October 25, 2016
By Abel Koga, Ranveer Uppal and Abigail Wagner
The novel that threatened a nation…
Who : Author George Orwell and the government leaders of the Soviet Union
What : 1984
When : 1949 – 1989
Where : The Soviet Union
Why : For its negative portrayal of a world modeled after the Soviet Union
Imagine the world forty years from now. You use advanced technology as part of everyday life and governmental corruption has disappeared due to several years of public protest and reform. It is exciting to think what else the future may bring. However, after waking up from your fantasy, you bask in the new state of the world. Dull and dilapidated buildings engulf the landscape, except in the center of your city, which is filled with mansions belonging to the ruling class. However, you cannot voice your dissatisfaction and frustration regarding this inequality as the government constantly watches your actions and will brutally punish you if you display dissent. Thus you live your life, internally opposing the government while externally glorifying it, wondering but never knowing if anyone else shares your frustration.
This may seem like an unlikely portrait of the future. But to George Orwell it was the plausible result of social reform and the inspiration for his novel 1984.
In the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is an unheroic, frail everyman. He lives in the fictional country Oceania, a dull and bleak nation where the ruling political party controls every aspect of the citizens’ lives. The people are monitored through telescreens and the overbearing, prevalent image of “Big Brother,” who reminds them that they are always watched. Their thoughts are manipulated by the government’s use of “Newspeak,” which seeks to eliminate words related to political rebellion by fabricating lies into truth, such as the novel’s infamous lines “War is peace,” “Ignorance is strength,” and “Freedom is slavery” (6). As a result, the ruling party successfully constructs a totalitarian system in which free thinking and individuality are virtually nonexistent. In this oppressive society, Winston Smith works for the government by altering historical records to suit the opinions of the ruling party and he feels unsatisfied and frustrated with the party’s leadership rule. He keeps his frustration to himself until he meets Julia, another anti-party individual. Ultimately, they are caught conspiring against the government and are tortured until Winston is merely a hollow lifeless shell who accepts the party and loves Big Brother.
Given below is a clip from Michael Anderson’s 1956 adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. It reveals just how dull life is within Oceania and the degree of control that the government practices over its citizens.
The Soviet’s viewed the text as a threat to the communist government it was planning to establish (Bergman, Jay. Interview). The Soviet’s perception of the novel was not baseless, as even Orwell himself admitted that he modeled much of Oceania directly from what he knew of the Soviet Union from the 1930s and 1940s (Bergman 174).
Parallels in the text also verify this connection to communism. For instance, Oceania’s use of Newspeak mimics the Soviet Union’s practice of, as modern Russian history professor Jay Bergman claims, to distort truth and to “pervert language to remain in power” (Interview). Likewise, Oceania eradicates the very notion of truth by distorting the meaning of words that could potentially incite revolution among the masses. In order to manipulate the truth, Oceania and the Soviet Union both alter the past as they see fit. By doing so, the populace cannot find inspiration from history to rebel against the government. Bergman shows that the Soviet Union and Oceania both use power not as a means to an end but instead as “simply an end in itself” (Bergman 175). The two nations assert power in order to ensure complete control over their domain. According to O’Brien, Winston’s friend-turned-betrayer and torturer, “power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power” (217).
Below, is another clip from Michel Anderson’s adaptation which shows an interaction between Winston and an inner party member. This clip highlights how the government in Oceania alters history to influence the citizens’ views.
Because the novel was perceived as a satirical attack on communism, the novel was banned in the Soviet Union in 1949, immediately after its publication. Although Orwell began writing 1984 long before Joseph Stalin had solidified his grip on the nation, the story predicts the means by which the Soviet Union would control its citizens. Indeed, at the time, some even considered his novel as “an ideological superweapon” against the Soviet Union (Rodden 133). Such a statement verifies just how essential it was for the Soviet Union to keep the novel from its citizens. The party knew that if the citizens, especially the dissidents, were allowed to read this book, they could have a political uprising on their hands, so they decided it would be safer to censor the book entirely by preventing its circulation within the country (Bergman 177).
Interestingly, despite the fact that Orwell merely sought to portray “a picture of what could happen” in a totalitarian regime, Soviet citizens who secretly obtain a copy of the book “could hardly believe ‘Orwell’ was not a pseudonym of a Soviet dissident.” To them, “the book was so accurate” that only a Russian could have written it (Bergman 177). These Soviets identified with 1984 and its illustration of oppressions they faced.
For these reasons, the book became popular among Soviet dissidents after it was banned (Bergman 178). However, for these individuals, even owning a copy of the book was seen as grounds for imprisonment. Bergman explains, “some Soviet citizens did have access to the novel. But they were few. Among them were nuclear physicists who were separated geographically from the Soviet people while working in secret ‘installations’ designing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons” (Interview). Bergman emphasizes just how difficult it was for an average Soviet citizen to access the novel. Yet individuals isolated from mainstream society, such as nuclear physicists, were better able to obtain the novel.
