low Walker after 1852, had operated a shipyard in Saint Petersburg, latterly run by his brother-in-law, Henry F. Swan. It was the Mitchell yard’s expertise which played a key role in the conversion of the Tsarist navy from wooden to iron warships and Mitchell was awarded the Order of Saint Stanislav (second class, as was normal for foreigners) by a grateful Tsar Alexander II. Mitchell’s palatial Newcastle house, Jesmond Towers (now the La Sagesse school) bears the order on the coat of arms above the main door. It was here that Grand Duke Constantine of Russia came in 1871, in his capacity as High Admiral. The Armstrong Mitchell partnership, later Armstrong Whitworth, subsequently built many ships for Russia, including the Yermak (see above) and the famous Baikal train ferry. It seemed likely, therefore, that Zamyatin would have been under the wing of the Newcastle shipping magnates to some extent. Mitchell, Lord Armstrong his partner, F. E. Swan and Sir George Hunter had all lived or were still living in Jesmond, a pleasant suburb near the centre of Newcastle, close to the wooded gorge of Jesmond Dene which runs through the city.

Zamyatin’s recently published 1916 letters from Newcastle to his wife, L. N. Usova in Russia are not a rich source of factual information either*. Of necessity brief and subject to wartime censorship, they concentrate a good deal on Zamyatin’s moods, though the dates do serve to pinpoint his location from time to time. A letter written from Torneo on the Swedish-Finnish border, asking Usova to direct his correspondence to the Station Hotel in Newcastle is dated 25 March. The date is not given in both old and new style, as in subsequent letters, but it seems clear that this date was actually the new-style 7 April 1916. Arrival in Newcastle in March would have exposed him to the Zeppelin raids of 1/2 April when bombs dropped by the L.11 killed 22 people and injured 128 in nearby Sunderland, and 2/3 April, when the L.16 raided the area. Bombs fell as near to Newcastle as Cramlington and Ponteland. No such dramatic events are even hinted at in the correspondence (subject to censorship, it is true) nor in Islanders, the first of his Newcastle novellas (the Zeppelins appear in the second novella, the pendant A Fisher of Men). As Zamyatin tells us that he learned to drive his Renault only in England, the Zeppelin experience mentioned at the beginning of this article must be assigned to a later date than 2 April. This raises a problem, however, Only two such raids took place during the rest of Zamyatin’s stay in Newcastle. Zeppelins did make landfall between Tynemouth and North Yorkshire on the night of 8/9 August 1916, and though none penetrated further than 30 kilometres inland, five people were injured in Whitley Bay, a few miles from Newcastle (it appears in Islanders as Sandy Bay). This may be the raid mentioned by Zamyatin. A further assault took place on the night of 27/8 November 1916, when Zeppelins L.24, L.34, L.35 and L.36 set out to attack Tyneside, but L.34 was shot down off Hartlepool, while the other airships got nowhere near the target area. Zamyatin, incidentally, makes a point of mentioning his experience of Zeppelin and aeroplane bombing in all the brief ‘autobiographies’, as well as in his essay on Maxim Gorky, where he writes: ‘The gunfire outside the window came nearer. I couldn’t help recalling the Zeppelin raids over England and spoke about the methods used against them.’ (12) In his essay on H.G. Wells of 1922, he remarks on ‘details so familiar to us; aerial combat, aircraft, Zeppelins, night raids, panic, blackout, searchlights criss-crossing the sky...’ (13) The graphic description of the Zeppelin in A Fisher of Men, is placed in a detailed London setting and so may reflect experience in the capital in late 1916, rather than in Newcastle. After the death of the redoubtable Heinrich Mathy in his L.31 over Potters Bar on 1/2 October of that year, however, Zeppelin raids on London ceased. The aircraft Zamyatin mentions can only have been seen in London; no aircraft had the range to bomb Tyneside. Gotha bombers appeared over London in daylight from May 1917 onwards, notably and in force on 13 June and 7 July during the ‘Gotha Summer’. The bombers switched to night attacks on London (by moonlight) on 3/4 September 1917 and continued until 30 September. Many bombs fell on the capital, including one on the Embankment - a close shave for Zamyatin if he was at the Hotel Cecil at the time. There was another raid on 31 October, though little damage was done.

Zamyatin travelled to Newcastle from Bergen, not on the Haakon VII as he had hoped, but on ’a lousy something or other’. The passage was very rough and took forty hours. He arrived at the Newcastle Quays on 13 April and took up residence at the Station Hotel. Subsequently, he moved into temporary accommodation at 10 Cavendish Place, Jesmond, where he occupied a bedroom on the first floor and a ground-floor sitting-room. Breakfast and a light supper were provided, but for lunch, Zamyatin had to go into the town centre, half-an-hour away, as he says (no Renault as yet). The house was owned in 1917 by a Mrs Taylor, whose namesake puts in several white-gloved appearances in Islanders, tremulously serving meals in Lady Campbell’s house. Zamyatin’s mood is glum, he is cut off from Russian literary journals, and having difficulty in communicating with the genteel folk around him. He grumbles about the food (too much pepper and ginger - does he mean gingerbread, or ginger cake as it is known in Newcastle?) and the state of his intestines; requests for stomach powders are a recurrent theme of the Usova correspondence. Later, Zamyatin occupied a substantial Victorian property at 19 Sanderson Road, Jesmond, and employed a cook/maid (rather deaf and none too cleanly). This house now bears a plaque installed on 8 November 2002.

19 Sanderson Road
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Zamyatin reports in a letter dated 4 April (i.e. 17 April new-style) that he had been met on his arrival in Newcastle by a Russian engineer. It had turned out to be possible to travel to London on the following day. On the train, he met a Russian journalist who took him to a party in London, where he was introduced to the brother-in-law of Grzhebin (presumably the publisher). Also present was Zinaida Vengerova, with whom Zamyatin was to maintain a correspondence throughout the 1920s. In London, Zamyatin stayed at the Hotel Cecil, an ornate structure extending from the Strand to the Embankment. A byword for luxury, the hotel, when it opened in 1886, was the largest in Europe, with some eight hundred rooms. The building is now Shell-Mex House, of which the Strand facade is the Cecil original. The Thames facade is the building with the prominent clock facing the river. In his article ‘Backstage’ (’Zakulisy‘), Zamyatin makes specific reference to the journey by car or taxi between the Strand and Euston Road (i.e. to King’s Cross station, the terminus for Newcastle and Edinburgh). (15) A letter dated 8/21 April, Good Friday, shows Zamyatin spending his time riding round the capital in an omnibus, and sitting in the park. This letter indicates that he is returning to Newcastle ‘tomorrow’ and going to Glasgow in a month’s time.

