My vote for the greatest writer of the 20th century.
Born in Lebedyan, Russia in 1884. Joined the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democratic Labour Party as a student:
“To be a Bolshevik in those years meant following the path of greatest resistance, so I was a Bolshevik then.”
Arrested and sent into exile by the czar, he returned during the 1905 Revolution and joined the student demonstrations against Nicholas II. Arrested, badly beaten and sent to Spalernaja Prison for several months of solitary confinement.
After graduating Zamyatin became a lecturer at the Department of Naval Architecture. It was during this period that his fiction first upset the censors: his novel “At The World’s End”, a satire on military life, brought him to trial. He was acquitted, but his book was banned and all copies were destroyed.
In WW I he went to England to supervise the building of Russian icebreakers. He returned to Russia after the October Revolution. Once a Bolshevik, he quickly began to question the new government’s attempt to control the arts. He switched his support to the Left Socialist Revolutionaries and published a series of political fables in Delo Naroda (The People’s Concern), a newspaper run by Victor Chernov. He also wrote for a journal funded and edited by Maxim Gorky. In one of these articles he attacked the Soviet government, and its Red Terror.
In 1919 Zamyatin published an essay entitled “Tomorrow”, where he wrote about the importance of maintaining the right to criticize those in authority. Ignoring warnings about the danger of his bold public statements, Zamyatin published another essay, “I Am Afraid”, in which he argued that the authorities were stifling creative literature.
Zamyatin continued to write fiction and literary criticism and in 1921 his work inspired the creation of Serapion Brothers. The group argued for greater freedom and variety in literature. Members included Nickolai Tikhonov, Mikhail Slonimski, Vsevolod Ivanov and Konstantin Fedin.
In 1923 Zamyatin published “Fires of St. Dominic”, a book about the Spanish Inquisition, that paralleled the activities of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. It was through his work with World Literature that Zamyatin discovered the science fiction of H. G. Wells. This inspired him to write the seminal science fiction novel “We”.
For those who admire the British authors who imitated and plagiarized Zamyatin–both “Brave New World” and “1984” were based upon “WE”–the history of this novel is of particular importance.
Zamyatin secretly distributed copies of We through literary circles. He was warned by friends that attempts to publish the book in the Soviet Union would led to his arrest and possible execution.
The publication of We brought fierce criticism from the Soviet Writers’ Union. Zamyatin’s plays were banned from the theatre and any books that had been published in the Soviet Union were confiscated. It appeared only a matter of time before Zamyatin would be arrested and imprisoned. However, in 1931 Maxim Gorky managed to use his influence over Joseph Stalin to allow Zamyatin to leave the Soviet Union.
Zamyatin’s parting letter to Stalin, written in June of 1931, is one of the bravest and most inspiring documents ever penned by a science fiction writer.
“I ask to be permitted to go abroad with my wife with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men…as soon as there is at least partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role of the literary artist. “
I remember him best by those words, and by a quote from his essay “Tomorrow”:
“The only weapon worthy of man is the Word.”