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Blum Arlen Viktorovich

Orwell's Travels to the country of bolsheviks

Missed Orwell's letter to USSR

Readers in this country could read books by George Orwell (1903-1950) freely and without fear only in 1988, during perestroika.

But few people know that the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party ordered his novel 1984 to be translated into Russian back in 1959. It was done for counter-propaganda purposes, in order to “know the enemy” better and arm a very narrow circle of the trusted persons with this “knowledge”. All copies of the novel were intended for distribution among highly-placed members of the party bureaucracy. That year the Foreign Literature Publishers issued the novel 1984 with the stamp “To be distributed according to special list. Number...”. There was no indication of the number of copies and the name of the translator. Three years later the book by Richard Rees entitled: 'George Orwell. Fugitive from the Camp of Victory', 1961, was published in a similar manner.

The Publisher's Note for the book said, among other things, that “...the novels Animal Farm and 1984 have brought fame to George Orwell. These books are a satire on Soviet society. This is why it is not accidental that 1984 has been turned into an instrument of anti-Soviet propaganda by bourgeois statesmen, economists, philosophers and journalists. The book has been widely publicized in the West and bourgeois authors often refer to, or cite from 1984 when writing about the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. The Foreign Literature Publishers translated it in full in 1959 for providing information to readers. It was said further that Richard Rees, “a former British diplomat in Berlin who had greatly influenced Orwell's work, set the goal of making the author's views and judgements more understandable. Characteristically, in recent years foreign reactionary writers have begun to deal with political matters by resorting to lies and crude falsifications of history. In addition to our special publication No. 21/5058 (that is, the novel 1984, Foreign Literature Publishers printed and distributed the book by Richard Rees for information purposes”.

As for the “open press”, Orwell's name has practically never been mentioned by it. Serious and respected literary scholars have adhered to the principle “better keep silent than lie”. For instance, Professor Alexander Anikst in his book The History of English Literature did not mention Orwell's name at all. Others, adhering to another principle, have written about him as “an ideologist of imperialist reaction”, as, for example, Valentina Ivasheva in her book English Literature of the 20th Century. Still others resort to the only possible ruse at the time — trying “to rehabilitate” Orwell, asserting that his satire was aimed not at communism and the USSR, but, on the contrary, at capitalism, especially in its British variety, but mainly at the totalitarianism and fascism threatening mankind (Y. Kagarlitsky, What Is Sci-fic).

A short reference item in the Concise Literary Encyclopaedia ended with the following phrase: “Bourgeois critics praise Orwell for the anti-communist and modernist trends in his works”. In the 1970s, Literaturnaya gazeta was allowed to publish B. Chernin's article entitled Why Is Orwell So Popular? Of course, the author mentioned the “anti-Soviet” trend of his work, but he, at least, mentioned the titles of his books.

Nevertheless, even in the height of stagnation, due to “minor failures of the big machine”, the name of Orwell cropped up from time to time without humiliating epithets. In 1972, I managed to publish an article about the censorship of a number of English and American anti-Utopian works at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries in the Sverdlovsk magazine Uralsky sledopyt. Among them were the novel by Edward Bellamy Looking Backward. 2000 — 1887, the popular novel Time Machine by H. G. Wells, and, strange as it may seem, the story New Utopia by Jerome K. Jerome written in 1891 (It was called Future Socialism in the Russian translation).

The first attempt in Russia to publish this story by the English humorous writer who was always regarded absolutely harmless failed. The St.Petersburg censor wrote the following conclusion: “Taking into account the fact that a story under such a title may have a bad influence on the simple — minded readers and, in any case, is not useful to read due to its materialistic trend, this work in translation should not be allowed to be printed. This is in accordance with the instruction of May 8, 1895. Dated: May 22, 1898.”

The plot of that “ill-fated” story by Jerome K. Jerome is as follows: A respectable gentleman, having heard much about the future of England at the Night Socialist Club, falls asleep near a fireplace and wakes up in the 29th century when all dreams of the socialists have come true. He finds all members of society very happy, but everything is drab, uniform and standardized. The people — the men and women — look alike. They are absolutely undistinguishable, except for the numbers on their chests — even or odd. They have no names, for they “create inequality”. Persons who are more intelligent than the general standard undergo a special surgical operation in order to be brought down to the “accepted level”. In the epilogue, the gentleman wakes up and with a feeling of great relief finds himself in good old England where, thank God, nothing has changed.