A letter of 22 April/5 May indicates that Zamyatin is going to pay a social visit to the Russian consul (this was one Yevgeni de Butkevich at 23 Eldon Square in the part now demolished). Zamyatin drank a good deal of wine and arrived home at four in the morning, scandalising his landlady. On 7/20 May, he announces that he is moving to 19 Sanderson Road. There, alone in the big house, he is free to write or play the piano without hindrance but feels strangely apathetic about either. He mentions quite a nice park, with a waterfall and cliff (Jesmond Dene) but is disinclined to go anywhere. Zamyatin’s days are busy; there is quite a lot of work at the shipyards, or rather, a lot of travelling to the four plants he visits most often (there are two others) and he finds it hard to get up early as the English do. His time is taken up with calculations and drawings, visits to the work-sites, correspondence in English and work with his Russian technical assistant.

Zamyatin was due to leave Newcastle for Glasgow on 13 June 1916 (letter 30 May/12 June). Where he stayed is not known, but the mythical ‘St Enoch’ in Islanders was the name not only of the main railway station in Glasgow but also of the opulent station hotel (both now demolished). The designation survives in modern Glasgow only in the St Enoch shopping centre and the underground stop close by, near Central Station. In a letter of 4/17 June from Glasgow, Zamyatin compares the city favourably with Newcastle, and regrets that he doesn’t live there. However, he catches a cold - ‘right english’ as he puts it. For most of June and July, Zamyatin, in low spirits and complaining about headaches, boredom and the state of his innards, tries to persuade Usova to join him. Meanwhile, he organises a party around the roulette-wheel the house possesses. Present are the Russian and French consuls and their wives, the Italian consul , a Portuguese sea-captain and a Spanish consular secretary. He tries desperate measures to counter boredom as the wind howls round his empty house - walking round Newcastle to tire himself out, taking showers, staying out drinking all night on Saturdays. Nothing really works.

Zamyatin had been taking English lessons (from an Italian), but his command of the language this time is shown in a telegram to Usova dated Saturday 1 July:

‘If you wish and could come New-Castle our quarter transmit with furniture till january or leave furniture conservation telegraph answer Zamiatin’
Zamyatin appears to think that he will be in Newcastle until January, a fact confirmed by a telegram of 19 July. ‘Quarter’ is a transliteration of the Russian word for ‘apartment’, and Zamyatin’s odd English seems to be requesting Usova to let their Petersburg flat furnished or put the furniture in store.

A change in the weather - ‘marvellous’ - raises Zamyatin’s spirits. He sits out in the garden in front of the Sanderson Road house till midnight. But despair quickly supervenes as no reply comes from Usova. Eventually, on 17 August, she writes implying that if Zamyatin were living in a ‘cultural centre’ with plenty of friends, he would not have summoned her. On 23 August, however, she apologises and says that she now realises the strength of his need for her and agrees to set out for England. Here the correspondence breaks off. A letter to Alexander Remizov written on 5/18 December 1916 from Sanderson Road testifies to Usova’s arrival in Newcastle; it is signed by both her and Zamyatin.*

St George, Jesmond
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Saint George’s church in Jesmond is close to Sanderson Road. Praised by George Bernard Shaw, the building was financed by Charles Mitchell in 1888 and seems to be the model for St Enoch’s in Islanders. In A Fisher of Men the action supposedly takes place in London, but the church there is openly called St George’s and the windows are described as follows:
‘Narrow defiles into the world. On the coloured panes deer, shields, skulls and dragons. The glass was green below and orange above.’ (16)
Allowing for some artistic licence, the visitor to the elegant art nouveau interior of St George’s, Jesmond, will find that the windows are indeed lancets, with clear panes of glass, permitting a view into the world. There is a sculptured group of St George and the dragon, as well as shields on the wall and a deer (hart) in the chancel-floor mosaic; there is no skull, though the foreshortened dragon resembles one. The south aisle windows, however, are certainly green below and orange above. The afternoon sun shines through them to bathe the seats in colour just as Zamyatin describes. The church has a tall Italianate campanile housing a peal of eight bells for the delectation of the ‘Society of Honorary Bellringers’ in Islanders.



photo: Newcastle Libraries

Sir Andrew Noble and Lady Noble with Admiral Togo at Jesmond Dene House in 1911
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After 1883, Lord Armstrong increasingly left the day-to-day running of his arms and ship-building concern at Elswick in Newcastle to Sir Andrew Noble, who was a noted ballistics expert and combined an interest in scientific experiment - often carried out at night in his own laboratory in Jesmond Dene House - with great administrative abilities. He was in daily attendance in his office or in the workshops at Elswick and actively superintended every detail. After Lord Armstrong’s death in 1900, Noble was in control of one of the largest enterprises in Britain, and Jesmond Dene House was the setting for international soirees. Admiral Togo, the ‘Japanese Nelson’ came to stay in 1911, in order to express his thanks to Newcastle for its role in building and arming the Japanese navy, and training its personnel. His country’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war had thrust it firmly onto the modern international stage. A number of Japanese warships, including two battleships, the Yashima and the Hatsuse had been built by Armstrongs, and a famous photograph showing the Hatsuse being towed past the Swing Bridge at Newcastle could stand as a symbol of the industrial might of Victorian England. The status of the Armstrong works as the Krupps of Britain make Noble a plausible model for Sir Andrew Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara.

Sir Andrew Noble died in 1915, and in Islanders, Lady Campbell refers to her late husband, ‘Sir Harold’ whose life and work are respectfully mentioned. It seems clear that she was modelled on Lady Noble by a disgruntled Zamyatin, irked by the inflexible standards of etiquette and decorum obtaining in the Noble household. Lady (Margaret Durham) Noble was the daughter of a Quebec notary; her maiden name was Campbell. This, incidentally, would seem to prove that the name of the hero of Islanders is Campbell, and not Kemble as the Russian transliteration would also allow. Lady Noble was born in 1828 and lived to be 103. (17) A photograph taken at the launch of the Yamashira Maru at the Low Walker Yard in January 1884 shows her to have the blonde, later ’yellow-grey’ hair Zamyatin mentions. (18) Another photograph of 1911, taken with her husband and Admiral Togo at Jesmond Dene House, clearly shows her strong jaw-line and the long thin lips with which Zamyatin makes such great play. (19) She is also holding carnations, flowers which Zamyatin mentions as decorating the room in Islanders. She was 88 years old in 1916, and a low neck-line was perhaps inadvisable, but phrases such as ‘mummy-like’ and ‘broken umbrella’ seem gratuitously cruel and boorish descriptions. No doubt Zamyatin was venting his frustrations at feeling gauche and out of place; he was still relatively young at 32 - the same age, we recall, as that which D-503, the hero of the novel, gratuitously divulges in WE.

In chapter six of Islanders, Zamyatin is obviously recalling an excruciating tea taken with Lady Noble in a room hung with portraits, which are mentioned then and later (Sir Harold, Lady Campbell when young). This sitting-room still exists as it did in 1916 and now serves as the hall in Jesmond Dene House school, located down in the valley (or dene) below St George’s church. The picture of Sir Andrew Noble, however, has been removed from above the fireplace and hung on the staircase. It shows the sitter in suit and watch-chain, rather than the implausible ’wig and robes’ Zamyatin describes. Nevertheless, he does have the powerful ’Campbell jaw’, under his equally formidable moustaches. One must assume that Zamyatin learned of Lady Noble’s maiden name from her own lips, as well as the fact that, as a Noble, Sir Andrew would have worn the Mackintosh tartan, which Zamyatin describes and which adorns the character Mackintosh in Islanders. Lady Noble’s four sons, however, were all middle-aged by 1916 and could hardly have served as models for the young Campbell, or been plausible opponents for Sergeant Smith in the boxing-ring. Lady Campbell incidentally makes no mention of Zamyatin in her memoirs, though many foreign visitors to the Armstrong works and the Noble residences are listed.