One dissident, Viktoriia Chalikova, wrote prolifically about 1984, even arguing that all dissidents should be grateful to Orwell for “sharpening their cognitive spirits” (Bergman 178):
And how we used to read Orwell in Russia! In third and fourth typewritten copies and in pale Xerox copies we read literally ‘close to the text’— looking around while we put ourselves at risk, in a tightly closed room, alone or with one other person, just as in the novel Winston and Julia read the underground book. The book and life reflected one another as if they were in a mirror! Yes, in spite of the prohibition against reading him, Orwell forced his way his way through at least to part of his Russian reading audience, about whom he had dreamed (QTD in Bergman Jay Reading, 178).
Her words vividly demonstrate the effect the book’s banning had on its popularity among the dissidents. By banning the book, the government not only made the book more popular but also highlighted, rather than suppressed, exactly why the book was so relevant to the conditions of its citizens.
Because of the novel’s unexpected influence over dissidents, such as Chalikova, the Soviet Union’s banning of 1984 backfired, and the government decided to change its approach. In the 1950’s, a Soviet newspaper called Return to Homeland proclaimed that 1984 was not a story based on the oppression of the Soviet Union, but rather a story based on “the day to day horrors of American life” (Rodden 133). It claimed that the subject of Orwell’s satire was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the book overall reflected the corruption that exists in classist capitalist societies. This was done primarily to convince Russians abroad to return to their homeland (Rodden 133). As the fateful year 1984, got closer, the Soviet Union struggled even more to keep the text out of its citizens hands. This loss of control led it to insist on parallels between the totalitarian government in 1984 and the American government. Excerpts from the book, for the first time, appeared in Soviet newspapers and magazines that all accused America of not being the “free land” it claimed to be. The Literary Gazette in 1983 referred to the Pentagon as the ‘Ministry of Peace” for its arms policies and the Defense Department as the “Ministry of truth” (Rodden 135). In the months that followed, many other publications such as Izvestia discussed various instances of speech manipulation, or in Orwellian terms, “Newspeak,” in America, and they referred to Ronald Reagan as “Big Brother,” the cruel dictator of the totalitarian government in 1984.
During the mid-1980’s Orwell himself became a target of ridicule by the Soviet media. For example, in an essay in The New Times, a soviet critic tried to portray Orwell as a “worker’s hero” (Rodden 135) by quoting selectively from his works to show that the enemies of the Kremlin were Orwell’s enemies. According to Rodden, “The man who ranked high in Soviet literary demonology was now a candidate for hagiography. The erstwhile Enemy of Mankind had become a Friend of the Common Man” (Rodden 135). Thus, the reputation of both 1984 and George Orwell in the Soviet Union changed as global politics changed during the late-twentieth century.
Although the Soviet Union has collapsed and the year 1984 is now in the distant past, Orwell’s novel still stands as a meaningful and significant text. It reveals the evils of totalitarian control, the gullibility of human beings to believe in lies, and the power of technology to advance governmental surveillance over every aspect of people’s lives—issues societies continue to wage today.
Bergman, Jay. “An Interview with Jay Bergman.” E-mail interview. 11 Oct. 2016.
Bergman, Jay. “Reading Fiction to Understand the Soviet Union: Soviet Dissidents on Orwell’s 1984.” History of European Ideas 23.5-6 (1997): 173-92. Georgia Tech Library. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.
Blyum, Arlen. “George Orwell in the Soviet Union: A Documentary Chronicle on the Centenary of His Birth.” Oxford Journals (2003): 402-16. The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society. Oxford University Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Dag, O. “George Orwell: ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.” George Orwell: ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’– Introduction by Gwyneth Roberts. Longman Group Limited, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.
Horan, Thomas D. “An Interview with Thomas D. Horan.” E-mail interview. 19 Oct. 2016.
Orwell, George. 1984. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Orwell, George. Letter. 1944. George Orwell: ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’– Introduction by Gwyneth Roberts. Openculture, 9 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
Rodden, John. “Soviet Literary Policy, 1945-1989: The Case of George Orwell.” Modern Age 32.2 (1988): 131-39. EBSCOHost. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.
Vynckier, Henk. “Interview with Orwell Scholar John Rodden.” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 40.1 (2014): 127-44. 1 Mar. 2014. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.
George Orwell, 1984, Soviet Union, Soviet dissidents, censorship, Soviet Union censorship, 20th century British literature, dystopian fiction, Stalinism, Joseph Stalin, totalitarianism, socialism