Russia’s Orwell Problem

In a country that reveres writers, the author of ‘1984’ and 'Animal Farm' can’t be dismissed — he has to be spun

Russia’s Orwell Problem
A Russian police officer reads “1984” on the Moscow Metro. (@BFreeTheatre Twitter account)

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The most poignant line in George Orwell’s “1984” belongs to a minor character, a grief-stricken old man whom the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, remembers seeing long ago in an air raid shelter. Having lost (Winston imagines) a beloved granddaughter, the man kept repeating to his wife,

We didn’t ought to ’ave trusted ’em. I said so, Ma, didn’t I? That’s what come of trusting ’em. I said so all along. We didn’t ought to ’ave trusted the buggers.

Although it’s not immediately clear to Winston just who shouldn’t have been trusted, it seems the man is talking about the warlike political party that, by the time of the novel’s main action, controls Winston’s entire reality.

In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the line called to mind Sergey Bokov, a 23-year-old Russian soldier quoted by the BBC. Bokov, who had been sent to the Ukrainian border on a supposed exercise, said he didn’t realize his government had flung him into a war until he noticed road signs in Ukrainian and Ukraine’s resistance began. “They deceived us beautifully,” he told the BBC.

In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” Orwell argued that what suited him to the profession was his “power of facing unpleasant facts.” That power — which might reasonably be called a superpower — is rare enough in human beings. In Russia, it is discouraged by law: Since February 2022, independent media have been forced to close, most journalists have fled, public protest has become extremely dangerous, and critics of President Vladimir Putin’s war risk 15 years in prison.

Now, in the wake of mass “mobilization,” an ever-growing number of Russians are facing facts — at least where their own lives are concerned — and leaving.

Yet even prior to mobilization, some light got in here and there. During Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on May 9, 2022, which ostensibly honored the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, an elderly woman told the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg (by then one of the last Western journalists in the country), “The war I fought in we understood. But this war now, well, maybe I’m old, but there’s something not quite right about it. I hope it ends soon.”

And if the Orwellian resonances were latent there, a young woman embossed them for Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova at a Q&A in Yekaterinburg that month. “We here in our country feel the rise of patriotism,” she said. “And friends and relatives abroad tell us we are a reflection of the novel ‘1984.’ What should we tell them?”

Orwell had, by then, permeated Russia’s wartime zeitgeist. The popular Telegram channel Stalingulag had denounced the Russian government’s disinformation tactics as “pure Orwell.” The business daily Vedomosti had reported an uptick in sales of “1984.” A major publisher, AST, had just put out a new, illustrated edition. In the city of Ivanovo, the website semnasem reported that a couple had been detained and charged with “discrediting the Russian army” for giving out copies of the novel (of which they had purchased around $1,500 worth). Neighboring Belarus, from which Russia had launched part of its invasion under the pretext of an allied military exercise, had banned the book. The Kyiv Post reported that Belarusian security forces had detained the publisher and confiscated 200 copies.

What was Zakharova to do with this still-troublesome English journo-novelist of the 1930s and ’40s? In true Putinist fashion, she tried an epistemic judo move. Her reply, which seemed prepared for the occasion:

For many years, we thought Orwell had been describing totalitarianism. But that’s one of the world’s fakes. Orwell was writing about the end of liberalism. He wrote about how liberalism would drive humanity into a dead end. He wasn’t writing about the USSR; he was writing about the society in which he was living, about the collapse of the idea of liberalism. But the notion has been imposed on you that he was writing about you. So tell them that he wasn’t writing about us, but about them. Tell them, it’s you abroad who are living in a fantasy world, where people can get canceled.

Zakharova was channeling a range of influences. One was the Russian state TV pundit Vladimir Solovyov, who had made similar remarks: “Orwell was of course not writing about us at all, and that’s why it surprises me that in Soviet times, for some reason, we fought against Orwell, because Orwell predicted very clearly the Western world’s modern development.”