In Islanders, besides Lady Noble, we find Zamyatin’s erstwhile landlady Mrs Taylor, and it takes no great leap of the imagination to suppose that Didi Lloyd’s surname was borrowed from that of Marie Lloyd, the great music hall star of the time - or that of O’Kelly from Sean O’Kelly, the Irish republican leader (and future president of Ireland) who was imprisoned by the British after the Easter Rising in 1916. The headless crusader is called Haig, after the British commander-in-chief in France, appointed in 1916. Zamyatin’s straightforwardly literal use of his strange surroundings, in fact, is one of the most interesting features of his Newcastle writings

In the novella, Lady Campbell and the citizens of Jesmond are shown as repressed slaves to a stifling regime. The dominant figure is the repellent Reverend Dewley, vicar of St Enoch's. Mr Dewley, with his terrible gold teeth, is the author of 'Precepts of Assured Salvation' in which precise times are allotted for all activities. Even Mrs Dewley's needs are catered for every third Saturday. This is one of several allusions to Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy, where the designated day is every third Sunday. The pun on 'duly' also derives from Sterne (and is deliberately emphasised in the novella). Curiously, the name Dewley is very rare in England, but if one travels from Jesmond to the ruins of Prudhoe castle, one passes Dewley farm and Dewley Hill.

Respectability holds sway in the haven of entropy which is Jesmond. Any sign of imagination or originality is regarded with horror. Houses are identical. Trees stand in cropped order; Jesmond folk only write on lined paper; blue vases line one side of the street, green the other. Chairs fit their carpet marks.

Only eccentric or bohemian outsiders like the Irishman O'Kelly, the music hall artiste Didi Lloyd, or the amorous organist Bailey enjoy a free and spontaneous existence, though nature too fights hard against Mr Dewley and his followers: the sun (a powerful symbol in the novellas) is liable to be 'scandalously bright'; birds sing 'inexcusably', and the colours of desire are always waiting in ambush - milky-pink, raspberry (seven times on one page of A Fisher of Men).

Zamyatin deploys his innovative 'cubist' style of geometrical shape and colour in the novellas, and uses, even over-uses a trade-mark descriptive trope: Vicar Dewley's fearful gold teeth and triangular eyebrows (like those of I-330 in We); Mrs Dewley's pince-nez; Lady Campbell's worm-like lips. Campbell is a lumbering lorry, Mr Craggs a metal monument. Interestingly Zamyatin also makes use of the image of a shell, opening to display hidden qualities or secrets. All these devices reappear in We.

The first page of the novella contains the vicar's words: 'Life must be like a well-run machine and lead us to our goal with mechanical inevitability... ' The last has: 'If the government forcibly led weak souls along the only true path... salvation would be mathematically inevitable, mathematically, you understand...' Between these pages, we encounter a supposed parliamentary bill to make all noses the same length (20), and Vicar Dewley is heard to declare: 'If the individual will which was always unprincipled and disorderly were to be exchanged for the will of the Great Machine of State, then with a mechanical inevitability...' (20a) And: 'Better they be slaves of God than free sons of Satan.' (21) The parallels with We are inescapable.

As in We, a rigidly conformist, even child-like innocent, Campbell, is seduced from Jesmond's rigid rails (a recurrent image) by a sexually provocative woman, assisted by O'Kelly, Campbell's supposed friend, who reflects: 'And seeing as he, O'Kelly, and no one else, was the Serpent who had tempted Campbell to go off the rails of the parish of St Enoch...' A pre-echo of the 'Eden' motif in We.

The respectable citizens of Jesmond fitted the pattern:

‘By Sunday, the stone doorsteps of the Jesmond houses had been scrubbed to a dazzling whiteness. The houses were of a certain age and smoke-begrimed, but the steps were gleaming rows of white, like the Sunday gentlemens’ false teeth. The Sunday gentlemen were produced at one of the Jesmond factories and on Sunday mornings, thousands of them appeared on the streets with the Sunday edition of the St Enoch parish newspaper. Sporting identical canes and identical top-hats, the Sunday gentlemen strolled in dignified fashion along the street and greeted their doubles.
“Lovely weather, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, much better than yesterday.“’ (22)
photo: Newcastle Libraries
Castle Stairs (Cobbler John's Alley)
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Later, the gentlemen find their own houses ‘by a miracle’ among the thousands of identical factory-made houses.

  Zamyatin’s only mention of an actual Newcastle thoroughfare, King Street on the Quayside, in chapter thirteen of Islanders serves to identify nearby ’Cobbler John’s Alley’ as Castle Stairs, one of the vertiginous flights of steps leading down from Henry II’s castle keep to the commercial heart of the old city.(23) Though the incumbent of St George’s church in 1916 was, comically enough, the Reverend A. Boot (in real life somewhat pushed about by Lady Noble) the name of the alley has a more likely derivation. Castle Stairs was the centre of the city’s shoemaking craft and in 1916 the five shops on this stairway were all cobbler’s premises, the only such in the entire Quayside area. Zamyatin assists identification by mentioning an antique shop; this is no doubt Tellson’s which in 1916 stood at the head of the stairs. The ugly green door-knocker, ‘half man, half dog’ is an unmistakeable allusion to the celebrated twelfth century bronze Romanesque sanctuary ring on the north door of Durham Cathedral. (24)

Cobbler John himself is a garbled version of John Knox, who resided in Newcastle at intervals between 1550 and 1553 and preached in St Nicholas church (now the cathedral) close to Castle Stairs. Though Knox himself did not suffer at the stake, as Zamyatin asserts at the beginning of chapter four of Islanders, his mentor, George Wishart, a zealous champion of the Lutheran reformation, had done so in 1546, at the instigation of Cardinal Beaton. Knox had allied himself with Beaton’s murderers and spent some eighteen months as a prisoner on the French galleys, before being released on the intercession of Edward VI, and subsequently coming to Newcastle.

Prompted perhaps by thoughts of Knox, Zamyatin permits himself a brief historical reverie near the beginning of chapter thirteen, invoking the names of Mary Queen of Scots and the unfortunate Rizzio.(25) Zamyatin had learned something of this affair when he had visited Edinburgh. He goes no further, however. It is worth noting, incidentally, that in Schiller's Maria Stuart there is a minor character called O'Kelly. Apart from a mention of built Japanese warships had steamed only a few years before, go unremarked.(26). For an ardent admirer of technology, it is an odd omission.

