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Russia, Personhood, and Society

Above: Yevgeny Zamyatin by Boris Kustodiev (1923).


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).

Dostoevsky and the Underground

Both Zamyatin and Rand drew from the well of Russian literature, which of course means we cannot avoid looking at Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Notes From Underground Dostoevsky’s Underground Man tries to assert his individual personhood during a time of stratified conformity. In Tsarist 19th Century Russia, this character seeks to protect himself by saying no to others; the one time he says yes he quickly recants. This Underground Man is a partial prototype for both Zamyatin and Rand. He senses his innate personhood, but cannot bring it to fruition. He is snared in the paralyzing web of self-consciousness: “How can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself” (16)? He goes on to say: “I’ve never been able to start or finish anything” (18). Zamyatin’s protagonist gets caught in some of the same self-doubting, but Rand’s hero almost always seems quite sure of himself, especially once his egotism is fully unleashed. However, D-503 does say yes to others, whereas Equality 7-2521 only says yes to his own ego. The Underground Man falls prey to social ambition and envy earlier in his life, then briefly opens his heart to a prostitute, inviting her to come live with him. “‘Here’s my address, Liza, come to me.’ ‘I will…’ she whispered resolutely, still without raising her head’” (104). But when she arrives he perversely realizes the burden of sharing life with another person and rejects her with great cruelty. He says to her: “‘I’ll tell you why you came, my dear. You came because of the pathetic words I used with you then. So you went all soft, and you wanted more ‘pathetic words.’ Know, then, know that I was laughing at you that time’” (121). The realization of his turn away from personhood haunts him for years after: “We’re stillborn, and have long ceased to be born of living fathers, and we like this more and more. We’re acquiring a taste for it” (130).

According to biographer Anne C. Heller, Rand respected “Dostoevsky, whose mystical point of view she said she rejected but whose brilliant integration of plot, theme, and ‘philosophy of mind’ she learned from and found exciting. [Rand] later said ‘Dostoevsky was the world’s best interpreter of the psychology of evil’” (39). Zamyatin has his engineer-mathematician protagonist directly reference Dostoevsky when D-503 is clashing with his poet friend, R-13 (who may be an allusion to Pushkin): “‘Fortunately, the antediluvian ages of all those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys, or whatever you call them, are gone,’ I said, deliberately loudly” (43).

The Lens of Berdyaev

Berdyaev considered that “Dostoievsky [sic] was more than anything else an anthropologist” (Dostoevsky 45). In Berdyaev’s analysis, Dostoevsky rejects both the collective and radical individualism as inimical to personhood: “Everything is allowable when it is a question of the unbounded freedom of the superman (extreme individualism), or of the unbounded equality of all (extreme collectivism)” (100). In other words, freedom is pregnant with the possibility of salvation or destruction. Love is the testing ground for this idea in Dostoevsky’s works: “Real love is what one bears toward another; debauchery is love and affirmation of self, conducing to the ruin of self” (123). Thus, according to Berdyaev, Dostoevsky would not be a fan of Rand’s Anthem: “Self-will and self-sufficiency always beget depravity” (124).

Berdyaev thought Dostoevsky open to change in society, but always in the context of freedom. “Dostoievsky [sic] was the herald of the spirit of revolution on its way to accomplishment; he expresses nothing in his work but the impassioned and tumultuous dynamism of human nature. Man in that mood tears himself away from the social order, stops obeying the rules, and enters a universe in another dimension” (20). Nonetheless, every man who cuts himself off from society sooner or later needs to be united again by saying yes. Think of Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment in exile in Siberia but with the hope of a new life represented by the presence of Sonia bringing him the Gospel. Berdyaev sees Notes From Underground as the pivotal book in the trajectory of Dostoevsky’s thinking and writing: “[U]nderworld [sic] man and his astounding dialectic of irrational liberty represent a moment on the tragic road whereon mankind tries out and experiences freedom; for freedom is the supreme good: man cannot renounce it without renouncing himself and ceasing to be a man” (56). Both Zamyatin and Rand explored concepts of freedom in the face of a collectivist mindset. Zamyatin’s examination of freedom revealed an ambivalence, while Rand’s answer was a man-god not unlike that of the nihilists in Dostoevsky’s Demons. D-503 can only solve his dilemma by submitting to the excision of his imagination, while Equality 7-2521 tears himself away from society in order to create and master his own world, free of obligations to others. Neither one is truly free (nor is the Underground Man): “No man who is divided can be free, and a man who cannot make the free act of choosing the object of his love is condemned to this division,” writes Berdyaev (81).

