The Unified State and the Unified Mind: Social and Moral Utopia in Zamjatin’s My and Plato’s Republic

Sara Stefani, Yale University

Evgenij Zamjatin’s novel My has emerged as one of the most important works of twentieth-century Russian literature. Because of his anti-utopian description of the hypothetical “One State” of the future, Zamjatin has often been hailed as a prophet who foresaw the advent of the totalitarian Soviet regime. Only a few critics, however, have remarked on the striking parallels between Zamjatin’s One State and the ideal community envisioned by Plato in his Republic. T. R. N. Edwards, for example, briefly notes in a footnote in his study the characteristics shared by the two communities, but then dismisses the matter. In a recent article, A. I. Semenova treats the parallels between My and Republic in greater detail, but analyzes only the most salient similarities between the political structures of the societies in both works.

Indeed, the correspondences between Zamjatin’s futuristic society and that of Plato are so extensive, one could argue that Plato’s philosophy forms the skeletal frame on which My was constructed. Where Edwards and Semenova fall short, however, is in viewing Zamjatin’s treatment of Plato purely in terms of its political implications. It is my contention that by exploring the Platonic underpinnings of Zamjatin’s work, we can see beyond the question of political ideology and examine a neglected aspect of the novel: that of Zamjatin’s criticism of Plato’s conception of morality.

While Republic presents Plato’s vision of the ideal future society, we should keep in mind that Plato is concerned first and foremost in his work with defining morality. According to Plato, the unified state in which the class of workers willingly submits to the classes of guardians and philosopher-kings is also the ultimately moral state. This version of the state, in turn, is meant to serve as a paradigm for the ultimately moral person, whose mind is completely unified, with all desires and passions subjugated to reason and rationality. It is this definition of morality as dependent on unification that Zamjatin attempts to subvert. Current readings may take it for granted that the state depicted in My is not a perfectly moral one. However, Zamjatin’s text suggests that it should be read as questioning not only Plato’s conception of the ideal state, but also his conception of morality as it applies to both an individual and an entire society. Moreover, this correspondence between Zamjatin’s writing and Plato’s philosophy seems hardly coincidental, but rather conditioned by a revived interest in Plato in Russia during the period just before and after the revolution, i.e., before and during Zamjatin’s writing of My.

My paper will be divided into three principal sections. The first will discuss the textual parallels between Zamjatin’s state and Plato’s community in order to establish a framework of comparison from within which to work. Section two will briefly discuss the possible importance of contemporary discussions of Plato to the origins of Zamjatin’s novel, as well as the role some later Western critics ascribed to the Greek philosopher in the development of totalitarianism. The final section will analyze Plato’s definition of morality and how it is presented and refuted in Zamjatin’s text.