Zamyatin, however, had taken against Newcastle from the very start. In a letter dated 4 (17) April 1916, only days after he had arrived, he wrote:

‘Newcastle itself is so unpleasant. All the streets, all the houses are identical, you understand, - absolutely identical, like the grain barns in Petersburg near the Alexander Nevsky monastery. As 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.'
Imagination, of course, is the quality most lacking among the numbers in WE (no one has names) and architectural uniformity is the norm in the One State described in the novel. Nonetheless, Zamyatin's judgment on Newcastle here verges on the perverse. What strikes most visitors to Russia is in fact this very similarity of one town to another. On 29 April 1890, Chekhov wrote to Gorky: 'In Russia all towns are identical.'

Curiously enough, in July 1915 the great theorist of the Bolshevik Revolution, Nikolai Bukharin made a tortuous journey from Switzerland via London and Newcastle to Stockholm. In Newcastle he was arrested because he was travelling on a passport belong to someone else, a Jew, one M.L. Dolgolevsky. For this reason he had encountered a good deal of anti-semitic unpleasantness both in France and England. Eventually Bukharin was released and continued his journey by way of the Norway ferry (another forty-hour voyage). Passengers were obliged to remain in their cabins until open sea was reached, presumably to prevent espionage as the ship passed along the Tyne.

Bukharin was accompanied on the train north by A. Shlyapnikov, also a prominent Bolshevik. Shlyapnikov had been living in Wembley and working at the Fiat factory there. He made many journeys to and from Scandinavia via Newcastle ‘along the beautiful, familiar route past fields and towns, to Newcastle’, as he described a journey of his own a month later. This description makes a piquant contrast with that of Zamyatin.

photo: FreeFoto.com
Grey Street, Newcastle
click to enlarge
Zamyatin’s is a very early letter, however, and his aesthetic responses to London and even to Edinburgh were also curiously vague and impressionistic, but even so there seems to be something willed, almost perversely intense in Zamyatin’s reaction to the city in which he now lived. In fact, Newcastle is noted in architectural circles as the most elegant of England’s larger cities. Within the mediaeval walls, a mighty Norman keep, two cathedrals and monastic remains are set astride the course of Hadrian’s Wall. The mediaeval town centre, however, was largely rebuilt (1825-40) by local architects in a chaste but imposing style known as ’Tyneside Classical’. Newcastle city centre in fact has a greater concentration of Grade I listed buildings (sixty) than any English town except Bath, and its main thoroughfare, Grey Street, has been described in the Architectural Review, and by John Betjeman, as superior to Regent Street in London. In 2002, it was officially declared to be the finest street in Britain. Zamyatin does not respond. The railway station, appropriate for a city in which ’Rocket’ and ‘Locomotion-1’ were built, is regarded as England’s finest, the first of the great train-sheds, and possesses the country’s first major glass and iron-ribbed roof. It is the model for other famous stations, like York. Again, it is a surprise that Zamyatin, the admirer of technology, fails to mention this, though he does refer to George Stephenson in his essay on Wells.

Zamyatin’s notebooks likewise display a relentless hostility. He is aghast to find that at the Quayside Sunday market there is a patent medicine man and a chap who pulls teeth for a shilling - this in the town, not the country, we are asked to note. Perhaps it reminded Zamyatin rather too much of his own provincial birthplace, Lebedyan. The modern Newcastle novelist David Almond describes the market in rather different terms:

‘Newcastle was like Marrakesh. On the Sunday morning quayside market in the gaps between the stalls, the Human Ostrich gulped down light bulbs and razor blades and blew smoke from his ears. Harry the Boot King sold herbal remedies and dodgy ointments. There were fortune-tellers, quacks, masseurs, strongmen, almanac-sellers, acrobats, racing-tipsters, buskers, magicians, card-sharps... ‘
There were no venereal wards at the hospitals, observes Zamyatin. He decries this, but chiefly as evidence of English hypocrisy. In fact, a Royal Commission had been set up in 1913 and in 1916 all local authorities were directed to provide a free and confidential service for the diagnosis and treatment of VD. Extraordinarily, Zamyatin states that the profession of being a brothel-owner is one of high repute in England. A local M.P. is one such. Well, such things happened in Rome, he adds cynically. The literal meaning of the Russian words 'public house' is brothel. Could Zamyatin have misunderstood the words?

As for ‘identical houses’, Olga Kaznina, a Russian scholar who has visited the Zamyatin house remarks:

‘It’s true that Sanderson Road is not remarkable for architectural variety, but that very fact gives it a stylistic unity. Along it stand even rows of three-storied English detached houses, with extensions and gardens. The avenue gladdens the eye, its atmosphere is suffused with peace and quiet.’ (30)
Kaznina’s description of Zamyatin, however, as an exotic creature in a provincial zoo is disappointing.

For Zamyatin to vent his spleen is one thing, but Russian critics, including Kaznina, should be wary of basing any sort of generalised image of ‘the English’ or ‘provincial life’ on Zamyatin’s stereotype. His earlier Russian stories had titles like ‘The Back of Beyond’ and ‘Provincial Story’, so the thought of him being in dull English provincial exile in 1916 is naturally seductive. Kaznina writes:

‘In the English provinces, Zamyatin felt himself cut off from metropolitan life, from political and literary discussion, from the familiar atmosphere of the Russian literary milieu. Work in the port and occasional trips around the country did not alleviate his sense of isolation. In England it was as if he was again in exile in ’the back of beyond’. He was oppressed by the narrowness of interest among the people who surrounded him... the inability or unwillingness to go beyond the familiar, to learn of other values, to learn - in the broadest sense - to speak a foreign language. Provincialism began to seem a universal phenomenon, a kind of “universal vulgarity”.’ (9)
This is too facile. Zamyatin was just as bored and friendless in his later Paris exile as ever he was in Newcastle. Indeed his initial hostile attitude to Newcastle may be ascribed to a certain provincialism on his own part, a passive and prejudiced reluctance to go any distance at all to meet an unfamiliar and potentially interesting culture. There is no evidence that Zamyatin made any effort to contact Newcastle intellectuals or political circles, join the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society Library, a treasure-house of books in many languages, or attend its lectures, delivered in 1916-17 by such luminaries as A.C. Benson, H.A.L. Fisher, Flinders Petrie and Gilbert Murray. His desire for Russian literary journals, and reviews of his own work is understandable, but that he seriously hankered for a literary milieu in the middle of the Great War, when the younger generation of British writers was fighting and dying in France, is too distasteful to contemplate. Zamyatin was not some detached neutral: he was doing war work for a belligerent power. Only thirty at the outbreak of hostilities, in 1916 he might himself have been engaged in the Somme battles, or the Brusilov offensive, rather than doing a job of military importance involving the icebreakers he loved so passionately. If Zamyatin always claimed to have two wives, technology and literature, there was no better abode for his first wife than Newcastle, and it seems curious that in the letters and notebooks he clings so pettishly to the second. Besides, Newcastle was actually, in 1916, a most exciting place to be for a literary man. Kipling had visited the Armstrong plant in 1915, and numbers of dignitaries, in particular naval officers, thronged the city and enjoyed, as Zamyatin did, Lady Noble‘s hospitality at Jesmond Dene House. The mouth of the Tyne looked out over vast minefields towards the Dogger Bank; steel sharks prowled the ocean, huge airships were liable to come droning overhead. Would Zamyatin really have preferred to be in some Bloomsbury drawing-room - assuming that the occupants, like Lady Ottoline Morell and her entourage, had not decamped from London in 1915 to escape the Zeppelins and, later, the Gotha bombers? That company might have produced some waspish memoirs, but we have enough of them. It was his provincial existence which inspired a masterpiece.