Another was Putin, who had pronounced “the liberal idea” obsolete in a 2019 interview with the Financial Times and has since accused the West of trying to “cancel Russia.”

Orwell’s best-known satires are largely about the USSR and its influence in the wider world. As he wrote in his 1947 preface to the Ukrainian edition of “Animal Farm” (one of the book’s earliest translations, distributed to displaced persons from Ukraine after World War II), he was concerned about what he called “the influence of the Soviet Myth upon the western socialist movement” — namely, the tendency of Western socialists to venerate Stalin and the USSR and to take Soviet officials at their word.

Part of the problem in his own country, he wrote, was that since an ordinary English person had no direct experience with concentration camps, mass deportations or arrests without trial, he was too naive to comprehend those realities when they manifested abroad:

Everything he reads about a country like the USSR is automatically translated into English terms, and he quite innocently accepts the lies of totalitarian propaganda. Up to 1939 and even later, the majority of the English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi regime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet regime, they are still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion.

In Orwell’s England, translating Soviet events into English terms usually meant drawing lazy false analogies that presumed good faith on the part of Stalin and his spokespersons. The best way to debunk these, he found, was to raise the resolution to the point of satire. One early instance was his 1938 review of the journalist Eugene Lyons’ memoir about Russia, “Assignment in Utopia.” Orwell began it with a Britain-based parody of the vast Trotskyist conspiracy that Stalin’s men had posited in the Moscow show trials:

Mr. Winston Churchill, now in exile in Portugal, is plotting to overthrow the British Empire and establish communism in England. By the use of unlimited Russian money he has succeeded in building up a huge Churchillite organisation that includes members of Parliament, factory managers, Roman Catholic bishops and practically the whole Primrose League. Almost every day some dastardly act of sabotage is laid bare — sometimes a plot to blow up the House of Lords, sometimes an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Royal racing stables. Eighty per cent of the Beefeaters in the Tower are discovered to be agents of the Comintern.

He so enjoyed the satire that he went on in this vein for half a page. He later continued the idea at novel length, twice. By transporting Soviet-style repression to a fairy-tale English farm and a bomb-blasted austerity Britain, he was able to “translate into English terms” what he had learned from his scrape with Stalin’s agents during the Spanish Civil War (which he had described in “Homage to Catalonia”) and from his contact with Russian and Eastern European exiles in London. It is true that “Animal Farm” and “1984” were also about “the society in which he was living,” but mainly in the sense that they aimed to undermine totalitarian influences, which could indeed damage ancient liberties. In other words, he was not so smug or prejudiced as to imagine, in the wake of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, that postwar totalitarianism could take hold only “behind that line.”

But whereas the Eugene Lyons review had been comedic and “Animal Farm” tragicomic, “1984” took on the full horror of totalitarianism and suggested that Nazism and Soviet communism, which had both taken advantage of naive British politicians and elites, might one day fuse to create an even more infernal form of dictatorship, unshackled from the limits of ideology. As the regime’s inquisitor O’Brien tells Winston Smith, offering a simultaneously superficial and sadistic reading of the Nazis and the Soviets:

The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognise their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

The ruling party in “1984” is called Ingsoc, a portmanteau of “English Socialism” that evokes both German “National Socialism” and Stalin’s “socialism in one country” (Orwell was emphatic that he intended no allusion to the British Labour movement, which he supported).

In Russia, a 2021 law forbids, according to the state-run TASS news agency, any attempt to “equate the purposes, decisions and actions by the leadership of the USSR, the command and military personnel of the USSR and the decisions and actions of the leadership of Nazi Germany, the command and military personnel of Nazi Germany and countries of the ‘Axis.’”

The law was updated just ahead of the February invasion to attach new fines and prison sentences.

In an open society, such analogies could be debated case-by-case on their merits; in Russia, taboo reigns. One might imagine, then, that if Russian authorities grasped to what extent Orwell took Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR to be similar, they would have banned “1984.”

