Stalinism and Nineteen Eighty-Four

It is, perhaps, useful for Westerners unfamiliar with the Soviet background to know that a book which many of them will have read, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, gives what many insiders consider to be a remarkably accurate satirical picture of Stalin's Russia around the time the novel itself was written (1946-48).

Three years older than Shostakovich, Orwell shared several characteristics with him: discipline, honesty, physical aloofness, a populist taste in literature, a preference for plain language, and a political outlook predicated on decency. Driven by a strong sense of obligation, both men identified with the worst-off in society and worked hard for the cultural departments of their countries' national broadcasting systems during the war.

Just as Shostakovich, under stress, tended to retreat in his work to memories of his happy childhood, so Orwell returned often in his writing to an idyllic vision of pre-1914 rural England - the "Golden Country" of Nineteen Eighty-Four (revisited at length in Coming Up For Air). Likewise, both men suffered towards the ends of their lives from illnesses which some critics see as having accentuated the pessimism of their later works. (The intensity of the torture scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four and the "waves of pain" in Shostakovich's Thirteenth Quartet have alike been ascribed to the unpleasant medical tests each went through shortly before writing these passages.)

While Orwell, unlike Shostakovich, could write what he liked, he chose to disguise the message of his two masterpieces, the tragi-satiric anti-Communist allegories Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, by setting them in fictional worlds, much as Soviet satirists like Zamyatin, Bulgakov, and Platonov did under duress. Banned for forty years in the USSR as counter-revolutionary propaganda, these books were published there during the late 1980s as part of Mikhail Gorbachev's drive to discredit Stalinism. Long famous by repute throughout the Communist bloc, they would have been known of by Shostakovich, though he is unlikely to have read them.

Many features of Orwell's imaginary superstate Oceania are ironic translations from Stalinist reality: the puritanical Komsomol (Young Communists) appear as the Anti-Sex League, the young informers of the Pioneers turn up as the Spies, Soviet Five-Year Plans shrink into Oceanian Three-Year Plans, and state-regulated vodka metamorphoses into Victory Gin. Soviet jargon, though sometimes parodied - bourgeois individualism becomes "ownlife" - is more often taken over unaltered. Thus, like Stalin's USSR, Oceania has its "renegades and backsliders" who are arrested at night, questioned by relays of interrogators, "unmasked" and "unpersoned" for "counterrevolutionary activities" and then either sent to the "saltmines" or "vaporised" (liquidated).

To avoid such a fate, Orwell's hero Winston Smith adopts an "expression of quiet optimism" so as not to be accused of "facecrime" - a genuine Stalinist misdemeanour defined by the critic Ronald Hingley as "the inability to simulate an adequate degree of righteous indignation". As in Russia, the "comrades" of Oceania are regaled with news bulletins consisting almost entirely of lists of industrial production figures, most of which are triumphantly announced as "overfulfilled" and none of which are believed. As in Russia, there are constant powercuts and shortages, all essentials being obtained through the underground "free market".

The only thing in Oceania unknown under Stalinism is Orwell's two-way telescreen; the only aspect of Stalinism left out of Oceania is compulsory collectivism (instead of living in a communal apartment, Winston Smith has his own flat).

Winston's job is that of "rectification" in the newspaper section of the Ministry of Truth (known as Minitrue, in accordance with the Soviet penchant for modern-brutal abbreviations like "orgburo" and "diamat"). In this building - whose "enormous pyramidal structure" symbolises the organisation of the Communist Party - books and periodicals are rewritten and photographs altered to reflect the "correct" (i.e., the latest) view of past events.

Often taken by Western readers to be a flight of surrealist fantasy, this is a barely inflated parody of what actually happened under Stalinism. Soviet defector Arkady Shevchenko has written of his student days that "facts and concepts were always being 'corrected' in textbooks and lectures. As policy shifted at Stalin's whim, men and nations who had been in favour became pariahs overnight; established dogma turned into heresy. It could be disastrous to miss a lecture where the revised truth of the day was proclaimed for us to copy down".

Stalin's most outrageous "correction" of the past, the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939, is satirised in Nineteen Eighty-Four as the alliance of Oceania with its arch-enemy Eurasia against its former ally Eastasia. ("Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.") Orwell's observation that, in Oceania, the same updating of reality applied to poetry as political writing is similarly based on Stalinist fact.