Initially Zamyatin certainly did feel an outsider in Newcastle, cut off by his limited grasp of English and the sense of a local cohesion he could not share. In his notebooks he compares himself to a performing seal, or a Crusoe surrounded by Fridays, who thought it was always winter in Russia. In London, where he was free from routine, and the sense of an exclusive ambient community was less oppressive, Zamyatin clearly felt more at ease. Unfortunately, the very things which irked him in provincial Newcastle proved to exist in the capital also. A performance of The Cherry Orchard by The Stage Company (not at the Stage Theatre, as he writes) irritated him extremely, as it too was set in winter! He seems not to have been aware that the audience had walked out in disgust at the original premiere of the play in London; that might have disillusioned him with the metropolis altogether. One wonders what Zamyatin would have thought of the strange rumour that had earlier spread like wildfire across the country: Russian troops had been seen by many witnesses in England after the declaration of war in 1914. How did people know they were Russian? Because they had snow on their boots.

Whatever the reasons for his jaundiced first impressions - a personal (or provincial) refusal to be impressed by abroad; simple home-sickness, strong Russian patriotism or anti-imperial sentiment - in Islanders he contrives to reduce Jesmond, the area of Newcastle where the wealthy dwelt cheek by jowl with the academic and artistic elites of the city, to a stiff, narrow, philistine middle-class milieu. Jules Verne would have recognised the stereotypical ‘Sunday gentleman‘, top-hatted, emotionally repressed and, like Phileas Fogg, a slave to the clock. Kaznina, to be fair, makes clear that the elements of caricature and grotesque which Zamyatin deploys in the Newcastle novellas are typical of his earlier Russian stories also. (11)

Zamyatin does not balance his picture of repressed Jesmond with any celebration of the uninhibited populace at large. The great local football sides get no mention, and it seems to have made no impression when the famous Blaydon Races were discontinued (for ever) in 1916, after a riot when a heavily-backed winner was disqualified. If one continues with a strictly literal refutation of Zamyatin’s caricature, it might be pointed out that there were significant examples of the spontaneous and imaginative behaviour he professed to find lacking in Jesmond actually occurring all around him in 1916. Indeed, he was fortunate that the European conflict had suppressed social unrest at home - Gosforth Park, a manor house only a mile or two from Jesmond had been burnt out by suffragettes in 1914. Had he stirred himself to explore, he might have discovered that Sir Charles Trevelyan of Wallington Hall thought nothing of striding through his demesne completely naked. The young Basil Bunting, England’s first and principal modernist poet, would shortly go to prison in Newcastle for refusing to fight in World War I, and it seems almost comical that, as Zamyatin moped and yearned for literary talk, Genrikh Matveyevich Fischer, a Russian immigrant now living in Whitley Bay, was spreading revolutionary disaffection among the crews of Zamyatin’s own icebreakers on the Tyne. (12) Fischer, incidentally, was assisted by his 13-year-old son Willy, born and brought up in Newcastle, and later to become famous as the Soviet super-spy Colonel Rudolf Abel. His tombstone in the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow bears both names. A refugee from the Revolution, Tamara Abelson, later Tamara Talbot-Rice the art historian, arrived in Newcastle in December 1917. She records that her family, stranded in the city by a rail strike, were mistakenly assumed by a railway porter to be destitute, and given a bed for the night at his house. What would Zamyatin have made of that?

And yet, for all Zamyatin’s contempt for the hidebound Jesmondians, it is possible that, as a trained engineer, he did see the attraction of a life-style based on an ideal of order and collective efficiency, or at any rate come to see it embodied in the rationalised, purposeful activity of the great Tyne shipyards in time of war. The side of him that loved mathematics and the unambiguous truth that it brings to its devotees comes over in the horribly convincing homage which D-503 pays to the beauty of unfree mechanical motion in WE. Certainly, by a supreme irony, Zamyatin himself seemed to fall under the spell of Jesmond. After he returned to the artistic circles of the Russian capital, he became known as ‘the Englishman’. He affected a reserved English manner; he preferred tweed suits, cultivated a small moustache and smoked a pipe.

Zamyatin’s second Newcastle novella, A Fisher of Men, was intended originally to be the ending of Islanders. The plot is based on what an acquaintance had told him about the living to be made by catching lovers indulging in amorous dalliance in the London parks. (33) The novella is supposedly set in London, but the Newcastle echoes are very strong. St George's church appears under its own name, alongside a Newcastle spoon with its three-castle crest. Leazes Park in Newcastle has a very suitable boating lake and wooded island, whereas none of the ponds on Hampstead Heath, the ostensible setting for Mr Craggs’ blackmailing exploits in A Fisher of Men, qualify in this regard. It is unclear quite why Zamyatin chose to set his tale in London, where his grasp of relative distances is not strong, and where he awards Hammersmith underground station some (then) non-existent escalators. It may be that he was distancing himself from his suppose ‘provincial’ status in England and addressing himself to cultivated Russians for whom England meant London.

The preoccupations of the two Newcastle novellas all find reflection in WE, where they are magnified to nightmarish dimensions. As the first draft of WE dates to 1919, it must have been commenced shortly after Zamyatin’s return to Russia (if not in Newcastle itself). Vicar Dewley’s dreams have, in the twenty-sixth century, come true. Every hour in the One State is accounted for in the Table of Hourly Commandments. Privacy in the glass buildings is non-existent, and a green glass wall shelters the city from the free, dirty, natural and disordered world outside. The inhabitants, known only by numbers, are not unhappy, but it is a rational happiness, imposed from above, leaving no room for human variety and spontaneity. It is a Taylorist system of scientifically managed productive activity, which finds its logical culmination in the 'imaginectomy' operation being introduced to bring about perfect contentment in the One State. R.C. French has checked books at Tyne Wear Archive, including the authoritative work on North East shipbuilding 1640-1984 by J. F. Clarke, and can find no reference to Taylorism, or time and motion study. He considers the application of Taylorism very unlikely at this time; shipbuilding then did not lend itself to Taylorist methods because of the amount of waiting involved. Management of course instituted planning, an effective layout and a progression of tasks, but that was probably as far as it went. It looks as if Z was prompted to project Taylorist ideals into his future state by their prominence in the early Soviet state.
This future life is characterised by extreme regimentation and conformism in thought and deed, supervised by the Guardians and, ultimately, the Benefactor. Rebellion against the One State is equated constantly with heresy, directed against the religious ideal of a static, rational, imposed bliss, as in heaven or the Garden of Eden. Zamyatin’s revolutionaries are, significantly known as ‘Mephis’.

