Zamiatin’s Letter to Stalin

Evgenii Zamiatin. Letter to Stalin (June 1931)


Hounded out of the literary world by his proletarian enemies, Zamiatin, unable to pursue the only craft he knew, ultimately appealed to Stalin for the right to travel abroad. Permission was surprisingly granted, and Zamiatin soon departed for the West as a Soviet citizen on an extended tour. His letter below paints a vivid picture of the literary politics in Russia at the outset of the Stalin revolution.

June, 1931

Dear Iosif Vissarionovich,

The author of the present letter, condemned to the highest penalty, appeals to you with the request for the substitution of this penalty by another. My name is probably known to you. To me as a writer, being deprived of the opportunity to write is nothing less than a death sentence. Yet the situation that has come about is such that I cannot continue my work, because no creative activity is possible in an atmosphere of systematic persecution that increases in intensity from year to year.

I have no intention of presenting myself as a picture of injured innocence. I know that among the works I wrote during the first three or four years after the revolution there were some that might provide a pretext for attacks. I know that I have a highly inconvenient habit of speaking what I consider to be the truth rather than saying what may be expedient at the moment.

Specifically, I have never concealed my attitude toward literary servility, fawning, and chameleon changes of color: I have felt and I still feel that this is equally de grading both to the writer and to the revolution. I raised this problem in one of my articles (published in the journal Dom Iskusstv, No. 1, 1920) in a form that many people found to be sharp and offensive, and this served as a signal at the time for the launching of a newspaper and magazine campaign against me.

This campaign has continued, on different pretexts, to this day, and it has finally resulted in a situation that I would de scribe as a sort of fetishism. Just as the Christians had created the devil as a convenient personification of all evil, so the critics have transformed me into the devil of Soviet literature.

Spitting at the devil is regarded as a good deed, and everyone spat to the best of his ability. In each of my published works, these critics have inevitably discovered some diabolical intent. In order to seek it out, they have even gone to the length of in vesting me with prophetic gifts: thus, in one of my tales (“God), published in the journal Letopis in 1916, one critic has managed to find… “a travesty of the revolution in connection with the transition to the NEP” in the story “The Healing of the Novice Erasmus,” written in 1920, another critic (Mashbits-Verov) has discerned “a parable about leaders who had grown wise after the NEP.” Regardless of the content of the given work, the very fact of my signature has become a sufficient reason for declaring the work criminal.

Last March the Leningrad Oblit took steps to eliminate any remaining doubts of this. I had edited Sheridan’s comedy The School for Scandal and written an article about his life and work for the Academy Publishing House. Needless to say, there was nothing of a scandalous nature that I said or could have said in this article. Nevertheless, the Oblit not only banned the article, but even forbade the publisher to mention my name as editor of the translation. It was only after I complained to Moscow, and after the Glavlit had evidently suggested that such naively open actions are, after all, inadmissible, that permission was granted to publish the article and even my criminal name.

I have cited this fact because it shows the attitude toward me in a completely exposed, so to speak, chemically pure form. Of a long array of similar facts, I shall mention only one more, involving, not a chance article, but a full-length play that I have worked on for almost three years. I felt confident that this play, the tragedy Attila would finally silence those who were intent on turning me into some sort of an obscure artist. I seemed to have every reason for such confidence. My play had been read at a meeting of the Artistic Council of the Leningrad Bolshoi Dramatic Theatre.

Among those present at this meeting were representatives of eighteen Leningrad factories. Here are excerpts from their comments (taken from the minutes of the meeting of May 1, 1928). The representative of the Volodarsky Plant said: This is a play by a contemporary author, treating the subject of the class struggle in ancient times, analogous to that of our own era… Ideologically, the play is quite acceptable… It creates a strong impression and eliminates the reproach that contemporary playwrights do not produce good plays… The representative of the Lenin Factory noted the revolutionary character of the play and said that “in its artistic level, the play reminds us of Shakespeare’s works…. It is tragic, full of action, and will capture the viewer’s attention.” The representative of the Hydro-Mechanical Plant found “every moment in the play strong and absorbing,” and recommended its opening on the theater’s anniversary.

