The 20th century had no more prolific writer on the dangers of authoritarianism than Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell. Orwell’s writings continue to impact us today and, in Russia, his works continue to have a special resonance as Masha Karp explores in her new book, George Orwell and Russia. Reflecting upon the contemporary relevance in the context of Putin’s Russia and the war in Ukraine, Karp writes, “Back in 1942, Orwell was looking for ways to stop the world from sliding into totalitarian nightmare where there is no objective truth and the ‘leader’ can control the past, present and future”, Orwell points to two things that authoritarian post-truthers and those concerned by them should remember. The first is the truth goes on existing in your world, even if it is behind your back, and your denial of it means you are unable to violate or shape it. Second, so long as certain parts of the world resist and are not conquered by it, the liberal tradition will remain alive. What is remarkable about George Orwell’s writings, Karp observes, is that so many Russians are taken by his descriptions of authoritarianism and wonder how a man who never visited Russia could describe their condition so accurately? And it is this question Karp sets out to answer.
Orwell’s anti-authoritarian turn and his denouncement of the Soviet Union were shaped by his experiences during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. Orwell was deeply influenced by left-wing ideas and following the economic depression of the 1930s, believed a move away from capitalism and towards collectivisation was inevitable. But his exploration of socialism and anarchism did not mean he was not critical of left-wing movements in Britain, his sharpness and independence made many on the left weary of him. When the war broke out in Spain, Orwell was eager to go and see what was happening for himself. Like many, he had heard of the radical socialism taking place, as well as the fight against the fascists. However, travelling to Spain back then was difficult to do and you needed a letter of recommendation, something Orwell struggled to get as he went to Britain’s Communist Party to see if they would sponsor him. His critical mind and refusal to pledge allegiance to them meant the party believed him to be unreliable and refused to help him. Eventually, another left-wing group agreed to sponsor him, on the condition he join their militia in Barcelona, which Orwell agreed to. Arriving in Barcelona, a city-run by anarchists, fascinated Orwell. “The euphoria that Orwell felt on arrival stayed with him for the rest of his life … He was excited by the changes.” But seeing, first- hand, the authoritarianism of some of the left-wing factions and the Soviet Union’s brutality in Spain, turned Orwell firmly against the regime in Moscow.
Upon returning to Britain and writing about his experiences, Orwell encountered a problem all too familiar to us today. Criticism of the Soviet experiment was sharply attacked and, during the Second World War, criticising Russia was something nobody wanted to hear. In 1944, he began work on his novel, Animal Farm but, while writing it only took Orwell 3 months, he struggled to find a publisher, and it took one year before he was able to publish it. The unwillingness to release a book critical of the Soviet Union by the publishing industry was rooted in a deep-seated affection for Moscow among both the general public and intelligentsia. For the public, the Soviet Union helped save them from the Nazis and the propaganda coming from Moscow greatly impacted them. “Fredric Warburg, who eventually published Animal Farm – and reaped the fruit of its success – revealed, years later, that his own wife had threatened to divorce him, if he published Orwell’s satire, as she could not bear the thought of ingratitude towards the Russians.” While we live in a different time, there are echoes of the Russian ‘myth’ today. Up until the invasion of Ukraine, many in the West refused to believe that Russia was sliding back into totalitarianism under Putin and eagerly embraced oligarchs close to him. Those who raised the alarm were brushed off and even those on the anti-Imperialist left who would otherwise be critical of countries the West tries to get close to – were often defending Russian atrocities in places like Syria and elsewhere.
George Orwell and Russia makes for fascinating reading. Karp’s exploration of the past, with an eye on the present, enables her to uncover the roots of George Orwell’s enduring relevance. Orwell captures the mindset of those living under authoritarianism and I think Karp captures the mind of Orwell as he tries to figure the world out. Orwell is not some all-brilliant, fully formed intellectual. He is an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift. The book shows Orwell’s transformation from a naive romantic to someone who, when confronted with reality, is honest about it. Reading George Orwell and Russia will give you a new appreciation for Orwell’s works and an understanding of what he went through to get there.