By contrast with continental Europe, Zamyatin had found everything in England strange and novel. As mentioned above, this enabled him to make straightforwardly literal use of the furnishings, animate or inanimate, of the exotic world he now inhabited. For Zamyatin, Tyneside became, in the words of Gwyneth Jones, ‘the uninvented stage on which the science fiction happens.’ Or, as John Cleveland wrote strikingly in 1650: ‘Correct your maps. Newcastle is Peru!’ The physical reality of the city and the shipyards in supplying at least the backdrop and trappings of WE has received far too little attention. The numbers, for example, of the chief characters in WE are taken directly from the specifications of Zamyatin's favourite icebreaker, the Saint Alexander Nevsky, yard no. A/W 905, round tonnage 3300, where 0-90 and I-330 appropriately divide the hapless D-503 (the least confusing combination of digits where males are designated by consonants and odd numbers). Yu-10 could easily derive from the Swan Hunter yard numbers of no fewer that three of Zamyatin's major icebreakers - 1012, 1020, 1021 (see above). R-13 can be found here too, as well as in the yard number of Sviatogor A/W 904.
Even the figure of the Benefactor in WE (based on Lenin, it is now clear) has the huge, knee-crushing hands of the Noble portrait in Jesmond Dene House. Lenin’s hands were of normal size. The word ‘icebreaker’ is gratuitously used as a metaphor at one point. (35) The hero of the novel, its narrator D-503, who finds himself slipping helplessly into heresy, is a spaceship designer, but his Integral has decks, ward-rooms, even gunwales, and its shape is the beautiful elongated ellipse of the icebreaker - something about which Zamyatin was prone to rhapsodise. When the test flight of the spaceship is in preparation, Zamyatin suddenly and for no reason introduces a river and cranes; the whole atmosphere is of a ship launch on the Tyne.(36) Also quite gratuitously, D-503 is asked his age by the Benefactor (no one else’s age is mentioned in the book). (37) He is 32 - as Zamyatin was in Newcastle in 1916, proof if any were needed that he was clear in his mind about the background he was describing. The equalising of noses, mentioned in Islanders is hotly discussed only a few pages into the novel (38) - and even the Jesmondian weather conversation makes an appearance. (39) The city of Newcastle itself with its monumental neo-classical facades and (then) multiplicity of domes and turrets, flickers spectrally through the narrative of WE. The mysterious Accumulator Tower draws electrical energy from the atmosphere (the One State must have a source of power); this is Zamyatin's witty 'futuristic' transformation of the hydraulic accumulator tower, a beautiful arrangement invented by none other than Lord Armstrong himself, and widely copied. Armstrong's Wagnerian Northumberland mansion Cragside ran on hydro-electricity (the first house in the world to do so) using a broadly similar system. There is such a tower at the Albert Edward Docks (1882) at Howdon designed to work the dock machinery. This is a mile or so from the Swan Hunter yards and is the only piece of hydraulic machinery left on the Tyne. It is not of enormous height, some 60 feet or so, but it had clocks on its four attic faces, wound by the accumulator. It also has a rail on its conical top. A spectacular example with Armstrong machinery is the Grimsby Dock Tower c 1850.This is some 300 feet high and designed to resemble the famous tower in the palazzo pubblico in Siena. The Grimsby tower has steps leading to the top and is occasionally opened today. Later research, however, showed that shorter towers were equally effective. Zamyatin's tower, as well as bearing a giant clock and bell, has similar steps and children are taken up to look out from the top (glass) rail. There actually was a cast iron shipyard clock near the entrance of Swan Hunter, to remind workers that time ruled their day. This clock still stands, though not in the original spot.



photo: Swan Hunter

launch of Mauretania. Swan Hunter West Sheds 1906
click to enlarge
Beyond the walls of the One State, the lake and gaunt ruins have a Northumbrian feel of castles and pele towers (which we know Zamyatin visited), while remains of ovens and flues recall more recent episodes in the history of the area. Zamyatin conflates all this into the debris of the ‘two hundred years war’, a plangent echo of the centuries of Anglo-Scottish conflict in this debatable land, when Newcastle was known as ‘Ocellus, the Eye of the North’. The notorious wall of green glass which shields the One State from the uncontrolled subversive freedom of the outside world may also prove to be a case in point, astonishing as it might seem. Sir George Hunter (1845-1937), the driving force of the Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend, had pioneered the technique of building ships in glazed sheds, as a protection against the elements. Four of the slipways had immense glass roofs. The prototype East Sheds, built for the early Cunarders were glazed longitudinally (though for half their length only so as to reduce the rates). (40) The West Sheds were constructed for the great express liner Mauretania which held the blue riband of the Atlantic from 1907-1929. Here glass was fitted over the ridges for two thirds of the length, for the same economic reason. Though the glazing was done with white agricultural glass, one may assume that smoke and grime would soon make for a crepuscular effect within the enormous sheds necessary to house the leviathan. It is also true that green algae were common close to the river and would affect the windows if cleaning were neglected, a likely contingency in wartime. Both sheds (now demolished) were equipped with overhead electric cranes, also novel and pioneering devices, mentioned specifically by Zamyatin in chapter 15 of We. (41)
‘I watched monstrous cranes of translucent glass trundling slowly along glass rails, and, like the workers themselves, obediently turning, stooping, bringing their loads into the bowels of the Integral.‘
Zamyatin was thus in everyday contact with a glassed-in environment, within which the rational, regulated activity of a great shipyard at war proceeded relentlessly, inducing both fascination and repulsion in an observer who was peculiarly, almost uniquely, equipped to experience and convey it. Zamyatin’s ambivalence is shown in D-503’s touching and convincing desire to join the workers in the beauty, harmony and music of welding, that most typical of shipyard tasks. Incidentally, any notion that this might reflect Zamyatin’s experience of Russian shipyards is disproved by Margaret Tejerizo, who quotes him as declaring that the lathes and other machinery in USSR shipyards were not in fact rationalised until 1928-31. (42)

Within these great halls, buffeted by the wind and besieged by the sea-birds whose cries echo throughout We, thousands of shipyard workers went about their business in more or less identical blue dungarees, ruled in Taylorian fashion, by the clock. They took their breaks in groups and walked about in great throngs to and from the workplace - and indeed within it, a picture familiar from the newsreels of two world wars. Each individual had a works number and clocked-in and out with his or her own numbered card, to be handed in on return to the shipyard. (43) Male and female workers, however, were not distinguished by number or letter, as they are in WE. It is surely reasonable to suppose that Zamyatin had this procedure in mind when conceiving his system of numbers - and even the notorious method of sex rationing in the One State, using pink tickets. Retired Swan Hunter employees have affirmed that some clocking-on cards, prior to World War II and depending on the particular shipyard within the company, were indeed pink! (44) More probably, however, Zamyatin is slyly alluding to the metaphorical ‘pink ticket’ by which married naval officers receive permission to attend social gatherings where their wife is not present.