Big Brother, the all-seeing leader who murders his rivals, decrees "a new, happy life" and, from ubiquitous posters and hoardings, broods over a populace conditioned by terror to love him, is, of course, Stalin "the Omniscient, the Omnipresent" himself. ("Big Brother" is what the East European satellite nations began calling Russia just after the war.) Just as in Soviet mythology the quasi-supernatural Lenin "lives", so in Oceania "Big Brother cannot die". Equally perpetual is Oceania's devil figure Emmanuel Goldstein, counter-revolutionary author of "the book", against whom the State wages an endless struggle:

"Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State."
This is the way Trotsky was portrayed to the Soviet people during the Thirties, a political myth which allowed Stalin's NKVD to repress millions for the imaginary crime of "Trotskyism" just as Big Brother's Thought Police repress the alleged followers of Goldstein. (Goldstein's book is a probable allusion to Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed.) On the subject of Oceania's purges, Orwell is particularly literal, shifting Big Brother's Terror from the Thirties to the Sixties, but otherwise reproducing the pattern of events in Stalin's Russia with great precision. Last of Big Brother's rivals to survive are the prominent Party members Jones, Aaranson, and Rutherford:
"As so often happened, they had vanished for a year or more, so that one did not know whether they were alive or dead, and then had suddenly been brought forth to incriminate themselves in the usual way. They had confessed to intelligence with the enemy (at that date, too, the enemy was Eurasia), embezzlement of public funds, the murder of various trusted Party members, intrigues against the leadership of Big Brother which had started long before the Revolution happened, and acts of sabotage causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. After confessing to these things they had been pardoned, reinstated in the Party, and given posts which were in fact sinecures but which sounded important. All three had written long, abject articles in The Times, analysing the reasons for their defection and promising to make amends ... A little later all three were rearrested. It appeared that they had engaged in fresh conspiracies from the very moment of their release. At their second trial they confessed to all their old crimes over again, with a whole string of new ones."
Jones, Aaranson, and Rutherford probably stand for Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Radek, to whom the events described by Orwell most closely apply. They confessed to spying for Japan, murdering Kirov, trying to murder Stalin, wanting to have murdered Lenin, and general "Trotskyite sabotage" - crimes for which they apologised at length, accompanied by fulsome expressions of admiration for Stalin, in Pravda. Rubashov's similar confession in Arthur Koestler's novel of 1940 Darkness At Noon, is a genteel affair compared to the ordeal inflicted on Winston Smith, but there is good reason to suppose Orwell's crueller picture was closer to the truth.

In Let History Judge, for example, Roy Medvedev quotes the deposition of Mikhail Yakubovich in 1967 concerning his alleged participation in the All-Union Bureau of Mensheviks. The trial of this non-existent counter-revolutionary organisation took place in 1931, six years after the last Mensheviks had been liquidated. Yakubovich, a Bolshevik, was understandably reluctant to confess to membership of this imaginary party and, though tortured on "the conveyor" (i.e.., driven continuously between interrogation cells by blows), he refused to comply with his captors' demands until the State Prosecutor himself, Nikolai Krylenko, paid him a visit.

Summoning Yakubovich before him in the Butyrki Prison, Krylenko told him: "I have no doubt that you personally are not guilty of anything. We are both performing our duty to the Party - I have considered and consider you a Communist. I will be the prosecutor at the trial, you will confirm the testimony given during the investigation. This is our duty to the Party, yours and mine... Have we agreed?" Yakubovich recalls: "I mumbled something indistinctly, but to the effect that I promised to do my duty. I think there were tears in my eyes. Krylenko made a gesture of approval. I left."

Confused, like Winston Smith, by beatings and sleep-deprivation, the NKVD's victims rarely had any will left to argue with their interrogator's nonsensical assertions. In fact, many were so bamboozled by propaganda and Stalin worship that they confessed instantly to whatever crimes they were accused of, preferring on principle the Party's version of their past to their own. The eager confession of Orwell's burlesque character Parsons ("Of course I'm guilty! You don't think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?") is only partly a joke. Eugenia Ginzburg heard similar sentiments expressed by imprisoned Party members while she herself was in the Butyrki between 1937 and 1939.

