In a nutshell Animal Farm is pure genius in its simplicity. As a former student of Russian, I have numerous books on Russian history books sitting on my numerous bookshelves collecting dust. But for a concise and pretty accurate account of what happened to Lenin’s revolution, then Animal Farm is a perfect choice. Orwell dissects with apparent ultimate ease how a supposed revolution of the people (or in this case animals) turned into one repressive elite being replaced by another one – with – in essence – as Orwell concludes, very little difference between the two.
Despite all looks to the contrary (!), I’m old enough to have studied in the former Soviet Union. Growing up in the 80s during the Cold War, there was a palpable fear that at any minute Soviet tanks would be rolling through Europe. However having once experienced life in the Soviet Union (in Moscow and Kiev), one felt more reassured. Everywhere you went in the then USSR, things, places were на ремонт – under repair or more accurately, not working. You soon figured that should the order be given from the Central Committee for the tanks to roll, it would turn out half of them weren’t working and the other half had had their petrol siphoned off by some enterprising Georgian blackmarketeer.
In essence, Orwell transfers the story of the Russian Revolution to Manor Farm where the animals rebel and take over the farm, kicking out the farmer Mr Jones whose fate is less immediately terminal than that of the Tsar’s and his family. Renaming the farm Animal Farm this is now a farm where All Animals are Equal. Orwell then portrays in just over a 100 pages how the farm goes from this seeming utopia of a farm where All Animals Are Equal to a farm where All Animals are Equal but Some Animals Are More Equal than Others.
Various historical characters are portrayed in the book. Snowball is Trotsky, the intellectual who fails to see how his rival, Napoleon (Stalin) is building up his powerbase through committees and by creating a vicious police force (the pups that Napoleon secretes away soon after their birth). Snowball flees for his life and is unceremoniously written out of Animal Farm history, just as Trotsky was in Communist Russia. Boxer the horse of course represents the working classes who gives his all to the revolution only to be sent to the knacker’s yard once his strength has deserted him. Moses represents the Russian Orthodox Church with his spurious tales of Supercandy Mountain and who makes a hasty exit when the fighting starts.
Other animals represent various forces in Soviet life such as Squealer the indefatigable mouthpiece of Napoleon. Just as its real life counterparts such as the two main Soviet newspapers Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News), Squealer has no qualms in telling outright and blatant lies. It wasn’t for nothing that the Soviets apparently had a saying about these newspapers. There’s no truth in Truth and no news in News.
The humans Frederick and Pilkington represent Germany and Britain respectively. The other human that plays a role in the book Mr Whymper (presumably a pun) refers to all those in the West who either through naivety or greed worked in collusion with the Soviet authorities and turned a blind eye to the worsening conditions, the murders and oppression being perpetuated there.
From the very start of the revolution, Orwell shows how the rot sets in from the offset. On the very day of the revolution, Napoleon takes control of the milk supply. Squealer goes on to point out this milk is earmarked solely for the pigs to drink as an act of pure unselfishness on their part. (The pigs need the milk to preserve their health having decided they are the brain workers, they will do the managing and supervising but none of the working). Not long afterwards Snowball, just as Stalin does, begins to consolidate his power base by setting up his committees and taking charge of a litter of new born, recently orphaned pups – his future feared enforcers.
There are many things in the book which remind me of my time in the Soviet Union such as the great names given to battles and wars. When I was there, the Second World War in Russian was called the Great Patriotic War. I remember visiting an exhibition about WWII under the great statute that dominates Kiev. The statue is so great that apparently it’s sinking into the hill it’s been built upon. There’s no doubt that Russia suffered unimaginable horrors during the Second World War. It’s estimated 20 million Soviets died, and presumably every Soviet then alive had lost at least someone in the war. In fact, one of the things that struck you when you were over there was the average Russian’s fear that the West wanted to go to war with them and their horror of another possible war. However, in this exhibition there was definitely no mention that a lot of the considerable losses that the Russians first sustained was due to Stalin’s refusal to believe that Hitler was in fact planning to attack Russia; and that in the 30s Stalin had purged the Soviet army of some of its best officers thanks to his own paranoia. No mention was made too of the years 1939-1941. WWII/Great Patriotic War as far as the USSR was concerned seemed to start, as I recall, in 1941 as presumably the Soviet’s 2 years in Poland killing numerous of its Slavic neighbours wasn’t something it was keen to refer to. In fact, Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to finally admit Soviet responsibility for Katyn as late as 1990.