Zamyatin in his ‘Autobiography’ of 1924, declares that he could no longer bear to remain in England after reading newspaper headlines in March 1917 announcing the abdication of the Tsar. In fact, however, he did not set out for Russia until September, after the last of his icebreakers (the St Alexander Nevsky) had been completed in June. Ferries from Norway to the Tyne had been suspended after the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, and Zamyatin eventually made the trip in ’an antiquated little British vessel’ - expendable, according to Zamyatin. The journey to Bergen took fifty hours and all on board wore life-belts throughout. It must be accepted that even if his government commission on Tyneside was now over, he was certainly keen to get home if he was willing to expose both himself and his wife to such a hazardous voyage.

We was not published in the USSR until 1988, when it came out there at the same time as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a piquant conjunction. Since then, considerable efforts have been made in Russia to disinter Zamyatin’s literary legacy and his works now appear on the school syllabus in the RSFSR. A number of Russian scholars have visited Newcastle to see the Zamyatin house in Jesmond. It is curious to reflect that that Orwell himself attended the funeral of his wife Eileen on 3 April 1945 in St Andrew’s cemetery, Jesmond, an unwitting stone’s throw from Sanderson Road, where Zamyatin had resided three decades before. The grave lies in Section B number 145, and Orwell revisited it on his way to Scotland early in May 1946.

[References follow at the end]


The extent of Zamyatin’s influence on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been much debated. Orwell admitted that he was interested in such books and had been making notes for something along those lines. However, in his 4 January 1946 review of WE in Tribune,* he states: ‘The first thing anyone would notice about WE is the fact - never pointed out, I believe - that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it.’ In a letter to F.J. Warburg on 30 March 1949, he also remarks: ‘I think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be plagiarised from (WE) to some extent...’ * Clearly it is unthinkable that Orwell would consciously set out to do the self-same thing, but nowadays it is his book which seems to have the more striking parallels with Zamyatin’s novel.Huxley, incidentally, always denied having read WE.

Good judges have generally rated Zamyatin the superior artist, particularly in his use of ironic humour. Zamyatin’s hero D-503, unlike Orwell’s Winston Smith, is actually an enthusiastic supporter of the One State and it is with comic horror that he finds himself subsiding haplessly into heterodoxy. Some plot elements are obviously common to both works: their heroes keep incriminating diaries for example; Zamyatin’s Guardians are Orwell’s Thought Police; love is posited as an irrational but humanising passion set within a milieu of political authoritarianism; both heroes find themselves temporarily outside their world, in a haven where love can flourish undisturbed; both are eventually crushed in similar ‘scientific’ fashion by the apparatus they have challenged, and both turn into submissive shells to demonstrate that the final horror is not hatred, but indifference. Orwell’s Winston and Julia can meet without emotion; D-503 can watch his lover destroyed without a qualm.

There are, however, also important points of difference between the novels. Orwell saw Zamyatin as having strong leanings towards primitivism: the free, hairy folk outside the green wall of Zamyatin’s One State are preferable to the monstrously rational, dehumanised activity within. Orwell has reservations here. His equivalent primitives, the ‘proles’ he finds frightening in their energy. Described wholly from the outside and utterly undifferentiated (the ‘middle classes’ are all individuals), they are huge, even bloated, despite starvation conditions. Their animality (‘mare-like buttocks’) strikes Winston as beautiful, but ‘they have no mind’ and are content to absorb an endless diet of pornography, violence and sport. A grimmer symbol than Boxer in Animal Farm, one feels they reflect Orwell’s resigned view of the majority of his fellows. Even if one day the proles somehow overthrow the Party, the world would hardly be more congenial to Winston.

Zamyatin’s D-503 may be crushed, but unlike Winston he is not alone: the rebellious ‘Mephis’ are very numerous and the end of the book shows them still undefeated - according well with the famous remark in the novel that just as there is no final number, so there can be no final revolution.

Ultimately, perhaps, what draws the books together is a fundamental similarity of philosophical approach. Orwell says of Zamyatin in his Tribune review:

‘The guiding principle of his State is that happiness and freedom are incompatible... The Single State has restored happiness by removing their freedom.’*
This view probably derives, in its modern formulation, from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in The Karamazov Brothers. Orwell’s Grand Inquisitor, O’Brien, considered that ‘the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better.’ *

Orwell thought that WE , written in 1923, as he supposed, was unlikely to be aimed at Stalinist dictatorship: ‘What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilisation.‘ Zamyatin himself in an interview given in 1932, after he had emigrated from the USSR, claimed: ’This novel signals the danger threatening man, mankind, from the hypertrophy of the power of the machine and the power of the state - any state’. Nor need he have been disingenuous about this. We are better aware than Orwell was of the use of terror under Lenin, of course, and though the book was in fact banned in 1921, the first to suffer this fate under the new Soviet censorship Glavlit, it had circulated in Petrograd literary circles before that, and the first draft dates to 1919 in fact. A perusal of the novellas Zamyatin wrote in Newcastle in 1916-17 and published in Russia in 1918 (described as ’remarkable in every way’ by Martin Amis) makes it clear that WE is simply the same vision of a static, imposed uniformity nightmarishly developed and extended. That Lenin and the Bolsheviks fitted the pattern was certainly clear to Glavlit in 1921, and recent research has shown that the figure of the Benefactor is indubitably based on Lenin, but the pattern itself, and its informing philosophy was established years earlier and owes much to Zamyatin‘s Newcastle experience.

1. Collected Esssays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Penguin, 1970, Vol. IV, pp. 95-99.

2. Ibid. pp. 546-7.

3. Collected Essays, Vol. 4 p. 97.

4. George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin, 1954, p. 208.

It is worth recalling the words of James Losh, Newcastle lawyer and man of letters, on Byron’s The Vision of Judgement:

‘His chief objection to the Christian ideal of future happiness seems to be that it will be dull or monotonous, and necessarily embittered by a perpetual sense of subjection and even slavery - can his lordship really think that the creator of all things can have any difficulty in making his creatures happy in any situation in which he might place them?...’

Diaries November 22 1822

‘One of the truly great novels of the twentieth century, WE burns the mind like dry ice. As a dystopian nightmare it remains unequalled.’

‘Zamyatin is an immeasurably better artist and critic than Nabokov... as a critic he would be great without his context; within his context he is heroic... We has exercised a world-wide influence.’

Martin Seymour-Smith [Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature]

‘Exalted, ecstatic, fizzing with humour and licence.’

Martin Amis on WE. [Observer November 1984]

The word ‘proles’ was first used by Jack London in The Iron Heel (1908). It is mentioned by Jack Common.

WE is now on school syllabi in Russia. If you want to read WE I should try the earlier Penguin Modern Classic translation by Guerney, not the latest one. Both Nineteen Eighty-Four and WE were first published in the USSR in 1988.

