On the 7th & 21st August 2018 research for a short film about Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) is featured on this blog. On today’s post I’ve added the script from the film I made about his life. The narrator’s were North East actor’s Iain Cunningham and Jonathan Cash. Recorded by Martin Francis Trollope at Customs Space studio in South Shields and excellent soundtrack from North East musician John Clavering.
Russian born Yevgeny Zamyatin lived with his wife in Paris until his death in March 1937. Their last few years were lived in poverty and only a small group of friends were present at his burial. His death was not mentioned in the Soviet press.
Zamyatin was an author of science fiction and political satire. Famous for his 1921 novel ’We’ – a story set in a dystopian future – the book was banned in Russia. In his novel ‘1984’ George Orwell acknowledged his debt to Zamyatin.
But how does Tyneside fit in this story ?
Zamyatin was born in a small town 200 miles south of Moscow on 19th January 1884. He had an educated middle class background, his father was a teacher and his mother a musician.
Zamyatin studied Naval engineering at the St Petersburg Polytechnic Institue. He spent winters in the city and summers enjoying practical work in shipyards and at sea. The Middle East being one destination – a rich experience for the future writer.
He was a supporter of the revolution and joined the Bolsheviks, attending demonstrations and meetings. But he was arrested during the 1905 Revolution – for this he was sent to prison for several months. His time there was spent learning short hand and writing poems.
He completed his course in Naval Engineering and was employed as a college tutor. He was also writing short stories and essays – his first published in 1908. Zamyatin immersed himself in the bohemian life of St Petersburg and was an important part of the cultural scene in Russia.
At the time of the First World War Russia were having ice breakers built in UK shipyards. Zamyatin was sent to North East England in 1916 to work as a Naval engineer for the Russian Empire. He supervised the construction of the ships on the river Tyne. While there he lived in Jesmond near Newcastle and during his eighteen month stay he was reported to travel around Tyneside and improve his knowledge of the language.
“In England I built icebreakers in Glasgow, Newcastle, Sunderland, South Shields, and looked at ruined castles. The Germans showered us with bombs from airplanes. I listened to the thud of bombs dropped by Zeppelins”.
Laurence O’Shaughnessy lived in South Shields and worked there as Customs Collector on the river Tyne. His daughter Eileen married the author George Orwell. Was there a connection to Zamyatin ? Leslie Hurst from The Orwell Society looked at the possibility.
‘Would the Russian ships have been checked by customs before leaving the Tyne ? When Orwell learned of the existence of ‘We’ he might have discussed it with Eileen and heard her say that her father had met it’s author. When Orwell died, Eileens library was found mixed with his. Might Eileen have read Orwell’s copy of ’25 Years of Soviet Russian Literature’ and mentioned the Russian engineer who visited South Shields in her childhood ? It is an intriguing possibility’.
When living on Tyneside, Zamyatin wrote two short stories ’The Fisher of Men’ and ’Islanders’. After a day at the shipyards he would sit at his desk and write about the blinkered and pretentious world of the middle class.
‘By Sunday the stone steps of the houses in Jesmond had as usual been scrubbed to a dazzling whiteness, like the Sunday gentlemen’s false teeth. The Sunday gentlemen were of course manufactured at a factory in Jesmond, and thousands of copies appeared on the streets. Carrying identical canes and wearing identical top hats, the respectable Sunday gentlemen in their false teeth strolled down the street and greeted their doubles’.
Both stories were published on his return to Russia. But by then, the 1917 revolution was burning. He regretted not witnessing the start of it.
“I returned to Petersburg, past German submarines, in a ship with lights out, wearing a life belt the whole time. This is the same as never having been in love and waking up one morning already married for ten years or so”.
The famine, war and economic collapse of the country had a major influence on his literary career.
“If I had not returned home, if I had not spent all these years with Russia, I don’t think I would have been able to write anymore. True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics”.
In 1921, ‘We’ became the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board. In 1923, he arranged for the manuscript to be smuggled to a publisher in New York. After being translated into English the novel was published.
With his political satire, a number of essays that criticised the Communist ideology and dealing with Western publishers, Zamyatin has been referred to as one of the first Soviet dissidents. As a result, he was blacklisted from publishing anything in his homeland.
The English writer Harold Heslop had seven books published and his first was in the Soviet Union. In 1930 he was invited to the Ukraine to speak at the Revolutionary Writers Conference. While there he also travelled to Leningrad to meet Zamyatin who he wanted to help promote his latest book.
Harold was born in Durham but for many years lived in South Shields. He was a miner at Harton Colliery before winning a scholarship to Central Labour College in London.
(Zamyatin to Heslop) “I cannot quite place you. Are you a Geordie may I ask. I catch the Tyneside dialect in your speech. Am I right ? I know Tyneside well. I liked the people very much. I also liked their strange, musical dialect. Often I found it most amusing. South Shields… Sooth Sheels! I never learned to sing the Tyneside speech!”
Zamyatin read lectures on Russian literature, served on boards with some of the most famous figures in Russian literature, but by 1931 he was experiencing difficulties. Under the ever tightening censorship, and becoming unpopular with critics who branded him a traitor, he appealed directly to Joseph Stalin requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union – a voluntary exile.
“I do not wish to conceal that the basic reason for my request for permission to go abroad with my wife is my hopeless position here as a writer, the death sentence that has been pronounced upon me as a writer here at home”.
Eventually Stalin agreed to Zamyatin’s request and he and his wife left for Paris, where there was already a small Russian community. While there he wrote new stories, most of his earlier work was translated around Europe, but a notable piece of work was his co-writing of a film with French director Jean Renoir.
Just before his death he had told a friend…“I had to leave Soviet Russia as a dangerous counter revolutionary and abroad I hesitate to approach the Russian community, while they treat me coldly and suspiciously”.
He lived out his last years with his wife until his death from a heart attack in 1937, and a final resting place for Zamyatin can be found in a cemetery south of Paris.
Zamyatin – A Soviet Heretic by D.J. Richards.
Islanders/The Fishers of Men – Salamander press Fiction.
We – Yvegney Zamyatin.
Out of the Old Earth – Harold Heslop.
Short 9min film available on the Alikivi You Tube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W4A0nZ7_PQ
Gary Alikivi 2018.