The link between a Russian visitor to South Shields and George Orwell’s 1984

How Zamyatin would have remembered Ocean Road in South Shields.
How Zamyatin would have remembered Ocean Road in South Shields.

It’s a long way from St Petersburg to South Shields.

But it was a journey once made by a young Russian, an author, who not only upset the Communist authorities back home, but whose work may have influenced the writing of one of this country’s most influential novels – 1984 by George Orwell.

The centre of South Shields as it looked just after the turn of the 20th century.

The centre of South Shields as it looked just after the turn of the 20th century.

His name was Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin and his story is now told in a new video produced by local film-maker Gary Wilkinson.

The film, which can be viewed on YouTube, may be less than 10 minutes long, but like much of Gary’s work it is informative as well as thought-provoking.

And it raises an intriguing question: did Zamyatin’s best known book, entitled We, a science fiction novel set in a futuristic dystopian police state, have a bearing on George Orwell’s classic piece of work?

Zamyatin, a civil engineer by trade, travelled from Russia to Tyneside in 1916 to help build icebreakers on the river Tyne.

He spent some of his time here, taking in the sights and sounds of South Shields, the home-town of Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, a customs officer whose daughter, Eileen, was married to George Orwell.

Gary wonders, could Mr O’Shaughnessy and Zamyatin have met when the icebreakers were completed and being readied to sail to Russia? And could Eileen have mentioned such a possible connection to her husband who then read We for himself?

We will never know the answer, of course, but it is compelling nonetheless, especially within the context of the rest of Zamyatin’s life.

For the author led a colourful and, at times, controversial life – something which attracted Gary to him, as he reveals in a blog posted in 2016.

“I read a post by Leslie Hurst on the Orwell Society blog of a possible link between Zamyatin, George Orwell and Eileen O’Shaughnessy,” explains Gary.

“I looked into this and found Zamyatin an interesting character and worth following up.”

What he discovered makes for fascinating viewing/listening.

For although he was a supporter of change in Russia, and joined the Bolsheviks, Zamyatin was arrested during the 1905 revolution and sent to prison.

Despite being freed shortly afterwards to work for the Russian government, which sent him here, he again upset the authorities when We was banned by the Soviet Censorship Board in 1921, the first book to suffer this fate.

Such was his acrimonious relationship with the state that he eventually left his homeland and moved to Paris where he died.

Zamyatin: The Russia-Tyneside Connection is a marvellous piece of story-telling, revealing a part of South Shields’ past that had long since been forgotten.

You can view the film at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W4A0nZ7_PQ