Commenting on this story, I wrote (and it was not deleted in print) that from the point of view of “preserving the existing order of things, it should not have been banned, but, on the contrary, the publication of the story should have been encouraged, because it had the aim of protecting the reader from socialist illusions”. Moreover, I expressed, although very cautiously, the idea that it was precisely this short and simple story that “was the forerunner of the anti-Utopias which described the future as a kingdom of complete standardization”. Among these works I mentioned the novel We by Yevgeni Zamyatin (in it people also walked about with numbers and had to be operated upon in cases like those described by Jerome K. Jerome), The Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and 1984 by George Orwell.

The most surprising thing was that the naive provincial censor who read my article crossed out only one name, that of Zamyatin (a Russian emigre writer), as for Huxley and Orwell, he had probably not heard of them. I think that the Moscow or Leningrad censors were more alert and knowledgeable. In general, it should be said that poorly educated censors are a boon for authors...

The “at your service” principle

Meanwhile, Orwell's books became widely popular among the intellectual dissident circles. There appeared numerous Samizdat copies of Animal Farm and 1984 in Russian translation. Naturally, this could not have passed unnoticed by the KGB and censorship departments (“The Ministry of Love” and “The Ministry of Truth” in Orwell's parlance). I found a document dated August 6, 1978, and sent to the Leningrad censorship department from the KGB department for the Leningrad Region. It listed 17 books printed abroad and here by Samizdat. Among them, besides 1984, there were works by V.Nabokov, Y. Zamyatin, B. Pilnyak, N. Gumilyov, O. Mandelshtam, M. Tsvetayeva, B. Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), and A. Platonov, and others. All these books were confiscated during a search of the premises of “suspect No. 86” (unfortunately, the name was not mentioned).

At that time, in contrast to previous years, the KGB, keeping a semblance of legality, sent confiscated books for a so-called examination by experts. The Leningrad censorship department sent an answer to the KGB in a week's time in the spirit of the “at your service” principle. It said that the posted materials were works expressing a negative attitude to the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and the Soviet way of life....

We shall now dwell on the censorship department's characterization of two anti-Utopias contained on the list. “The novel We by Zamyatin is a malicious and scathing lampoon of the Soviet state. The book has not been and should not be published in the USSR.

“George Orwell's 1984 is a fantastic novel with a political subject. It describes, in very sombre colours, the future of the world. It will be divided into three great superpowers, one of which is Eurasia — Europe subjugated by Russia. The author describes the contradictions tearing apart these three superpowers thirsting for territories rich in natural resources. It paints a picture of brutal and merciless destruction of women and children in wars. The book has not been published in the USSR and should be banned”.

The letter concludes by saying that “the above-mentioned books published abroad have the aim of undermining and weakening the order of things in our country, and therefore their publication and sale in the Soviet Union should be regarded as ideological sabotage”.

1984 and “1984”

“The ice began to break” in 1984, the last pre-perestroika year, which coincided with a unique jubilee in the history of world literature. The Orwell Year, which was not connected with any anniversary of the writer's birthday or coming out of one of his books was widely celebrated throughout the world.

It was at that time that “games with Orwell” began to be played here. It was ordered that his works be assessed in a new way, not so one-sidedly as they used to be. They were to be placed at the service of the current politics and ideology. It was suggested from above that they be regarded as a scathing satire on the capitalist system, all the more so since there were certain grounds for this view, inasmuch as the author was rather pessimistic in his appraisal of the surrounding reality, including the English one. He had predicted the coming of “Ingsoc”.

Besides, it was necessary to react somehow to the numerous publications which appeared during the Orwell Year in magazines and newspapers of Italian and French “Eurocommunists”, who tended to regard the great Brit and his novel as “their own”. In January 1984, an article by Melor Sturua entitled 1984 and '1984' appeared in Moscow newspaper Izvestia, as well as another one, Toast to the Future? In the Footsteps of Orwell. January 20 by Sergei Volovets, which came out in Literaturnaya gazeta. The latter described Orwell as almost an ally...

Some time later, Orwell's works began to be studied by serious literary scholars, among them the very talented Victoria Chalikova, who died prematurely to our great regret. Jointly with L. Lisyutkina she wrote and published a thorough review of western literature devoted to Orwell in 1986. And in 1988 she printed an article entitled Meeting with Orwell in the Book Review, No. 21, May 20, in which she openly stated that “Orwell was not a political lampooner, but a classic of English literature, on a par with Swift and Dickens”.

* * *

Such was the fate of the English writer in Russia. Orwell's predictions have come true in one aspect: he was absolutely correct in describing the fate of his novel in a country with a totalitarian regime. George Orwell was declared an “unperson” by the Ministry of Truth in which Winston Smith worked, and the very name of the writer was doomed to oblwion for several decades.


Translation from Russian:
© 2003 The New Times, RF, Moscow

Blum Arlen Viktorovich (Bljum Arlen Viktorovich): ‘Orwell's Travels to the country of bolsheviks (‘Puteshestvie’ Oruehlla v stranu bol'shevikov)
Published: magazine ‘The New Times’. — RF, Moscow, 2003.

