Religion & Liberty Online

How Did George Orwell Know?

(Image credit: Estate of Vernon Richards)

For those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four seemed more a documentary than a work of dystopian fiction. How did a man who had never traveled to communist Russia get so much so right?

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The collocation in the title captures the thoroughgoing exploration of the topic in a phrase: George Orwell and Russia. Masha Karp is not the first to ponder George Orwell’s relationship to Stalinist Russia—and the relationship of both Stalinist and post-communist Russia to Orwell—but she is the first to frame a comprehensive, well-researched study around them. Even more important, she is the first Russian-born author to address these matters in a book-length work of scholarship that draws judiciously on Russian sources as well as on the wealth of English-language criticism now available.

These facts alone make George Orwell and Russia a notable study worthy of attention. Readers who suspect that nothing new can be said about Orwell, the most cited literary figure of the 20th century—the author of endlessly quoted catchwords and coinages ranging from Big Brother, thoughtcrime, and Newspeak to doublethink, memory hole, and Room 101—will be pleasantly surprised that George Orwell and Russia is studded with observations both fresh and arresting.

Above all, George Orwell and Russia addresses a question asked incessantly by readers in the communist world as well as by his English-language audience: How did he know? How did this Englishman who didn’t speak or read Russian so deeply comprehend the lived reality of average Russians under Stalinism? How did he understand so well the nature of Stalinist tyranny and the quotidian experience of coping with the betrayals of the Russian Revolution?

These are precisely the questions that gripped Masha Karp herself when, as a young woman in her early 20s living in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), she first read Orwell in the late 1970s. Like so many other Russians before and since, she was astounded that a writer who had never set foot in a communist country could capture how it felt to live under communism. She follows a long line of heterodox Eastern European and Soviet citizens, ranging from Czesław Miłosz to Joseph Brodsky, who dared to read Nineteen Eighty-Four during the Cold War era. They always felt it was a “miracle” that George Orwell so fully grasped the nature of the totalitarian tyranny of Stalin’s Russia, a country he had never stepped foot in.

Equally miraculous, as Karp acknowledges, was that Orwell’s nightmarish vision continued to be eerily apposite to the USSR of later decades—just as it is to Russia today. Not the least of her achievements in this book is her cogent explanation of his mirabilia of imaginative insight as she charts how Orwell’s hard-won experience of collectivism’s corruptions fortified and deepened his political vision, enabling him to conjure a terrifying world whose numerous catchphrases soon became bywords in the cultural lexicon. Her valuable study should be read by all who care about the Soviet past, agonize about the Russian present, and worry about the world’s future.

Spain: The Watershed Experience

Roughly a dozen years after her initial encounter with Orwell’s work, in 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Masha Karp relocated to London, where she established herself as a respected presence on the British intellectual scene regarding all matters pertaining to Russia in addition to being an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Formerly the Russian Features editor at the BBC, she has served as a translator and an interpreter as well as the editor of the official journal of the George Orwell Society, based in London. She is also the author of the first Russian-language biography of Orwell, published in 2018.

In George Orwell and Russia, Karp first investigates and analyzes the development of Orwell’s emerging political consciousness—that is, his growing interest in socialism and his heightening awareness of what communism really was. She argues that Orwell’s “political education” began when he spent time in Paris in 1928–29 with his aunt Nellie Limouzin and her husband, Eugene Lanti, both of whom were long-time radical leaders of the Esperanto movement who went through a Stalinist phase but later became disillusioned with Stalinism.

Karp argues at length that Nellie and Lanti exerted decisive influence on young Eric Blair in his 20s—and specifically on the character of his political development as a socialist. Lanti, who had visited the USSR and initially admired the Soviet experiment, was a communist and international co-founder of the Esperanto movement, an attempt at creating and disseminating an international language; Nellie embraced communism in the mid-1920s after they became lovers at this time.

Does Karp overestimate the influence of the Esperanto movement in general and Nellie and Lanti in particular? Much of the case is advanced with phrases such as “he must have,” “undoubtedly he knew,” “probably he thought,” and so on. Here Karp risks pushing too hard given the evidence presented here, on the contention that Blair’s relationship to his aunt and to the Esperanto movement shaped his political formation. The wealth of information about Lanti is interesting, but this provocative claim would be more persuasive to the skeptical reader if it were advanced more tentatively. The case does warrant further investigation, and Karp justifiably links his interest in languages (he was a gifted linguist, fluent in Burmese) with his sharp attention to the connection between language and thought (and the subtle political implications, which his famous essay “Politics and the English Language” addresses), all of which gave him a distinct approach to socialism and communism. His emerging political interests were furthered by his link to the circle of pacifists and anarchists associated with the London journals Adelphi and the New English Weekly in the early 1930s.

Karp notes, justly, that Orwell’s early sketches and fiction, including the semiautobiographical Down and Out in Parisand London and three traditional novels (Burmese Days, 1934; A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935; and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936), do not reflect a distinctive political outlook. (By contrast, she esteems highly Orwell’s last novel of the 1930s, Coming Up for Air, his portrait of England on the eve of World War II, with its atmosphere of foreboding about the coming war.)

