George Orwell and Russia by Masha Karp review

The suggestion that Russia has become an Orwellian tyranny is an inadequate explanation as to why the country finds itself in its present situation.

Cartoon based on Animal Farm, 1954. Alamy Stock Photo
A still from the animated movie based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, 1954. Alamy Stock Photo

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are two of the uncontested classics of 20th-century English literature, the first a satirical fable about the rise, corruption and fall of Soviet Communism, the second a novel about the danger which totalitarianism – of whatever political stripe – holds for freedom, and for all decent human relationships. Orwell’s prose was clear, direct, humane, often witty. His six principles of good writing are still held up as exemplary. Despite this, many good writers can, and do, use adjectives and adverbs, subparagraphs and even cliches with free abandon and to good effect. Orwell’s most important rule is the last: ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ 

His writing could be lighthearted – his essay on the rude postcards sold in English seaside resorts is a delight. But it is always suffused by a concern for the truth, a hatred of cant and a passionate desire that ordinary people should enjoy a better life. This was drawn from his experience in the depths of Paris and London, among the shockingly deprived workers of the industrial north, and in the battle against Franco’s insurgents in Spain where he saw the full extent of Soviet duplicity. All this was vividly reflected in his great works of reportage.

Opinion in the Western democracies at that time was violently divided. Many on the right were prepared to co-operate with Hitler and Mussolini rather than see the triumph of ‘godless Communism’. Many leftist intellectuals believed that only revolution could bring about a better future. Allying themselves with the Soviet Union seemed the only way of stopping fascism in its tracks.

Orwell’s own remedy for the ills he saw was socialism, and he never abandoned it. He later wrote: ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism as I understand it.’ But his problem, which remained unresolved, was that he could never quite make up his mind what he meant. Free-enterprising capitalists, he believed, would never have sufficient incentive to relieve the ills of the working man. So it would have to be done by the state. But such a state, he feared, could topple only too easily into an economic and political tyranny to match the fascists at their worst. Though he was a Labour supporter, he never seems to have fully appreciated that Clement Attlee was conducting a quiet revolution under his nose. The democratic socialism which grew in Europe opposed Hitler’s and Stalin’s tyrannies alike, and outlived them both. The welfare state was at least partly an answer to Orwell’s dilemma. 

1984 gave us a whole vocabulary of political language to describe the techniques of modern tyranny: Newspeak, Doublethink, Thought Police, Big Brother. But Orwell was not trying to write scientific political analysis. The future he supposedly predicted never came to pass, at least not in Europe. Hitler and Mussolini came to miserable ends and their regimes were replaced by democracies. Literature and music survived Stalin. The Soviet people, it turned out, could think for themselves despite the brainwashing. They circulated banned literature – including 1984 and Animal Farm – with great ingenuity. In the end the regime fell apart because a sufficient mass of the people got sick of the lies, the poverty, the incompetence, the corruption and the repression. The human spirit was more resilient than Orwell had feared. 

Orwell can hardly be blamed for getting his predictions wrong. Most of us do. The misjudgements he made were deeply rooted in his times. By the time he returned from Spain, the truth about what was happening inside the Soviet Union was being reported by an ever-increasing flood of witnesses: André Gide, Malcolm Muggeridge, Arthur Koestler and many others. What Orwell brought to the debate was not special knowledge or insight, but the fire and imagination of a great writer. And he never wavered in his contempt for those who chose to ignore the truth. 

Masha Karp is particularly well qualified to write about Orwell and Russia. A Russian journalist, she has worked at the BBC and edits the journal of the Orwell Society. Her book is deeply rooted in wide research and full of interesting facts and people. Unfortunately neither her narrative nor her analysis are easy to follow. She paints Orwell’s tenuous knowledge of Russia with the broadest brush, but she casts little new light on the inspiration he found there. Her lengthy account of the fate of Esperanto and its supporters at Soviet hands adds little to our understanding of Orwell’s intellectual development. She oversimplifies the West’s reaction to Europe’s dictators, and compounds the unhelpful confusion between capitalism, communism and democratic socialism.

Orwell would doubtless have been as indignant about Putin and his invasion of Ukraine as he was about Stalin. But the suggestion that Russia has become an Orwellian tyranny is an inadequate explanation as to why the country finds itself in its present grotesquely tragic situation, which is far more rooted in Russian history than in abstractions about totalitarianism. Karp is scornful of the Western intellectuals who hoped in the 1990s that Russia could indeed become a ‘normal’, democratic, country, at peace with itself and its neighbours, but this was a hope shared by many Russians. Nor was it ignoble, and it is hardly comparable with the treason of the clerks that so infuriated Orwell in the 1930s and 1940s. Karp also castigates Western governments for failing to stop Putin early in his brutal and aggressive path. Unable to re-engineer Yeltsin’s Russia, it is unclear what levers they now have to transform Putin’s. In any case they have become, even if belatedly, remarkably united in their support of Ukraine, which is, at last, likely to become a member of an extended and strengthened NATO. Europe has been transformed, entirely to Russia’s disadvantage. Putin has no chance of being secure in his legacy.

George Orwell and Russia
Masha Karp
Bloomsbury, 312pp, £21.99
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Rodric Braithwaite was British Ambassador in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union. His latest book is Russia: Myths and Realities (Profile, 2022).