Let us say that the comrade workers overdid it in regard to Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Maxim Gorky has written that he considers the play “highly valuable both in a literary and social sense,” and that “its heroic tone and heroic plot are most useful for our time.” The play was accepted for production by the theater; it was passed by the Glavrepertkom; and after that… Was it shown to the audience of workers who had rated it so highly? No. After that the play, already half-rehearsed by the theater, already announced in posters, was banned at the insistence of the Leningrad Oblit.

The death of my tragedy Attila was a genuine tragedy to me. It made entirely clear to me the futility of any attempt to alter my situation, especially in view of the well-known affair involving my novel We and Pilnyak’s Mahogany, which followed soon after. Of course, any falsification is permissible in fighting the devil. And so, the novel, written nine years earlier, in 1920, was set side by side with Mahogany and treated as my latest, newest work.

The manhunt organized at the time was unprecedented in Soviet literature and even drew notice in the foreign press. Everything possible was done to close to me all avenues for further work. I became an object of fear to my former friends, publishing houses and theaters. My books were banned from the libraries. My play (The Flea), presented with invariable success by the Second Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre for four seasons, was withdrawn from the repertory. The publication of my collected works by the Federation Publishing House was halted. Every publishing house which attempted to issue my works was immediately placed under fire; this happened to Federatsiia [“Federation”], Zemlia i Fabrika [“Land and Factory”], and particularly to the Publishing House of Leningrad Writers. This latter took the risk of retaining me on its editorial board for another year and ventured to make use of my literary experience by entrusting me with the stylistic editing of works by y young writers including Communists. Last spring the Leningrad branch of the RAPP succeeded in forcing me out of the board and putting an end to this work. The Literary Gazette triumphantly announced this accomplishment, adding quite unequivocally: “. . . the publishing house must be preserved, but not for the Zamiatins.”

The last door to the reader was closed to Zamiatin. The writer’s death sentence was pronounced and published. In the Soviet Criminal Code the penalty second to death is deportation of the criminal from the country. If I am in truth a criminal deserving punishment, I nevertheless do not think that I merit so grave a penalty as literary death. I therefore ask that this sentence be changed to deportation from the USSR and that my wife be allowed to accompany me.

But if I am not a criminal, I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife temporarily, for at least one year, 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 a partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role of the literary artist. And I am confident that this time is near, for the creation of the material base will inevitably be followed by the need to build the superstructure, an art and a literature truly worthy of the revolution.

I know that life abroad will be extremely difficult for me, as I cannot become a part of the reactionary camp there; this is sufficiently attested by my past membership in the Russian Social Democratic Party (Bolshevik) in Tsarist days, imprisonment, two deportations, trial in wartime for an anti-militarist novella).

I know that while I have been proclaimed a Right winger here because of my habit of writing according to my conscience rather than according to command, I shall sooner or later probably be declared a Bolshevik for the same reason abroad.

But even under the most difficult conditions there, I shall not be condemned to silence; I shall be able to write and to publish, even, if need be, in a language other than Russian. If circumstances should make it impossible (temporarily, I hope) for me to be a Russian writer, perhaps I shall be able, like the Pole Joseph Conrad, to become for a time an English writer, especially since I have already written about England in Russian (the satirical story “The Islanders” and others), and since it is not much more difficult for me to write in English than it is in Russian.

Ilya Ehrenburg, while remaining a Soviet writer, has long been working chiefly for European literature for translation into foreign languages. Why, then, should I not be permitted to do what Ehrenburg has been permitted to do? And here I may mention yet another name that of Boris Pilnyak. He has shared the role of devil with me in full measure; he has been the major target of the critics; yet he has been allowed to go abroad to take a rest from this persecution. Why should I not be granted what has been granted to Pilnyak?

I might have tried to motivate my request for permission to go abroad by other reasons as well more usual, though equally valid. To free myself of an old chronic illness (colitis), I have to go abroad for a cure; my personal presence is needed abroad to help stage two of my plays, translated into English and Italian (The Flea and The Society of Honorary Bell Ringers, already produced in Soviet theaters); moreover, the planned production of these plays will make it possible for me not to burden the People’s Commissariat of Finances with the request for foreign exchange.

All these motives exist. But 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. The extraordinary consideration which you have given other writers who appealed to you leads me to hope that my request will also be granted.

Source: Evgeny Zamyatin: Letter to Stalin. A Soviet Heretic: Essays Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.

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