Published as “A Briton in Russia
E-text: thanks to Nona Iosifovna.

* * *

The documentary chronicle

Dinamov Sergej Sergeevich (1901-1939) [Photo, 1931] the chief-redactor of the magazine “International Literature” and the famous expert of Shakespeare's work, in 1937 wrote to George Orwell:

May 31, 1937.

Dear Mr. Orwell!

I have read the review of your new book “The Road to Wigan Pier” and found it extremely interesting.

Would you be so kind to send to us a copy of this book that would allow us to present it to Russian readers, at least to the readers of Russian edition of the magazine “International Literature”.

With thanks in advance,

Yours trully S. Dinamov, The Chief-Redactor.

In archive fields, we found the phrase, written by hand “The Orwell's reply in secret correspondence” (signature unreadable) which pushed us to continue our searching. The Orwell's letter we've found is the probably the only one which Orwell ever wrote to USSR.

Here it is:

The Stores


Near Baldock




Dear Comrade,

I am sorry not to have answered earlier your letter dated May 31st, but I have only just got back from Spain and my letters have been kept for me here, rather luckily, as otherwise some of them might have been lost. I am sending separately a copy of “The Road to Wigan Pier.” I hope parts of it may interest you. I ought to tell you that parts of the second half deal with subjects that may seem rather trivial outside England. I was preoccupied with them at the time of writing, but my experiences in Spain have made me reconsider many of my opinions.

I have still not quite recovered from the wound I got in Spain, but when I am up to writing again I will try and write something for you, as you suggested in your earlier letter. I would like to be frank with you, however, and therefore I must tell you that in Spain I was serving in the militia of the P.O.U.M., which, as you know doubt know, has been bitterly denounced by the Communist Party and was recently suppressed by the Government; also that after what I have seen I am more in agreement with the policy of the P.O.U.M. than with that of of the Communist Party. I tell you this because it may be that your paper would not care to have contributions from a P.O.U.M. member, and I do not wish to introduce myself to you under false pretences.

The above is my permanent address.

Yours fraternally

George Orwell
(signature only)

* * *

Such unexpected ending of the letter immediately has forced Editors Board to contact the appropriate instances similar to “Miniluv” (remember “1984”?):

July 28, 1937.

To the Foreign Department of NKVD(*)

The Editors Board (Redaction) of magazine “International literature” has received the letter from England from writer George Orwell, translation of which I am sending to you, because from its content has come to light his belonging to Trotskyist Organization P.O.U.M.

I am askink your instruction on, whether something in general is necessary to answer him and, if yes, in what spirit (kind or atmosphere)?

P.S. I remind you, that till now I have not received the answer to the transfered letter of R. Rollan.

The Editor of magazine “International literature” (T. Rokotov).

*) NKVD — Narodnijj Komessarijat Vnutrennykh Del (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs); formed from the OGPU in 1934 (USSR Comité).

* * *

By Mr. Bernard Crick (George Orwell: A Life // Chapter Ten: Spain and ‘Necessary Murder’):

[CiteBeg] Sometimes the Communist movement, however, got its wires crossed badly. In May 1937 Orwell had received a letter from the Moscow periodical International Literature asking for a contribution and a copy of Wigan Pier. He sent the book, promised a contribution, but explained that he was recovering from a wound he had had while serving with the P.O.U.M. militia. He received, at length, this remarkable reply:


Mr George Orwell

The Stores



The Editorial Office of the International Literature has received your letter, in which you answer our letter dated May 31st. You are right to be frank with us, you are right to inform us of your service in the militia of the POUM. Our magazine, indeed, has nothing to do with POUM-members; this organization, as the long experience of the Spanish people's struggle against insurgents and fascist interventions has shown, is a part of Franco's 'fifth column' which is acting in the rear [of] the heroic army of Republican Spain.

International Literature

As in the worlds of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the discredited rival is not just labelled 'objectively Fascist', he becomes perceived as Fascist. [CiteEnd]



Translation from Russian:
© 2003 The New Times, RF, Moscow

Blum Arlen Viktorovich (Bljum Arlen Viktorovich): ‘Orwell's Travels to the country of bolsheviks (‘Puteshestvie’ Oruehlla v stranu bol'shevikov)
Published: magazine ‘The New Times’. — RF, Moscow, 2003.

E-text: thanks to Nona Iosifovna.
Formatted by: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2020-01-07

[Unpublished Orwell's letter]
Letter facsimile (79 KiB)

Blum Arlen Viktorovich about George Orwell: [Index page]

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