An intriguing footnote to Zamyatin’s English preoccupations has come to light. Harold Heslop, coal-miner, author and later union activist, visited Zamyatin in Leningrad in 1930, and presented him with a copy (in Russian) of his novel Goaf which had been translated by Lidiya Vengerova in 1926 under the title Pod vlast’yu uglia. It had an introduction by the Soviet head of legation in London, Maisky. It sold half a million copies (no royalties) and was to a large extent responsible for Heslop’s invitation to the USSR in 1930. The English first edition of Goaf, incidentally, did not appear until 1934. Zamyatin, unknown to Heslop, was in a very precarious position by now, and living in seclusion. He quizzed Heslop about his Durham accent, and went on to state: ‘I happen to know Tyneside very well. I liked the people very much. I also liked their strange musical dialect. Often I found it most amusing. I was there during the war, in the shipyards.’ On Heslop’s remarking that he preferred South Shields to Newcastle, Zamyatin whispered ‘South Shields... Sooth Sheels! I never learned to sing the Tyneside speech!’ These are not the words of the scourge of the Newcastle middle classes nor the glum introvert of the letters to his wife. Zamyatin’s affection for the ordinary Geordie and his informed interest in the local dialect is obviously genuine. His pronunciation of ‘Sooth Sheels’ is in the broad accent of the working man; no Jesmond inhabitant would speak like that except as a joke. It throws an oblique light on Zamyatin’s everyday working contacts in the Tyne shipyards, unmentioned in ‘Islanders’. We recall that the satirised Jesmondians are, after all, just the ‘Sunday gentlemen’.

In London, Vengerova, also unaware of Zamyatin’s position, had asked through Heslop that he assist in promoting the latter’s work in the Soviet Union. Zamyatin replied that he was not now in a position to be of much help. In 1931, however, just a few months before his emigration from the USSR, Zamyatin produced a screenplay, rejected by the censorship, entitled Podezemelye Guntona (Gunton Pit). At that time, the English ‘h’ was usually transliterated into Russian as a ‘g’. This is set in and around a colliery on the Tyne, a coalfield milieu unique in Zamyatin’s output. Heslop’s novel is similarly set in and around Hunton colliery in South Shields, the name presumably a combination of his birthplace, New Hunwick, near Bishop Auckland, and Harton colliery in South Shields, where he worked for some years. Zamyatin’s screenplay, in fact, which is extant only in manuscript form, is a direct adaptation of Heslop’s novel, with every character’s name preserved. The plot hardly varies from Heslop’s either, except for a few cinematic touches designed to heighten the ’class’ elements of the action - not enough, as it turned out, much to Zamyatin’s disappointment. Zamyatin excises the background material of the novel, a procedure which makes sense in cinematic terms but places the purely personal rivalry of the two main characters in sharper prominence than the censor felt able to accept. Zamyatin’s portrayal of the independence of English courts was also probably tactless, to say the least, in 1930.

Zamyatin was certainly a reluctant refugee. In Paris he retained his Soviet passport, refrained from writing anti-Soviet articles and seems to have nurtured the hope of returning to a country that did not deserve him. Though his English was not very strong, he wrote screenplays - War and Peace, The Queen of Spades and one of WE (entitled, after its hero, D-503) - and was actually invited to Hollywood by Cecil B. De Mille. A De Mille version of WE - now that would have been something!


1. ‘O moikh zhenakh, o ledokolakh, o Rossii’, (‘My wives, icebreakers and Russia’, untranslated) Mosty IX (1962) p. 25

2. In the essay ‘Ya boyus’.

3. ‘Russian shipbuilding; Problems following the Revolution’, published in the Glasgow Herald Trade Review 31 december 1932, p. 66. Quoted from Margaret Tejerizo, ‘ Evgeny Zamyatin in the British Press. Three articles and Three Interviews (1932-34), Scottish Slavonic Review, 11, 1988, pp. 65-89 (70).

4. ‘O moikh zhenakh’, p. 24

5. Ibid. p. 24.

6. Tejerizo, p. 79

7. ‘O moikh zhenakh,’ p. 24

8. Ibid. p. 25

9. Martin Amis review of the Salamander Press translation Observer 4.11.84

10. Zamyatin’s three very short autobiographies are in A Soviet Heretic, translated and edited by Mirra Ginsberg, Quartet Books (London 1970 and 1991).

11. ‘Autobiography’ of 1929, Ginsberg, op. cit. p. 13

12. ‘Maxim Gorky’, Ginsberg, op. cit. p. 249

13. ‘H.G. Wells’, Ginsberg, op. cit. p. 265

14. Initial information provided by Leonore Scheffler, letter to the author of 5 July 1987.

15. ‘Backstage’, Ginsberg, op. cit. p. 199.

16. Islanders and The Fisher of Men, translated by Sophie Fuller and Julian Sacchi, Salamander Press, 1984; Flamingo, 1985, p. 81. All further page references are from this latter edition.

17. Lady M. D. Noble: A Long Life, Andrew Reid, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1925.

18. Marie Conte-Helm: Japan and the North East of England, Athlone Press, 1989, p. 89.

19. Ibid. p. 41.

20. Islanders and The Fisher of Men, p. 39.

21. Ibid. p. 54.

22. Ibid. p 23.

23. Ibid. p. 61

24. Ibid. p. 62

25. Ibid. p. 62

26. Ibid. p. 62.

27. Y. I. Zamyatin. Notebooks, Bakhmeteff Archive. E.I. Zamyatin Coll. Box 2.

28. Y. I. Zamyatin. Notebooks, Bekhmeteff Archive. E. I. Zamyatin Coll. Box 3. reel 4. Notebooks, 14.

29. Ibid.

30. O. A. Kaznina Russkiye v Anglii Naslediye, Moscow, 1997, p. 203.

31. Y. I. Zamyatin, Bakhmeteff Archive, Y.I. Zamyatin Coll. Box 2, Reel 2, Notebooks.

32. Y.I. Zamyatin. Bakhmeteff Archive. E.I. Zamyatin Coll. Box 3. Reel 4. Notebooks, 10.

33. ‘Backstage’, Ginsberg, op. cit. p. 194.

34. Islanders and The Fisher of Men, p. 90.

35 WE translated by B. Guerney, Penguin 1972, p. 122.

36. Ibid. pp. 180, 184

37 Ibid. p. 205.

38 Ibid. p. 25.

39 Ibid. p. 164.

40. Commander Bryan Rayner, letter to the author, 3 July 1991.

41 WE , p. 232. It should be mentioned here that lower down the river Tyne at Jarrow, the Palmer shipyard with its own iron works and blast furnaces occupied a mile of river frontage. There stood huge lattice-work towers supporting elliptical-shaped gantries. Attached to the gantries were a series of cableways running above the building berths. Electric trolley-cranes ran along these gantries to service the ships under construction. These landmark structures were unique to Jarrow (apart from some at Bilbao) and Zamyatin would have become very familiar with them as he travelled round the Tyne. The Palmer gantries, however, though in place from 1906-1912, were not under cover. They were demolished when the Palmer shipyard was closed in the 1930s.

42. Tejerizo, op. cit. pp. 65-89 (71-2)

43. Rayner, ibid.

44. Rayner, ibid.

P3 Fischer V Rossii i v Anglii 1922

* IMLI. Fond 47, op. 2, No. 51. December 1916 letter to Remizov.