Personhood in Lossky

Vladimir Lossky was an important (exiled) Orthodox theologian of the 20th Century. He writes: “The human hypostasis can only reveal itself by renouncing its own will, because the latter determines us and subjects us to natural necessity” (126). Thus Rand’s man-god or new Prometheus (also the subtitle of Shelley’s Frankenstein) is never fully human because he will not renounce his will. Zamyatin’s more conflicted protagonist experiences the thrill of surrendering his will but ultimately discards his will instead of voluntarily surrendering it—he too is not fully a person. Communion requires saying yes.

The Atomic Individual

Fulton J. Sheen, writing during the Cold War, discerned the societal and spiritual consequences of rising individualism in our culture. “As persons surrender a sense of responsibility to God, to the state, to family and to their vocation in life, they dissolve into atoms; atoms exist only for themselves. To say we live in the atomic age may be a more unfortunate characterization than we know; for if we are nothing but atomic individuals, then we are ready either to be split or fissioned mentally, or else collectivized into a socialistic dictatorship. The latter is nothing but the forcible organization of the chaos created by a conflict of individual egotism” (213-214). Sheen correctly interpreted the signs of the times, foreseeing that a godless society reliant on science for guidance would be a society adrift, prone to either individualism or collectivism—in either case soul-crushing and dehumanizing. As Berdyaev puts it in Slavery and Freedom: “The state exists for man and not man for the state” (150).

Zamyatin showed us a quasi-religious technocratic state perhaps not unlike what would have occurred in an alternate universe in which the French Revolution had developed organically over the course of centuries. His characters live in a world protected from nature and have mostly given up their ability to say yes except in a pro forma way. The system is undermined when a significant individual develops (albeit briefly) into a person with a soul by saying yes to passionate freedom. Rand proffers a hero who is more of a rebel who realizes his individuality but not his personhood. He is somewhat of a genius whose brilliance is unrecognized because of the obstinate quasi-religion of the oppressive and traditional society in which he lives. Both novels’ protagonists have an immediate ancestor in Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who says no to an oppressive society that mocks and emasculates him. When he allows himself to be vulnerable to a woman and says yes to her, he then realizes that she has had pity on him, and in his pride perversely drives her away, thereby eliminating his opportunity to move closer to personhood. Great thinkers of both East and West teach that an individual is not fully a person and that communion with others—and God—is the mark of a person. Free will exercised in a narcissistic way will keep the individual from reaching his or her potential and can lead one to hell and eternal separation from God.

To guide us we have an example of one who said yes: Mary, the Theotokos and Blessed Virgin Mother. Mary said yes to God. Thereafter she had both joys and sorrows, going before us in faith and showing us the path to God and fullness of life. She was not an individual but a person fully reflecting God’s image. Her yes reversed Eve’s greedy taking of the fruit and subsequent breaking of communion with Adam and God. Adam and Eve’s sin broke apart what God had made and wrought isolation and alienation throughout creation. Mary, our “Champion Leader,” always goes before us, teaching us how to be fully persons as God intended. To live otherwise is to live as frustrated individuals.


Works Cited

Berdyaev, Nicholas. Dostoevsky. Trans. Donald Attwater. Cleveland: Meridian, 1968.

Berdyaev, Nicolas. Slavery and Freedom. Trans. R.M. French. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. Trans. Rochard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Heller, Anne C. Ayn Rand and the World She Made. New York: Anchor, 2009.

Lossky, Vladimir. Orthodox Theology. Trans. Ian and Ihita Kesarcodi-Watson. Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. New York: Signet, 1946.

Sheen, Fulton J. Guide to Contentment. Canfield, OH: Alba House, 1996.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Prayer. Trans. Graham Harrison. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Harper Voyager, 2012.

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