Then there are the medals – Napoleon creating and then conferring new ones on himself – and the monuments. Soviet monuments always tend to be excessively monumental in design. You can spot them a mile off- or in fact several miles off. I remember approaching Schwarzenberg Platz in Vienna for the first time thinking that’s funny, that reminds me of a Russian monument, only to find that was indeed what it was. Just put it this way – Soviet monuments can never knowingly be understated. Filing past the Old Major’s skull of course is reminiscent of going past Lenin in his tomb in Red Square where I was told off by a Red Guard for joking with a mate as I entered the hallowed ground. Other aspects of Soviet life are vividly depicted such as the rewriting of history, writing people out of history all together, decrying an enemy and then going on to side with him, using the threat of a return to the old regime to keep the animals in place, the personality cult and the slogans. There used to be a massive banner in the main square in Kiev which I believe was then called October Square. If memory serves me right it said something to the effect: Communism equals Marxist-Leninism plus electrification of the whole country. Snazzy, eh? Then there are the food shortages and propaganda to the outside world. Propaganda was something the Soviets excelled at. Their posters were incredibly simple, vivid and striking. Then of course there are the show trials, animals confessing to various crimes they clearly hadn’t committed and then being mercilessly executed on the spot, conspiracy theories, exaggerated production figures, promises not kept, blaming Snowball (Trotsky) for everything and secret deals with the enemy.
Not forgetting of course the double standards/the unequal distribution of resources, the increasing gap between the self-appointed elite and the masses, the elections with only one candidate who needless to say is voted in unanimously, the increasing use of propaganda such as songs, processions and “spontaneous” demonstrations. In Animal Farm Orwell adeptly details how the revolution evolves into a regime where the political elite get fatter and fatter while the workers work longer and longer on ever decreasing rations; pigs brew and drink beer and live in luxury in direct contradiction to their original avowed values and in sharp contrast to the ever worsening living and working conditions of the rest of the animals. Such a situation was also strikingly apparent in the Soviet Union in the 80s where there were shops and hotels where the average Russian wasn’t allowed to enter. They were solely there to attract Westerners, a place for them to spend their much desired foreign currency along with well-connected black marketeers and apparatchiks.
As with the Soviet Union, Orwell also shows how the increasing bureaucracy and pernicious revisionism – in the case of Animal Farm this is of the seven commandments – is used to justify the spurious behaviour of the elite. Bit by bit, step by step, until Squealer can justify all the inequalities by claiming: “A too rigid equality in rations, would have been contrary to the principles of Animalism” (!). The misuse of words to hide what is really going on – something that is so common nowadays, it’s become mundane. “Collateral damage” definitely sounds a lot more innocuous than saying innocent women, men and children have been murdered. As in the Soviet Union, who were masters in misusing terminology to add a bit of spin, so Squealer always speaks of readjustments rather than reductions.
What is really endearing about reading the book is the sly and pointed humour with which Orwell writes his story. For example when Orwell describes the Battle of the Windmill, Orwell notes, “Even Napoleon, who was directing operations from the rear”, and “Squealer, who had unaccountably been absent during the fighting”. When Squealer claims that they have won a great victory thanks to the leadership of Napoleon, even Boxer points out that they’d only won back what they’d had before. Squealer retorts: “That is our victory.”
By the end of course the pigs are sleeping in beds, wearing clothes and walking on their hind legs and as the animals note when their peer through the farmhouse where the pigs are now living: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but it was already impossible to say which was which.”
My impression of the Soviet Union was that I was staying in a country that claimed to be on the road to communism but was clearly in essence a very conservative society. When I was asked by a Soviet acquaintance if it was right that we didn’t have any left-wing parties in the UK, I balked. Not because we didn’t. (In those days we still did). This was because I didn’t feel The Soviet Union was in a particularly left-wing country itself. It was in fact a deeply conservative one. Once I even got slapped by a babuschka (old woman) on the tube in Kiev because she clearly thought my shorts were too short.
Everyone did have a job though some must have been mind-blowingly numb such as the people whose job it was to watch the escalators on the underground or the lady sitting outside the lifts on each floor in the hotels. Women in theory had equal rights but in my experience it was a very sexist country. I got stopped by a Red Guard when entering Moscow and his main questions seemed to centre around why at the advanced age of 20 I didn’t have a boyfriend. Goodness knows what he would think now! I also had a guy try and drag me across the floor of the restaurant in the Rossiya Hotel but that’s another story.
What I love about this book though is that it’s such a simple idea but it’s takes true genius to come up with them! Orwell manages to get a lot of detail into a relatively short book and still makes it an enjoyable and informative read – a neat trick that very few can pull off. It shows how easily the masses can be led by drip feeding them information and by the clever use of spin.
If Orwell were alive today it would be interesting to see how he would depict the political situation we are in now, where Governments seem to be having their strings pulled by faceless corporations and a world where the rich seem to be getting richer and the poor poorer. And who do I identify with in the book? – probably that of Benjamin. Intelligent (and touchingly modest of course), aware of what’s really going on but doing nothing about it!
It reminds me of a famous quote by Pastor Niemöller, a famous anti-Nazi theologian:
First they came for the communists
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.