Though We is a wider critique of utopian political thinking, many of the novel’s themes were inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s experiences as an author under a repressive Communist regime. OneState’s insistence on politically useful art and poetry is particularly reminiscent of literary censorship in the USSR after 1917.
On March 15, 1917 Nicholas II abdicated his thrown, ending the Tsarist regime that had ruled Russia since 1721. Growing riots and strikes in the city of Petrograd had overwhelmed imperial troops. Facing a power void, the imperial parliament, known in Russian as the Duma, created the Provisional Government. One of the body’s first acts was to abolish censorship. Yet the reprieve for Russia’s dissidents would prove short-lived. When the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the Provisional Government in October of 1917, it immediately re-instituted censorship of all publications, including literary ones. The Bolshevik censorship regime would prove one of the most authoritarian and far-reaching in the history of global suppression.
In June 6, 1922 the Soviet government established the Glavlit, a censorship bureau tasked with monitoring all arts and publications for adherence to party doctrine. During Zamyatin’s most active years, the bureau aggressively promoted social realism, a style that glorified Communism, celebrated the proletariat and depicted events as realistically as possible. We, a fantastic satire of totalitarian thinking, fell well outside the official aesthetics; its difficulty being published in Russia reflected this reality.
Also established in 1922, The Department of Special Storage at the Russian State Library began secretly collecting materials banned by Glavit for government records. Under Lenin’s leadership references to Russian poverty, Red Army defeats, and anti-Bolshevik ideas were systematically stripped from literature. The Department rapidly expanded due to party conflicts in the 1920s and 1930s. Once Stalin seized power all books authored by or referencing purged party members were meticulously banned. After World War II censorship found a new target: writing produced by Russian émigré authors and foreign material. Stalin’s death in 1953 finally allowed for the loosening of censorship standards, sometimes referred to as the “Khruschev Thaw”.
By the 1960s the thaw was well underway. Glasnost in the late 1980s finally allowed We to be published in its native country. In 1988 the Department of Special Storage was closed. By that time the collection encompassed “app. 27,000 Russian books, 250,000 foreign books, 572,000 issues of foreign magazines, app. 8,500 annual sets of foreign newspapers and 8,000 publications” (Newth). In 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union promised additional freedom for Russian authors; yet concerns about Russian censorship continue. Ultimately Zamyatin was unable to profit from this new opening in soviet society, as he died in Paris in 1937.