And yet that couldn’t be further from the case. Orwell belongs to the English canon, and Russia is a highly literate nation that reveres “great” writers. According to the newspaper Vedomosti, Russia’s book market amounted to 86 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) in 2018, in a market where books are typically less expensive than in the West. “1984” is widely available in several major translations. Russian publishers are reported to have sold 1.8 million copies from 2010 to 2019.

The establishment of mass literacy was one of the achievements of the Soviet state, but it came with mass censorship. Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, deputy minister of education, were among the gatekeepers. Stalin popularized the notion that writers were “engineers of human souls” and advanced the strictures of “social realism” wherein writers were expected to endorse a naive, heroic conception of his regime. Those who didn’t comply wrote “for the bottom drawer” or went to the gulag or both.

The strictures of social realism were lifted following Stalin’s death in 1953, permitting publication of such anti-Stalinist works as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962), which came to define Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw.” But the system refused to tolerate anything so broadly “anti-Soviet” as Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” (published abroad in 1957). The era of Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev saw high-profile political trials of writers such as Joseph Brodsky (1964) and Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel (1966), and the forced exile of Solzhenitsyn over the publication abroad of “The Gulag Archipelago” (1974).

Throughout the Soviet period, authorities enjoyed considerable control over what citizens read. Activists outside the USSR smuggled in the occasional forbidden book or newspaper (there was a particular focus on religious publishing) and free-minded people inside the country circulated samizdat, forbidden reading material crudely copied using typewriters and carbon paper. To be caught in possession of such material could mean prison.

Orwell’s most recent Russian translator, Leonid Bershidsky, has written in Bloomberg about the history of “1984” in Russian translation. One remarkable fact he cites, via the historian Arlen Blum, is that the first translation produced inside the USSR was commissioned by the Ideology Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1958, for reading by high-ranking Party officials. They faced the same problem as the current-day Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zakharova: What to do with this still-troublesome English journo-novelist of the 1930s and ’40s?

The novel’s reputation east of the Iron Curtain must have preceded even that version for, as the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz recorded in his 1953 work on writers under Stalinism, “The Captive Mind”:

A few have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith [Soviet communism] because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.

Other translations, by Bershidsky’s count, included one serialized in the mid-1950s by the emigre magazine Grani and then published in book form in Frankfurt, with financial support from Orwell’s widow Sonia; one published in Rome in 1966 and translated by Sergei Tolstoy, who worked from a French edition rather than the original; one published officially in Soviet Moldavia in 1988 and translated by the Soviet scholar Vyacheslav Nedovshin; another published officially in Russia in 1989, translated by Viktor Golyshev. Bershidsky’s version came out in 2021.

As Putin’s people — Solovyov and Zakharova — spun Orwell for Russians as a critic of the collapsing liberal West, Bershidsky identified a Soviet precedent for their propaganda: In the year 1984, Melor Sturua, a Washington correspondent for the state-run newspaper Izvestia, had argued that “1984” better described the United States than the USSR. “Don’t expect originality from this gang of halfwits,” Bershidsky wrote on Twitter.

In Chapter VII of “1984,” Orwell offers an impression of Ingsoc propaganda through Winston’s eyes, as Winston peruses a children’s schoolbook account of London in the before-times:

“In the old days, before the glorious Revolution, London was not the beautiful city that we know today. It was a dark, dirty, miserable place where hardly anybody had enough to eat and where hundreds and thousands of poor people had no boots on their feet and not even a roof to sleep under. Children no older than you had to work twelve hours a day for cruel masters, who flogged them with whips if they worked too slowly and fed them on nothing but stale breadcrusts and water. But in among all this terrible poverty there were just a few great big beautiful houses that were lived in by rich men who had as many as thirty servants to look after them. These rich men were called capitalists. They were fat, ugly men with wicked faces, like the one in the picture on the opposite page. You can see that he is dressed in a long black coat which was called a frock coat, and a queer, shiny hat shaped like a stovepipe, which was called a top hat. This was the uniform of the capitalists, and no one else was allowed to wear it. The capitalists owned everything in the world, and everyone else was their slave. They owned all the land, all the houses, all the factories, and all the money. If anyone disobeyed them they could throw him into prison, or they could take his job away and starve him to death. When any ordinary person spoke to a capitalist he had to cringe and bow to him, and take off his cap and address him as ‘Sir’. The chief of all the capitalists was called the King, and—”

