George Orwell and Russia (Bloomsbury Academic, £21.99), the first book on Orwell by a Russian scholar, deserves (for once!) the praise on its back cover by the Russian experts Anne Applebaum and Michael Scammell. The author, Masha Karp, was born and educated in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and moved to London in 1991. She was the Russian Features editor at the BBC, translated into Russian books from German and English, including Animal Farm, and is the current editor of the Orwell Society Journal. Her valuable book analyses the impact of Russian totalitarianism on Orwell and his influence in Russia when Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were translated, smuggled into the country and later published there. As she points out, Russians were amazed that a foreign writer who had never visited their country could describe exactly how it felt to live under a totalitarian regime.
Karp has done extensive archival research and discovered valuable information from sources in Moscow. No one has found the greatest treasure: Orwell’s Spanish Civil War correspondence and diaries, confiscated by the Soviet secret police, who were trying to capture and kill him in Barcelona in May 1937, and no one knows if these papers still exist. But she did find a trumped-up Russian report on Orwell, who was shot in the throat on the Aragon front while fighting in the Trotskyist militia POUM (Unified Marxist Workers’ Party).
The report states: “He played a leading role in the Front Committee of the ILP [British Independent Labour Party], Lenin Division. He took an active part in the May uprising [against the Communists]. From previous correspondence it can be assumed that subversive work was carried out in [Soviet police headquarters in] Albacete. A notepad with records of various positions of the [Communist] PSUC formations on the Aragon front was found among his effects.” While trying to prove that he took part in the uprising, the report quoted a letter from Orwell to his wife Eileen (also in Barcelona). Orwell wrote to Eileen “that he looked for her, that he is returning to his post at the Local Committee opposite the Hotel Falcon, that he took his ‘bomb’, and asked her to keep out of danger.”
It would be useful to know more from the Russian archives about Boris Souvarine, a French member of the Comintern and caustic critic of Stalin; and about Mikhail Koltzov, a Russian journalist in Spain, who appears as Kharkov in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), the year he returned to Russia and was murdered by Stalin.
Orwell’s fight against the fascists in Spain was part of his attempt to expiate his deep-rooted guilt feelings. His father had spent his entire career in the Opium Department of the Indian Government, exporting tons of the lucrative drug to China and stupefying the dope fiends of that country. Orwell himself did the dirty work of empire as a policeman in Burma in the 1920s. In The Road to Wigan Pier he explained: “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants. . . . Once I had been among them and accepted by them, I should have touched bottom, and—this is what I felt; I was aware even then that it was irrational—part of my guilt would drop from me.” Though going down and out in Paris and London didn’t expiate his guilt—nothing could—it gave him fascinating material to write about in his first books.
T. E. Lawrence’s similar self-punishment illuminates Orwell’s plunge to the lower depths. Lawrence felt guilty about his illegitimate birth, betrayal of the Arabs with promises he was not authorised to make, masochistic pleasure in being whipped and sodomises when captured in Deraa, and the massacre he carried out in Tafas. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he confessed: “There seemed a certainty in degradation, a final safety. Man could rise to any height, but there was an animal level beneath which he could not fall. It was a satisfaction on which to rest.” After his military triumphs in Arabia, Lawrence rejected high office, fled from fame and mortified himself by enlisting as a private in the Tank Corps.
The shock of the Communist attack on the anti-Fascist Trotskyists in Spain—a civil war within the Civil War and major cause of the Republican defeat—persuaded Orwell to make three important decisions. He would not join the Communist-controlled International Brigades, he would write about the events he had just witnessed and he would return to the Aragon front to fight, which greatly reduced his chance to survive and write. After his narrow escape from Spain, he was tried in absentia and condemned to death. Winston Smith’s torture in Nineteen Eighty-Four morbidly recreated what might have happened to Orwell if he had been caught.
In Nineteen Eighty–Four Orwell wrote that arrests “invariably happened at night”. But he did not explain the reasons: victims were usually home at night, were surprised when sleeping, were not prepared to resist and few witnesses were present. In his essay on Arthur Koestler, Orwell noted the reasons that prisoners made false confessions: they were guilty, were tortured or were still loyal to the Party. The fourth, most important and unmentioned reason, was to save their threatened families from the gulag camps or death (the latter sometimes preferable). Karp mentions that the Soviet police conveniently killed people “in a building with a secret crematorium which enabled them to dispose of their victims without leaving any traces of their remains”.
Karp does not speculate about what might have happened if the Republicans had won the Civil War. Orwell disliked Leon Trotsky and stated “there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin”. Similarly, there is no certainty that the Republicans would be preferable to the Fascists. The anti-Catholic Republicans killed many landowners, burned churches, raped nuns and tried to murder their political opponents. So Stalinist Spain would probably have been as ruthless as Stalinist Russia. But in World War II, a Communist Spain allied with Russia could have attacked the Nazis from both west and east, and either prevented the war or defeated the enemy more rapidly.
Goethe had observed that “liberty, when crowned with authority, invariably turns into an oligarchy”. In Spain, Orwell realised that Communism was just as evil as Fascism. He devoted a great deal of time for the rest of his life to telling the British Communists, blinded by the Soviet myth, about the atrocities he had personally witnessed. He was appalled by the British “indifference to tyranny and injustice”, their inability to see that the Soviet leaders “want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it”. Bertrand Russell’s Theory and Practice of Bolshevism (1920) had exposed the reality of the Soviet regime, and Emma Goldman had published My Disillusionment in Russia (1925).
