Readers of George Orwell’s 1984 will remember Winston Smith confronting the chilling possibility that citizens can be made to believe anything the Party wishes, even that 2 + 2 = 5. But only few probably know—I did not, until I learned it from Masha Karp’s recent George Orwell and Russia—that Orwell’s inspiration for the idea was an actual propaganda poster which claimed the “enthusiasm of the workers” in Stalin’s Soviet Union would enable them to complete in only four years what had been planned for a standard five-year plan.
Karp provides a host of similar details to showcase how Orwell’s understanding of totalitarianism and its victims stemmed not only from his literary imagination, but also from a sustained engagement with Russian communism. As a former Russian features editor at the BBC World Service and translator of Orwell’s Animal Farm into Russian, she traces that engagement with both deep knowledge of Russia and a journalist’s eye for detail. Orwell is often a kind of ideological Rorschach blot, with different readers finding different things in him: the anti-imperialist, the socialist intellectual, the cold warrior. For Karp, he is first and foremost a diagnostician of Russian political pathologies, whose insights into the Soviet regime raise important questions about totalitarianism—in both his time and ours.
The book begins in the late 1920s, when the young Orwell—just shy of 25, fresh off five years with the Imperial Police in Burma—traveled to Paris to visit his Aunt Nellie and her partner Eugène Lanti. The two were not only leaders in the Esperanto movement, which sought to create a global language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also committed communists, seeing the twin causes as allies in the fight for global justice. Stalin’s regime thought differently, however, and when Nellie and Lanti refused to treat Esperanto as a mere tool of the Politburo, the Soviets denounced Lanti and cut off his access to Russian Esperantists. Orwell thus learned early on that Soviet leadership was more interested in cementing its own power than in uniting the workers of the world.
His later experience in Spain further opened Orwell’s eyes to the sinister nature of Stalinist totalitarianism. In 1936, he traveled to Barcelona to join the POUM militia, a Marxist but anti-Stalinist group fighting against Franco’s fascists. At that time, Barcelona was controlled by anarchist revolutionaries belonging to the National Federation of Labor and the Iberian Anarchist Federation. They deeply impressed Orwell. As he later wrote in Homage to Catalonia, he sensed among them “a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.”