George Orwell wrote his 1945 masterpiece, "Animal Farm", to expose what he called "the Soviet myth".
He angered many of his friends on the left with his allegorical novel about Stalin and the Russian Revolution. But "Animal Farm" was an instant classic with an unexpected group of readers – Ukrainian refugees from the Soviet Union.
One of them was Vitalij Keis. When Keis was a kid, he spent six years in a Displaced Persons camp for Ukrainians right after World War II. The camp was on a former military base in West Germany. One day, his teacher recommended a brand new book by the British writer George Orwell. It was "Animal Farm."
"This was in Ukrainian, not in English," Keis said. He had picked up translation of Orwell's novel at the camp commissary. Several thousand copies had been printed by hand at another Ukrainian DP camp. "From what I understand, it was the first translation," he said, in any foreign language. It was l947.
Keis vaguely remembers discussing the book with his mother, who read it too. "You have to remember, this was many years ago. I'm 76 now. But definitely this book made a splash." In fact, Animal Farm was required reading in some DP camps.
The First Orwell Fans After the war, there were nearly three million Ukrainian refugees in western Europe. Most, like Keis' family, came from the Soviet Union. "I would say we were the first Orwell fans," he said, laughing. Because Orwell's story described what they'd lived through – from the idealism of the Russian Revolution to Stalin's forced collectivization, famine, and mass arrests.
"This was right after World War II, and was very fresh in memory," Keis said. "My family, one fifth of my family was exiled to Siberia, and we never found any trace of them."
Andrea Chalupa is Vitalij Keis' niece. She's also the author of a new e-book, "Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm." She said a young Ukrainian scholar named Ihor Shevchenko wrote to Orwell in l946, after reading "Animal Farm" in English. According to Chalupa, he wrote that he'd love to translate the novel.
"The message of your book resonates with me and I translated it out loud to Ukrainian refugees here, and they love it, and we want to make copies and give it out to people." Orwell was delighted. He refused any royalties, and even agreed to write a preface for the Ukrainian edition, and it remains the most detailed and personal description of how he came to write the book that made him world famous.
"I am aware that I write for readers about whom I know nothing, but also that they too have probably never had the slightest opportunity to know anything about me," Orwell began.
"He basically said, please let me introduce myself and humbly tell you how I feel about your government and the events that you recognize in Animal Farm," Chalupa said. Orwell told his Ukrainian readers that he was a Socialist, more out of sympathy for the plight of the working poor than out of any theoretical fondness for a centrally planned economy. He then explained how in l936, after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he went to fight with the Communists against the Fascists. He didn't realize there were warring factions among the Communists, and that he had, more or less by accident, joined the Communist militia that wasn't controlled by Moscow.
"And he goes on to tell the story in the preface of being in Spain on the frontlines, of almost being killed, of being with his wife and running for their lives from the Stalinists, and how that opened his eyes for the first time to the horror of Stalin," Chalupa said. "On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages."
Orwell said he wrote "Animal Farm" so that people in Western Europe would see the Soviet regime for what it really was.
"In my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated," Orwell wrote in the preface.
"So Orwell was moved to say that's not socialism everybody, stop just blindly supporting it. The Russian Revolution, that spirit is over, it's dead. Stalin's killed it," said Chalupa.
In l945, Stalin demanded the repatriation of all Soviet citizens in western Europe. Most of the Ukrainian refugees were rounded up from DP camps, and sent back to the Soviet Union, with help from the British and American authorities. Vitalij Keis's family escaped repatriation. They moved to the United States in l951, when Keis was a teenager. He later became a professor of comparative literature and writing at Rutgers University.
A couple of years ago, Keis' niece Andrea came over for dinner. Even though she'd been working on a project about Ukrainian and Soviet history, she'd only just learned about the Ukrainian edition of "Animal Farm".
"And over dinner, which was of course borscht and vareniky and stuffed cabbage," Chalupa said, "I was telling them what I'd been up to, and about Orwell and the refugees and "Animal Farm". And my uncle just looks at me and says, "Oh yeah, I have a copy of that book."
It was his copy of "Animal Farm" from the DP camp. He'd kept it all these years.
He then gave it to his niece as a gift. Andrea Chalupa keeps it in a glass case at her parents' house. The cover shows large, menacing pig learning against a fence, clutching a whip. Boxer, the story's long-suffering workhorse, is in the background, pulling a heavy wagon up a hill.
I have been asked to write a preface to the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm. I am aware that I write for readers about whom I know nothing, but also that they too have probably never had the slightest opportunity to know anything about me.
In this preface they will most likely expect me to say something of how Animal Farm originated but first I would like to say something about myself and the experiences by which I arrived at my political position.
I was born in India in 1903. My father was an official in the English administration there, and my family was one of those ordinary middle-class families of soldiers, clergymen, government officials, teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc. I was educated at Eton, the most costly and snobbish of the English Public Schools.* But I had only got in there by means of a scholarship; otherwise my father could not have afforded to send me to a school of this type.