Readers behind the Iron Curtain often express amazement at Orwell's minute familiarity with their way of life: the scarcity of telephone directories, the unavailability of any books published more than twenty years previously, the material privileges enjoyed by the Soviet nomenklatura (Oceania's Inner Party), the use of swearing as an antidote to officialese, the routine corruption of the labour camp system, the employment of criminals to supervise political prisoners, and so on. Some of this trickled through to the West via the newspaper columns of foreign correspondents and Orwell evidently kept his eye out for such data.

For example, he incorporated the raising of the maximum Soviet hard labour sentence to twenty-five years when Tass announced it in 1947 while he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four on Jura. Similarly, O'Brien's claim that the Party was above the laws of nature is likely to have been based on newspaper reports of Trofim Lysenko's speech to the Congress of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences in August 1948. Otherwise, he depended on talking to visitors to and defectors from the Soviet bloc and on the books and pamphlets by such people he amassed in his personal library. Much of the verisimilitude of the novel is owed to writings of this kind, including the famous formula 2+2=5, derived from an "acceleration slogan" of 1929 (indicating that the targets of the First Five-Year Plan were achievable a year early) which he found in Eugene Lyons' Assignment in Utopia.

How far the theoretical apparatus of Nineteen Eighty-Four - Newspeak, Doublethink, and so on - was taken from accounts of Socialist Realism is difficult to say, since much of the thought behind the technical side of Orwell's book derived from his own critical essays on language and politics. There is, though, a discrete step between imagining a mode of discourse in which ready-made phrases block free thought (Communist examples of which he collected avidly) and a language in which a word or phrase means the exact opposite of what it seems to mean. Paradoxical concepts like "democratic centralism" (meaning totalitarianism) may have given him a lead, as may the convolutions of Socialist Realist theory, but essentially Newspeak appears to have been an inspired deduction - the closest Nineteen Eighty-Four approaches to science fiction.

(Not that this has prevented the Poles from recognising in it a satirical projection of their own brand of officialese and taking it into their language as "nowomowa". Nor, indeed, are Orwell's theoretical constructs by any means regarded as fanciful by Soviet intellectuals. A Russian acquaintance of Orwell's Tribune colleague Tosco Fyvel told him in 1982: "With his Newspeak and Doublethink, Orwell wrote for us! No Westerner could understand him as intimately as we in the Soviet Union felt he understood our lives.")

Further instances of Orwell's logic leading him to endow Oceania with features in advance of its Stalinist model include "reality control" (a concept paralleled thirty years later by the doctrine of Soviet "information space") and O'Brien's insistence that Winston is insane (twelve years before Soviet courts started sending dissidents to psychiatric wards). Even Orwell's "exaggerations" have more often than not turned out to be justified. The Two Minutes Hate, for example, is anticipated by a piece in Pionerskaya Pravda for 17th December 1932 announcing that the paper's main educational mission to Soviet youth was "the cultivation of hatred". More extraordinary still, recent research (George Leggett, The Cheka, p.198) shows that in 1921 the Kiev secret police were executing captives with rats, much as occurs in Nineteen Eighty-Four's ghastly Room 101.

With this level of incisiveness, Orwell's masterpiece was bound to make a major impact in Europe where, in the words of its publisher Fredric Warburg, it was "the most powerful anti-Soviet tract that you could find - and treated as such". Robert Tucker, now Professor of Politics at Princeton, was on the staff of the American embassy in Moscow after the war and read Nineteen Eighty-Four soon after it appeared. In his opinion, the novel, far from being a fantasy about the future, was then happening in reality outside the embassy compound. Oceania "actually existed" in Russia in 1949.

For some years, Nineteen Eighty-Four was little more than a legend behind the Iron Curtain. Referring to the novel in The Captive Mind in 1953, Czeslaw Milosz observed that "because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well... (They) are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life."

Fifteen years on, Nineteen Eighty-Four was sufficiently familiar to the Russian intelligentsia for Eugenia Ginzburg to make casual allusions to it in her memoirs. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has since praised its analytic brilliance while, in their recent history of the Soviet Union Utopia in Power, Aleksandr Nekrich and Mikhail Heller single out Orwell as "perhaps the only Western writer who profoundly understood the essence of the Soviet world".

Note (1995):

This piece was originally published in Arena in 1988 and, slightly altered, appeared as Appendix 1 of The New Shostakovich in 1990. When I wrote it, I hadn't seen Robert Conquest's similar essay "Orwell: 1984", originally published in 1961 and reprinted (in Tyrants and Typewriters) in 1989.

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