Winston stops reading. He can imagine what follows:

There would be mention of the bishops in their lawn sleeves, the judges in their ermine robes, the pillory, the stocks, the treadmill, the cat o’ nine tails, the Lord Mayor’s Banquet and the practice of kissing the Pope’s toe. There was also something called the jus primae noctis, which would probably not be mentioned in a textbook for children. It was the law by which every capitalist had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of his factories. How could you tell how much of it was lies?

In 1983, as the eponymous date of Orwell’s dystopian future loomed, the Cold War remained in a deep freeze. Yuri Andropov, a hard-line former KGB chair, had recently succeeded Brezhnev as Soviet leader. That March, U.S. President Ronald Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and announced the launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” a fanciful scheme to protect the U.S. from a potential nuclear attack using space-based weapons. That September, a Soviet fighter jet had shot down a Korean Airlines passenger flight en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, South Korea, after it had strayed into Soviet airspace, killing 269 people. That November, a NATO military exercise, Able Archer, had led to a nuclear escalation with the USSR.

In the U.S., Orwell had permeated the zeitgeist in the form of think pieces published across the political spectrum in anticipation of the signal year.

In a Harper’s magazine essay, the neoconservative pundit Norman Podhoretz had endeavored to posthumously strip Orwell of his socialist credentials and “claim” him for the political right, partly on the grounds that writers who had shared some of Orwell’s views in the ’30s and ’40s had followed such a trajectory. “I am convinced,” Podhoretz concluded, “that if Orwell were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the Left.” (The piece elicited a meticulous rebuttal from a young Christopher Hitchens in the Harper’s letters pages.)

In a New York Times op-ed, the former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite considered how “1984” might serve as a critique of America’s democratic failings. Orwell, he pointed out, had feared the Cold War’s effect on democratic traditions, as well as the abuse of new technologies. As American society grew more complex, declining educational standards and “a growing number of functional illiterates” put Cronkite in mind of Orwell’s politically impotent “proles.” And was there not some Orwellian “doublethink” in American military rhetoric, such as destroying the village to save it, as he’d heard in Vietnam, or calling a nuclear missile the “peacekeeper”? He was concerned, too, with “an enormous growth in surveillance” embodied by the capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Sturua, a Soviet Georgian whose first name Melor was an acronym for “Marx Engels Lenin October Revolution,” had been a U.S.-based correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Izvestia since 1968. A keen reader of American newspapers and magazines, he seized an opportunity to split the difference between Podhoretz and Cronkite for his Soviet audience. In an article titled “1984 and ‘1984’” (published in January 1984), he both dismissed Orwell’s leftist credentials and applied his satires exclusively to the U.S.

Sturua’s Orwell was, in Russian literary terms, a “double”: a troublemaking doppelganger of the sort found in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Double” or Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” This Orwell was a “scout of reaction,” a coward who had “left the barricades of revolutionary Spain” and “tried to defame socialism.” He was also a rube upon whom history had played a “cruel joke,” because he had drawn “not a caricature of socialism and communism, but a completely realistic picture of modern capitalism-imperialism.”

Orwell’s fantasy, he wrote, “has become the reality of the western world, and above all the United States of America, the real, not fictional, ‘centre of evil’ of our day.” Drawing on such narrative elements as Orwell’s all-surveilling telescreen, hapless proles and meaning-demolishing newspeak, he painted a picture of an Orwellian American “techno-tyranny” based on surveillance and falsehood. Indeed, he argued, it was just as Lenin had written: “Bourgeois democracy […] always remains — and under capitalism cannot but remain — narrow, truncated, false, hypocritical, a paradise for the rich, a trap and a deception for the exploited, for the poor.”

