Russia History Soviet George Orwell and Russia

George Orwell and Russia

George Orwell, the author of 1984, is a name that hardly needs any introduction in Russia. Many of the words that he created have now entered the Russian language: novoyaz for Newspeak and dvoemyslie for double-think. His works were furtively passed from hand to hand throughout the entire Soviet Union, in samizdat and tamizdat, in the 1960s and 1970s, and read with relish. Orwell described his personal vision of the system of the future, symbolised by the image of a boot stamping on a human face. Yet an image all too similar to the then present-day Soviet reality. Everyone who read his books was amazed; Orwell might have been Russian, he could only have lived here himself. Orwell was loved, read and, seemingly, understood in Russia. Or was he?

What is his most famous work, 1984, about? It is an anti-utopian novel, one that fits into the fine traditions of anti-utopian writing in both English and Russian literature – Swift, Dostoevsky, Huxley, Zamyatin. It is a frightening prophecy of the future. But that is just the background. What is the content? This can be defined even more concisely: it is a novel about love. All the action in the novel is based on love. Winston meets Julia and they fall in love. There then follows their secret revolt. And what is their “political act” in the one-party state? They make love. That is their revolt. They are soon uncovered and Winston is tortured in Room 101 by O’Brien, the Inner Party member. But why is Winston tortured? What does O’Brien want from him? Not humiliation or submission to Big Brother. O’Brien himself says: “To obey him is not enough, you must love him.” At the end of the book, Winston is finally broken. His personality is destroyed and his soul removed. The Party’s victory is complete. The last sentence of the novel reads: “He loved Big Brother.”

Orwell thus makes it quite clear that his battlefield in the fight for human dignity is love. However, Russian readers are usually unable to see beyond the totalitarianism. Why so? Is it because of the Russian mind? The typical Russian tendency to view social problems on a global rather than a personal level? More probably because Orwell did draw on much of Soviet life; he translated from Russian into English. And so when you read 1984 in Russian, you are reading a translation from Russian into English back into Russian.

Which country does Orwell select as the site for his anti-Utopia? Not the Soviet Union, though it might have been, because its ideology was seen through by Orwell more clearly than anyone else in the West. No, the action takes place in Britain, a country with ancient traditions of parliamentary government and inviolable concept of the rights of man. The nightmare of a future where you are monitored night and day by the telescreen, hidden microphones and the omnipresent Thought Police, is played out in the very country where the most sacred human concept is privacy. How do you translate the word “privacy” into Russian? Britain would seem the last country on Earth identifiable with 1984. Here we have Orwell as the writer who is loved but not known. The truth is that 1984 is possible anywhere on Earth, where humans do not live by human love, but by a substitute for human love.

So the danger begins when love is substituted. Why should we substitute love? Because human love can be complicated, dramatic, painful, sad. It is much safer and easier to live in a crowd. The crowd can be a political party, a religious group, indeed any movement – just so long as it has something there to love. It does not have to be something as hideous as the ideology of a boot stamping on your face, as offered by Orwell in 1984. In his other, untranslated novels, Orwell selects money, religious sects, a plant even. Orwell’s point is that we must not attempt to overcome ourselves for the sake of abstract ideas. To “overcome yourself” (?????????? ????) in Russia is thought of as something positive, but for Orwell this is just another word for suicide.

So am I trying to say that Orwell here is a very English writer, using ideas alien to a Russian reader? It would seem so. Yet is not Orwell repeating Dostoevsky almost word-for-word, when he puts into the mouth of his hero the thought that mankind is faced with a choice – freedom or happiness – and the overwhelming majority of us will always choose happiness. For the Grand Inquisitor, the formula for happiness is “bread, authority and miracles,” lists of which were broadcast every hour on the hour by the telescreens in 1984. Here we have a Russian writer and an English writer, almost indiscernible. The difference is only in the accents – and Orwell’s accent is English.

Orwell observed the intelligentsia of his day – the English intelligentsia – and how they all too easily fell into raptures over Marxism, Surrealism, New Religious and other movements. And these are all movements created for the advancement of such great concepts as development and progress, but not for human love. Hence Orwell’s break with Western liberals. In whom does he place his hope? In the proles. He has no illusion, however. His proles are no better than that object of ridicule of the Soviet intelligentsia – the “hegemony.” They are a dark people, stupid, base and ignorant. Yet there is hope, because at least they sing. And when they sing, they do not sing about the Party or their country, but about people, Sally or Sid. They sing about love.

This is then Orwell, the English writer who is loved in Russia, but not understood. The writer who goes far deeper than merely exposing socialism. So how can the Russian reader discover the real Orwell? By reading his other novels. They are all in their own way very similar to Animal Farm and 1984; the same themes, but a different background. These works were translated into Russian in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the writing of 1984 by George Orwell, the writer who is loved in Russia, but not properly known.

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