But when Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, and Lincoln Steffens (who declared “I have seen the future and it works”) visited Russia during the collapse of capitalism and economic Depression of the 1930s, they were all blinded by their rose-tinted observations. As Eugene Lyons wrote in Assignment in Utopia, “Shaw judged food conditions by the [luxurious Hotel] Metropole menu, collectivisation by the model farm, the GPU [police] by the model colony at [historical] Bolshevo, socialism by the twittering of attending sycophants.” Despite Orwell’s strenuous efforts, diehard British Communists remained loyal to the party through the Ukraine famine, the Moscow Show Trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Katyn Massacre, the postwar domination of Eastern Europe, the crushing of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. (The Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, who won the Nobel Prize in 2004, remained a Communist until 1991.)
Like several ancient and modern authors, Orwell was especially concerned with the decay of language in oppressive regimes and he described it in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was not the first to do so. In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides had lamented the corruption of language that accompanied the collapse of law and moral standards: “To fit in with the change of events, words too had to change their usual meanings. A thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member: any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character.” The French philosophe Denis Diderot observed that “when intolerance is instilled in a nation, not only are the people brutalised, but so is the language.”
More recently the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky explained how language was perverted by the Soviet government: “An authoritarian state can steal people’s language and then, since language is extremely vulnerable to taboo, lease it back in a doctored condition, using it as an instrument of social and mental control.” A brilliant Soviet poster of 1931, reproduced on the cover of Karp’s book, states “2+2=5.” Its positive meaning, advocating superior industrial manpower, is that “2+2+workers’ enthusiasm=5.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell uses this slogan negatively, when Winston Smith is forced to believe what he knows to be arithmetically false but what the state decrees: “2+2=5.”
The Soviets oppressed people through sound and sight and mind control. Brodsky also recalled “those huge loudspeakers they used to have everywhere in the Soviet Union that would come on now and again to announce something that was considered of special importance to the people.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four it was advisable when facing the ever vigilant telescreen to wear an expression of quiet optimism and, as T. S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” to “Prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Orwell wrote that “in the eyes of the Party there was no distinction between the thought and the deed” — a distant echo of Matthew 5:28: “whoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Edward Mendelson noted that in December 1940, the year after W. H. Auden moved to America, he “went to a cinema in the German-speaking Yorkville district of Manhattan and, while an official German newsreel portrayed Nazi victories in Poland, he heard the ordinary middle-class audience around him shouting in murderous fury at the defeated Poles.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four no one dared to be the first to stop shouting.
The original title of Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe, which suggests the influence of Olaf Stapleton’s futuristic novel Last and First Men (1930). Stapleton’s vision of global conflicts ending in a torrent of radio hate, of Europe destroyed by war and descending into the dark ages, was filled with strange premonitions: one of the Last Men warns the survivors that the earth is doomed.
Winston Smith is trapped by the contradictory slogan “Freedom is Slavery” and yearns for unattainable freedom. Unlike Winston, Anton Chekhov, the son of a freed serf, managed to escape from this crushing bondage. In a famous letter he declared: “this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and on awaking one fine morning, he feels that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer that of a slave but that of a real human being.”
In Nineteen Eighty-Four children “were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police.” Absolute control over personal life enforced loyalty to the State rather than to family or lovers. The brilliant critic D. S. Mirsky, who mistakenly returned to Russia and was murdered in 1939, explained that in a society infected by mass psychosis “fear is paramount, denunciation officially encouraged as a citizen’s duty, and awareness of the secret police is uppermost in everyone’s mind.”
Orwell’s unhappy sex life: in Burma, before his marriage, after Eileen’s death, while afflicted with tuberculosis and frustrated by Sonia Brownell, who married him on his deathbed, is portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four when the sex drive is deflected by the State into Two Minutes Hate and betrayal of the lovers. Winston is too restricted, spied on, half-starved and sick, too broken down, demoralized and depressed, to have a sex life. He’s attracted to Julia (based on Sonia), but fails to understand that she’s not really keen on the Anti-Sex League. They have a brief idyllic moment in the countryside (Orwell was fond of plein air sex) and in their secret hiding place. But they are betrayed by the apparently friendly Charrington. When terrified and tortured, Winston breaks down and betrays her by screaming: “Do it to Julia!”
In 1949 Orwell was asked by the stunning Celia Kirwan, whom he’d wanted to marry and who worked for an official research department, to provide a list of crypto-Communists who should not be trusted to provide propaganda for British government. In 2003 he was posthumously accused of “outing” people for their political views. Karp convincingly shows that all those on the list were in fact well-known Communist sympathisers. Later on, as Orwell shrewdly suspected, Tom Driberg and Peter Smollett were exposed as Soviet agents.
Karp ends her book strongly by showing how Putin has reestablished a totalitarian government, including the “casual killing of its own innocent people for the sake of frightening the rest”. Like Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin, Putin single-handedly holds the entire world hostage.
Jeffrey Meyers has published A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell (1975), George Orwell: The Critical Heritage (1975), George Orwell: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (1977), Orwell: Wintry Conscience of His Generation (2000) and Orwell: Life and Art (2010).
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