Sturua drew much of his criticism of the U.S. straight from the American press. In 1975, Idaho Sen. Frank Church had warned — after chairing a Senate Select Committee investigation into abuses by U.S. government agencies — that the NSA had worrying, hitherto little-known monitoring capabilities that could be turned against Americans. In 1982, the journalist James Bamford had published “The Puzzle Palace,” an investigation of the NSA in which he had raised the prospect of “technotyranny.”

“The Orwellian telescreen,” Sturua wrote, “which seemed like science fiction in 1949, looks like an antediluvian monster compared to the latest achievements of what Bamford calls ‘techno-tyranny.’” America was undergoing “a real rebirth and transformation into a world created by Orwell’s fantasy.” The NSA’s acres of advanced computers, linked to the computers of the other “Big Brothers” at the CIA and FBI, “can and do watch literally every American; they know literally everything about him.”

Everything that was written about freedom and democracy in the West was “ideological waste,” Sturua argued. The U.S. Senate was packed with millionaires. The next elections would be the most expensive in history. Meanwhile, tens of millions of American “proles” were falling into the abyss of poverty and unemployment. U.S. institutions were replete with doublethink, embodied in the Strategic Air Command’s slogan, “Peace Is Our Profession,” and the names of “Washington’s radio spy centres,” Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Reagan spoke of “peace through strength,” thereby “putting all concepts upside down, passing off black for white, and vice versa.”

When Sturua had visited the FBI headquarters as a tourist, he claimed he saw “a huge poster on which a Soviet soldier was depicted in a threatening pose in a giant fur hat and with a machine gun at the ready.”

This reminded him of a passage in “1984”:

A new poster had suddenly appeared all over London. It had no caption, and represented simply the monstrous figure of a Eurasian soldier, three or four metres high, striding forward […] with enormous boots, a sub-machine-gun pointed from his hip.

The purpose of this poster, Sturua wrote, was to inspire hatred, as in the “two minutes hate” propaganda sessions described in Orwell’s novel. This, in turn, put him in mind of the “month of hatred” he claimed had followed the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 or, as he put it, “the espionage and provocative flight of the South Korean Boeing-747.”

How was the Soviet reader of Izvestia — able to read Orwell only in samizdat and lacking access to Sturua’s sources — to know how much of it was lies?

On the point about Orwell’s “cowardice” in Spain, for instance, Orwell had left the country after taking a bullet in the throat from a fascist sniper. He had narrowly escaped Stalin’s agents there who, with the help of the Spanish secret police, had been arresting and murdering suspected Trotskyists in an expeditionary variation on Stalin’s terror.

As to the nature of the Stalin-style “system” in “1984,” Soviet readers might have cared to know that Orwell had posited that Stalinism could be considered “a particularly vicious form of state capitalism.” “Modern capitalism-imperialism,” to borrow Sturua’s phrase, had been one of Orwell’s main topics before he took on the USSR.

Regarding the dangers of the emerging national security state, Orwell had prophesied them after Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and coined the term “Cold War” in the bargain — in his 1945 essay “You and the Atom Bomb.”

Sturua’s portrayal of Orwell shows a degree of bad faith and bad reading that extends equally to his reportage, wherein he managed to wield the fruits of the intellectually adversarial society in which he lived against Soviet readers who might have imagined that the grass was greener abroad.

His quotations of Church and Bamford were accurate enough in the literal sense, although the all-pervasive tyranny they warned of was more potential than actual. His claim that the NSA knew “literally everything” about every American was, however, absurd. The U.S. unemployment figure for the first quarter of 1984 was nearly 9 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but not “tens of millions.” CIA funding for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty had ceased in 1971, following an expose in Ramparts magazine, and their journalism was funded by Congress. The Korean passenger plane the USSR had shot down had not been involved in espionage, despite Soviet claims.

