The creature is a perpetual question addressed to God. -Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Twentieth Century posed the question of how to organize society. Russia, from the Tsarist centuries through the Soviet era and into post-Soviet times, has answered that question by favoring the state over the individual. That collectivist vision has been promoted and exported throughout the world. But alongside collectivism and its variants in bureaucratic hierarchy or nationalism there has always existed an alternative vision of societal organization, one based on the individual. Throughout history Russia has frequently imprisoned, killed, or exiled proponents of individualism. It is these exiled thinkers who have been most influential in the West, for better or worse.
As Christians, we look at human beings in their relationship to others. Roughly speaking, we are presented with two forms of anthropology: individual and collective. Or, in social science, we have the debate over structure versus agency and how much volition individuals have in their ability to influence events. Both approaches consign the “little people” to a life of following either impersonal forces or the whims of the leader. But for our purposes we will examine how the individual relates to other individuals. It is here that the Russians offer remarkable insights.
Zamyatin and We
As a Russian thinker alive at the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution, Yevgeny Zamyatin had life and death reasons to ponder anthropology and the organization of society. The son of an Orthodox priest, he had long been thinking about those questions. The result was a brilliant exploration of personhood in a future totalitarian society: We. Writing shortly after the Bolshevik takeover, Zamyatin posited a future world in which a technocratic society has instituted a rational form of collective life where food, clothing, sex, work, and time are all tightly regulated by the collective state.
This society exists in a sterile city protected by an enclosing wall from nature and the remaining (primitive) humans. The novel’s protagonist (D-503) is a gifted engineer and lead builder of a space ship that will allow this society to spread its truths to other planets. D-503 appears to be a scrupulously logical and mathematical type; however, he also has a poetic and sensuous side. His world is upset when he meets a bold, mysterious woman: I-330. His deepening involvement with her takes him farther and farther from the truths he thinks he knows, even outside the wall and amongst the primitive people. By saying yes to her he becomes more fully alive, even to the extent of betraying society’s values and breaking its laws. The doctor’s diagnosis? “Apparently, you have developed a soul” (89). In the meantime he has also said yes to O-90, his state-sanctioned sex partner and the maternal counterpart to I-330. His yes to her is for her to become pregnant with his child, even though such an act is punishable by her death. In the end he helps O escape outside the wall carrying their unborn child. D cannot live with the chaos of freedom resulting from his yes and submits to a lobotomy-like operation. As the novel ends, he is a more pliant member of society, but we are left with an ambiguous conclusion as the forces of nature and the primitive people may be toppling the city society.
Zamyatin’s novel influenced subsequent writers such as Ayn Rand and George Orwell. In later years he was expelled from the Soviet Union and died in France before the Second World War. His contemporary and fellow exile, the Russian Orthodox religious philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, wrote about similar themes in his Slavery and Freedom, first published in 1943. “Freedom is a difficult thing,” Berdyaev writes. “It is easier to remain in slavery” (247). Zamyatin’s protagonist experiences disruption within himself by saying yes to the unruly and unpredictable as represented by I-330. The diagnosis of D-503’s newborn soul shows him to be a person or personality. Berdyaev asserts: “Personality is effort and conflict, the conquest of self and of the world, victory over slavery, it is emancipation” (24). D-503’s struggle is the struggle of a human being in a totalitarian, collectivist state. While he has individual characteristics, they are subordinated to the needs of the state, the “We.” His yes to both I-330 and O-90 challenges the status quo. According to Berdyaev: “The real ‘we,’ that is, the community of people, communion in freedom, in love and mercy, has never been able to enslave man, on the contrary it is the realization of the fullness of the life of personality, its transcension towards another” (104). Sadly for D-503 (and many in the real world throughout history) freedom is too full of fear and uncertainty. “In his helplessness and dereliction man naturally seeks safety in communities,” writes Berdyaev (200).
Rand and Anthem
We turn to another Russian writer from the same period who, like Zamyatin and Berdyaev, was able to reach the West. Ayn Rand, like the author of We, grew up with religion (Judaism in her case). Unlike Zamyatin, Rand became an atheist. Influenced by We, she too thought about the person and society under totalitarianism, but came to different conclusions in her early novel: Anthem. The world of Anthem is if anything more collectivist and totalitarian than We, but also much more primitive and quasi-religious. (Keep in mind that Rand’s book came out about 15 years later than Zamyatin’s, at a time when the Bolshevik era had transitioned into the early years of the reign of Stalin.) Rand’s protagonist is named Equality 7-2521. Despite his intellectual promise he has been designated as a street sweeper, in part because of his rebellious nature. While performing his duties he discovers technology from a previous age. His experiments lead him to re-discover electrical light, making him a new Prometheus. He also spots and meets an attractive female, Liberty 5-3000. Accused of being an evildoer, Equality flees into the forest. Eventually Liberty joins him and they begin a new life with new names. Liberty is not his equal—she is drawn to him by his demigod characteristics. Equality says no to society and yes only to himself. “And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in the stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and meaning and the glory. The sacred word: EGO” (122-123).
Rand further developed her philosophy of ego into what she called “objectivism.” (I think it is worth pondering that Rand came to the U.S., not France, like most of the other writers and thinkers referred to in this presentation. While France had its atheists and materialists, the U.S. was and is more conducive to her teachings than elsewhere in the world.) Zamyatin’s protagonist is a builder from the start, and his world values technology; Rand’s protagonist hopes to build and only becomes a builder through the force of his own will. Interestingly, both Zamyatin and Rand make frequent use of religious imagery—here are two examples. Zamyatin: “Well, then—about Unanimity Day, this great holiday. I have always loved it, since childhood. It seems to me that to us it has a meaning similar to that of ‘Easter’ to the ancients” (136). Rand: “We had heard of Saints. There are the Saints of Labor, and the Saints of the Councils, and the Saints of the Great Rebirth. But we had never seen a Saint nor what the likeness of a Saint should be” (52).
Berdyaev had a response to her thinking. “There is something lacking in the humanity of the egocentric man. He loves abstractions which nourish his egoism. He does not love living concrete people” (43). Rand’s Equality 7-2521 is persecuted by the ruling authorities: he is reviled (79-80), threatened with burning at the stake (80), and anathematized (82). “‘What is not done collectively cannot be good,’ said [one of the Council members] International 1-5537” (81). This makes perfect sense to Berdyaev: “The individualist isolates himself and asserts himself in his attitude to the universe; he accepts the universe solely as violence offered to himself” (135).