Karp argues that Orwell’s visceral understanding of the collectivist, authoritarian nature of state socialism and the beginning of his recognition that it was something unique—that is, communism as a form of totalitarianism—dates from 1936–37, when he visited northern England to study the condition of the working class, the outcome of which was The Road to Wigan Pier. Not everyone agrees. For instance, Orwell’s first biographer, Bernard Crick, in George Orwell: A Life (1980), judged that Orwell portrayed himself too much the political neophyte, arguing that his grasp of Marxism and the ideology of the British left was greater than Orwell allowed when he visited Wigan. Karp is on surer ground with her more recent research.

There is no doubt that the turning point in Orwell’s political education came during his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the early months of 1937. Spain completed both his commitment to what he described as “democratic Socialism as I understand it” (Orwell always capitalized the noun in the phrase) and his realization that the fundamental nature of communism was totalitarian. In Spain he saw how the communist forces betrayed the revolution and was outraged at what he called “the servility of the so-called intellectuals” in their dishonesty regarding communism.

Karp notes an important impact of the Spanish experience on Orwell. There he first became aware of how the very idea of objective truth could be subverted when he saw stories of events taking place that he knew were not true but produced for political purposes. The theme would surface as a major element of Nineteen Eighty- Four.

Karp is most impressed by what she calls Orwell’s “remarkable intuition,” which enabled him to see what his fellow leftists were blind to—that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime little different from Nazism. He also grasped, as few of his left-wing comrades did, that communism was not a revolutionary idea but a counterrevolutionary force, something she notes it took years for some of his fellow leftists to learn. Some never did.

Perhaps the most impressive and significant scholarly contribution in this study is Karp’s discovery in Moscow, in a regional headquarters of the Soviet police, of a propaganda report pertaining to Orwell’s activities in Spain, accusing him of “subversive work.” (Orwell had fought with a Trotskyist militia that was branded traitorous by the Soviets, and he later suffered a throat wound while serving on the Aragon front. His papers were seized in a search by Spanish police and turned over to Soviet communist authorities.)

Orwell’s Later “Political Education”

Karp highlights the role that certain figures played in reinforcing the lessons of Spain and shaping Orwell’s “political education” about the tyrannical tendencies of Soviet communism, particularly Franz Borkenau, Gleb Struve, and Arthur Koestler. They taught him the subtleties of communist doctrine and practice and sharpened his political acumen. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon also played a role in forming some of the concepts that would appear in Nineteen Eighty-Four, especially the way that the protagonist Rubashov comes to accept his thoughtcrime, confessing so as not to betray the Party. Struve brought Zamyatin’s We to Orwell’s attention, which helped shape Orwell’s conception of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Karp believes it was Borkenau who influenced his thinking the most. Orwell had favorably reviewed his condemnation of communism’s role in the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Cockpit, which educated him about the nuances of communist doctrine and the interworkings of the communist system in Russia.

Orwell’s experience of Russian behavior in World War II and in particular what he called the disgusting cult of Stalin by many of his fellow leftists truly laid the groundwork for his two masterpieces, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Animal Farm’s perfect parody of the betrayal of the Russian Revolution marked what Orwell referred to, in “Why I Write” (1946), as his aspiration “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” Karp is impressed with Orwell’s generous willingness to allow Animal Farm to be translated for those behind the Iron Curtain without demanding any fees. She also observes that Orwell’s translators assumed he could read and understand Russian. How else could he portray so ingeniously and subtly how the Russian Revolution was betrayed?

In her discussion of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Karp contrasts the responses of readers in the West with that of Soviet citizens. Westerners saw the novel as portrait of a dystopian future and a warning of what the democratic governments of the world faced. Russian citizens didn’t so much view the book as a work of artistic imagination—indeed as a work of fiction—but rather as an artwork that reflected their reality. It was not a portrait of a future society of the 1980s. It was a portrait of their present. For them, Nineteen Eighty-Four had already arrived.

Karp aims to remind readers of how important the Russian experience was for Orwell. Other commentators on his two classic indictments of totalitarianism focused on his obsession with the growing menace of communism. She wants to put the focus on his interactions with communism in a specific context and a specific place, Russia, and let the readers understand the centrality of that land to Orwell’s thinking. She also draws attention to the ongoing relevance of his work to Russian politics and society, showing how the policies and (cult of) personality associated with Vladimir Putin necessitate renewed calls to heed Orwell’s warnings about leader worship and the abuses of power.

Readers with an interest in scholarly matters related to the study of Orwell’s work and life will also be gratified that Masha Karp is scrupulous about tracing sources and meticulous in citing them. With so many debates swirling about George Orwell’s legacy—indeed the controversies about his heritage represent a minor political issue in their own right—George Orwell and Russia is certainly welcome in that it allows readers to follow Karp’s lines of argument and assess the quality of her evidence. Clearly written and straightforwardly presented, George Orwell and Russia will thus appeal not only to the general reader but also to scholars interested in expert treatment of this significant dimension of the work and reception of George Orwell, arguably the most important literary figure of modern times.

John P. Rossi

John P. Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

John Rodden

John Rodden has recently written about such topics as "1984 Tops Bestseller List in Putin's Russia," "Russia vs. Ukraine: The Battle for Nikolai Gogol," and "Putin, Ukraine, and the Culture War." He can be reached at [email protected].