In 1946, Orwell received a letter from Ihor Sevcenko, a Ukrainian journalist writing for a Polish newspaper in occupied Germany. He had read “Animal Farm” and wanted to make the case that “a translation of the tale into Ukrainian would be of great value to my countrymen.” He had already translated sections of the book for Ukrainian refugees and found that “the mood of the book corresponds to their own actual state of mind.” Those emigrants from the Soviet sphere who cared about liberty and human dignity — as opposed to mere nationalism — were unconsoled by attacks on the USSR from right-wing intellectuals but doubted whether anyone in socialist quarters “knew the truth.” “Your book,” he wrote, “has solved the problem.”

Orwell agreed to a translation and also expressed sympathy with the refugees, who, thanks to an agreement made among Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, faced the danger of forced repatriation to the USSR. Britain’s labor shortage, Orwell wrote, was a good reason to invite them to settle there, but he noted that there was “working class resistance” to the idea, which British communists could be expected to exploit to keep them out. (Sevcenko later moved to the U.S., where he became a leading scholar of Byzantine history.)

The “Animal Farm” project met with some disappointment. Out of a few thousand copies, 1,500 were seized by the U.S. occupation authorities in Germany and handed over to the Soviets for destruction. But Orwell saw immense value in communicating across a temporarily destabilized Soviet frontier and assisted Sevcenko in getting permission to translate other works into Ukrainian. One author he wrote to on Sevcenko’s behalf was the Hungarian ex-communist Arthur Koestler. The refugees, Orwell told Koestler, were “a godsent opportunity for breaking down the wall between Russia and the west.” He wrote, “I am sure we ought to help these people all we can.”

The project’s legacy, it seems, is strong. The Ukrainian Wikipedia page for “Animal Farm” lists seven translations, including Sevcenko’s (under the pseudonym Ivan Cherniatinsky), one published in Baltimore in 1984, two (one of which was a double feature including Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”) published in 1991, the year of Ukrainian independence, and two in 2021.

In a 2017 lecture to the St. Volodymyr Institute in Toronto, Canada, the Ukrainian Orwell scholar Olha Luchuk said that, late in his life, Sevcenko had remarked to her, “With the Putin era, ‘Animal Farm’ begins to be actual [topical] again.” He died in 2010.

The Ukrainian Wikipedia page for “1984” lists five translations: two dated 2013 and 2015, respectively, and — suggesting an ominous zeitgeist — three from 2021.

Russia has failed to fully reckon with Soviet-era traumas, either inside Russia or in Ukraine, where, according to Anne Applebaum’s “Red Famine,” more than 3.9 million Ukrainians perished as a result of Moscow’s policies in the early 1930s. Russian soldiers appear oblivious to Ukraine’s suffering at Moscow’s hands even where their own self-interest is concerned. If they had a better sense of how the late Soviet empire had hurt Ukraine, they might not have irradiated themselves by stirring up dust and digging trenches around Chernobyl.

Looming over Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is the figure of Stalin and all the failings he embodied: centralized authority and police spying, mass murder, mass censorship and propaganda, the need for internal and external enemies, the eager inheritance and perpetuation of Russian imperialism. Official efforts to confront Stalin’s legacy in Russia — whether by Khrushchev or Gorbachev — were always partially reversed to suit the interests of a compromised political elite and a population wherein many preferred amnesia. Instead of facing this legacy, Russia is exporting it.

In this sense, the Orwell of the 1930s and ’40s and the Ukrainians fighting Putin today have their adversary in common. The parallels between the sadistic, charnel-house political culture described in “1984” and Russia’s new status quo are worth examining at high resolution.

Here, Orwell describes Winston’s encounter at work with his colleague Syme, who enjoys public executions:

“It was a good hanging,” said Syme reminiscently. “I think it spoils it when they tie their feet together. I like to see them kicking. And above all, at the end, the tongue sticking right out, and blue — a quite bright blue. That’s the detail that appeals to me.”

Here is a tweet from the Russian Embassy U.K. account, dated July 29, 2022:

Azov militants deserve execution, but death not by firing squad but by hanging, because they’re not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death.