Shortly after I left school (I wasn't quite twenty years old then) I went to Burma and joined the Indian Imperial Police. This was an armed police, a sort of gendarmerie very similar to the Spanish Guardia Civil or the Garde Mobile in France. I stayed five years in the service. It did not suit me and made me hate imperialism, although at that time nationalist feelings in Burma were not very marked, and relations between the English and the Burmese were not particularly unfriendly. When on leave in England in 1927, I resigned from the service and decided to become a writer: at tirst without any especial success. In 1928–9 I lived in Paris and wrote short stories and novels that nobody would print (I have since destroyed them all). In the following years I lived mostly from hand to mouth, and went hungry on several occasions. It was only from 1934 onwards that I was able to live on what I earned from my writing. In the meantime I sometimes lived for months on end amongst the poor and half-criminal elements who inhabit the worst parts of the poorer quarters, or take to the streets, begging and stealing. At that time I associated with them through lack of money, but later their way of life interested me very much for its own sake. I spent many months (more systematically this time) studying the conditions of the miners in the north of England. Up to 19301 did not on the whole look upon myself as a Socialist. In fact I had as yet no clearly defined political views. I became pro-Socialist more out of disgust with the way the poorer section of the industrial workers were oppressed and neglected than out of any theoretical admiration for a planned society.
In 1936 I got married. In almost the same week the civil war broke out in Spain. My wife and I both wanted to go to Spain and fight for the Spanish Government. We were ready in six months, as soon as I had finished the book I was writing. In Spain I spent almost six months on the Aragon front until, at Huesca, a Fascist sniper shot me through the throat.
In the early stages of the war foreigners were on the whole unaware of the inner struggles between the various political parties supporting the Government. Through a series of accidents I joined not the International Brigade like the majority of foreigners, but the POUM militia–i.e. the Spanish Trotskyists.
So in the middle of 1937, when the Communists gained control (or partial control) of the Spanish Government and began to hunt down the Trotskyists, we both found ourselves amongst the victims. We were very lucky to get out of Spain alive, and not even to have been arrested once. Many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared.
These man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them. In Spain as well as in Russia the nature of the accusations (namely, conspiracy with the Fascists) was the same and as far as Spain was concerned I had every reason to believe that the accusations were false. To experience all this was a valuable object lesson: it taught me how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.
My wife and I both saw innocent people being thrown into prison merely because they were suspected of unorthodoxy. Yet on our return to England we found numerous sensible and well-informed observers believing the most fantastic accounts of conspiracy, treachery and sabotage which the press reported from the Moscow trials.
And so I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.
And here I must pause to describe my attitude to the Soviet regime. I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.
But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class. Moreover, the workers and intelligentsia in a country like England cannot understand that the USSR of today is altogether different from what it was in 1917. It is partly that they do not want to understand (i.e. they want to believe that, somewhere, a really Socialist country does actually exist), and partly that, being accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life, totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.
Yet one must remember that England is not completely democratic. It is also a capitalist country with great class privileges and (even now, after a war that has tended to equalise everybody) with great differences in wealth. But nevertheless it is a country in which people have lived together for several hundred years without major conflict, in which the laws are relatively just and official news and statistics can almost invariably be believed, and, last but not least, in which to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger. In such an atmosphere the man in the street has no real understanding of things like concentration camps, mass deportations, arrests without trial, press censorship, etc. Everything he reads about a country like the USSR is automatically translated into English terms, and he quite innocently accepts the lies of totalitarian propaganda. Up to 1939, and even later, the majority of English people were incapable of assessing the true nature of the Nazi regime in Germany, and now, with the Soviet regime, they are still to a large extent under the same sort of illusion.
This has caused great harm to the Socialist movement in England, and had serious consequences for English foreign policy. Indeed, in my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of Socialism as the belief that Russia is a Socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated.
And so for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.
On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages. However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.
I proceeded to analyse Marx's theory from the animals' point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans. From this point of departure, it was not difficult to elaborate the story. I did not write it out till 1943, for I was always engaged on other work which gave me no time; and in the end I included some events, for example the Teheran Conference, which were taking place while I was writing. Thus the main outlines of the story were in my mind over a period of six years before it was actually written.
I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure. But I should like to emphasise two points: first, that although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they are dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story. The second point has been missed by most critics, possibly because I did not emphasise it sufficiently. A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long; and as events have shown, I wasn't far wrong.
I don't know what more I need add. If anyone is interested in personal details, I should add that I am a widower with a son almost three years old, that by profession I am a writer, and that since the beginning of the war I have worked mainly as a journalist.
The periodical to which I contribute most regularly is Tribune, a sociopolitical weekly which represents, generally speaking, the left wing of the Labour Party. The following of my books might most interest the ordinary reader (should any reader of this translation find copies of them): Burmese Days (a story about Burma), Homage to Catalonia (arising from my experiences in the Spanish Civil War), and Critical Essays (essays mainly about contemporary popular English literature and instructive more from the sociological than from the literary point of view).
* These are not public 'national schools', but something quite the opposite: exclusive and expensive residential secondary schools, scattered far apart. Until recently they admitted almost no one but the sons of rich aristocratic families. It was the dream of nouveau riche bankers of the nineteenth century to push their sons into a Public School. At such schools the greatest stress is laid on sport, which forms, so to speak, a lordly, tough and gentlemanly outlook. Among these schools, Eton is particularly famous. Wellington is reported to have said that the victory of Waterloo was decided on the playing fields of Eton. It is not so very long ago that an overwhelming majority of the people who in one way or another ruled England came from the Public School. [Orwell's footnote.]
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.