Here is Winston’s frenetic account of a propaganda film that glories in the murder of refugees, including children:

You saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it … then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat all went to matchwood. Then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up into the air … there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman in the prole part of the house started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didn’t oughter of showed it not in front of kids.

Here is the Russia Today (RT) television presenter Anton Krasovsky, fantasizing gleefully in October 2022 about killing Ukrainian children who favored independence:

Just drown those children, drown them … throw them in a river with a strong undercurrent … . Over there every piece of shit little house, there are masses of awful, monstrous little houses … shove them in those huts and burn them up. [Translation via Russian Media Monitor]

After the segment was widely denounced, RT’s director Margarita Simonyan suspended Krasovsky, but quickly reinstated him, as if to show that there was no cancel culture in Russia. The past year has seen numerous instances of Russian attacks on refugees, as at the Kramatorsk train station in April 2022, where seven children were killed. According to The New York Times, Russia has removed thousands of Ukrainian children from Ukraine as “spoils of war.” Ukraine’s prosecutor general told the Times in November 2022 that at least 437 children had been killed in the country since February, out of 8,300 civilians. (The true numbers, he said, were probably much higher.)

While readers of “1984” are likely to remember Winston as a tragic hero who tried to resist Big Brother, it is worth remembering that, as the novel begins, he is deeply complicit in the system he hates. Part of his job, at the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, is to help the party corrupt the historical record. “All history was a palimpsest,” he observes, “scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

This is what Putin himself was up to with his question-begging essay of 2021 titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Its stream of tendentious assertions recalls, in style, the school textbook in “1984” and Sturua’s attack on Orwell: Putin asserts that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” descended from medieval Rus and joined in Orthodoxy by Prince Vladimir the Great. The idea of Ukraine as a nation, he argues, began with Polish elites and has no historical basis. The famine of the early 1930s was no more than “a common tragedy” shared by Russians. The “attitude of separation from and enmity with Russia” inside Ukraine has “western authors.” How are Russians, living with state-controlled media and no independent press, and inundated by Kremlin disinformation, to tell how much of it is lies?

In the novel, Winston’s job is to fabricate old newspaper articles in such a way as to vindicate the Leader. There is evidence of a similar Russian practice in both the occupied territories of Ukraine and inside Russia itself. In a report on the occupation of Melitopol, The New Yorker described how occupation authorities counterfeited copies of a local newspaper, making them appear to favor Russia’s invasion. “False flag” publishing is practiced in Russia, too. In 2015, The Guardian reported that a Russian publisher had put out a series of pro-Putin books deliberately misattributed to the prominent Putin critics Edward Lucas and Luke Harding.

Much of Winston’s work at the ministry involves papering over enforced disappearances and rewriting old materials that refer to “unpersons” who have since disappeared or been “vaporized.” In July 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that Russian forces had “disappeared” Ukrainian civilians and taken them to Russia without informing them about their detention or allowing them to contact their families. According to HRW, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented thousands of such cases, many involving torture and other mistreatment. In August, the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab published findings on Russia’s “filtration system,” including satellite imagery of detention facilities and what it called “disturbed earth markings … possibly consistent with potential individuated or mass graves” at a facility in Russian-controlled Donetsk. Mass graves have been found in places liberated by Ukrainian forces, most notably in Bucha and Izium, where war crimes investigations are ongoing.

One of the most haunting aspects of “1984” is the terrible loneliness of its characters, who struggle to attempt any genuine human connection within a terrified and purely performative political culture. “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull,” Winston laments. Happily, Ukraine has proven able to resist such a state of affairs and now has many friends. Nor has Putin been able to impose it on Russians as easily as he might have wished; since the onset of the war in February 2022, thousands of courageous citizens have risked prison to protest the war, and dissenters with spray cans have emblazoned the words “no to war” on walls, snowdrifts and frozen rivers. Inscribed in Cyrillic, too, and in quiet solidarity with Russian objectors to the war, are perhaps 2 million copies of “1984,” sitting on Russian bookshelves, whispering the link between the past and the present.

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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