Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘Orwell and Russia’ by Masha Karp

9 August 2023

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews Orwell and Russia by Masha Karp [paperback, £19.79, 312pp, ISBN-9781788317122 Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2023]

As I was gathering my thoughts to write this review, Margarita Simonyan, one of Putin’s propaganda stalwarts and editor-in-chief of RT, the TV station formerly known as Russia Today, was gloating about the planned appropriation by Russia’s state-run international media agency Rossiya Segodnya of the branding (the famous black-white-and-red logo) of Ekho Moskvy – Russia’s foremost independent radio station founded in the dying days of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.  Simonyan and Dmitry Kiselev, another top-ranking Putin propagandist, are joint-directors of Rossiya Segodnya and announced yesterday (August 8th) that they had filed an application for the Ekho Moskvy brand “due to the expiration of this trademark’s registration with its owner”.  Aleksei Venediktov, Ekho Moskvy’s long-time editor-in-chief, called the takeover bid “rewriting history”, and continued: “Ekho Moskvy is part of the history of modern Russia… [the authorities] are depriving people of symbols, hope and memory. And the deprivation of memory is one of the main things they are doing right now.”  

There is still only one word to describe it, I thought – Orwellian.

George Orwell died almost 75 years ago at the start of the Cold War.  (Incidentally, the term “Cold War” was first coined by Orwell.)  Yet, as Masha Karp’s Orwell and Russia argues, Orwell’s books, essays, letters and journals are as relevant now to understanding contemporary Russia as ever they were to the USSR.   

Never having set foot inside Russia, Orwell astonished and continues to astonish his Russian readers with the depth and detail of his knowledge and his insights into the totalitarian mindset and experience.  Karp’s book is a meticulous dissection and analysis of the intellectual journey Orwell made, one which brought him to the high point of his last and, arguably, greatest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The book is a work of two parts. The first is almost entirely historical with just the odd reference to post-Soviet Russia under Putin.  The second part is subtitled “Don’t Let it Happen.  It Depends on You” – a quotation from something Orwell once wrote about Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is at this point that one begins to understand why the book is called Orwell and Russia rather than Orwell and the USSR. Karp brings Orwell’s template of totalitarianism and his warnings to the free world right up to date, castigating the West for not having seen it coming – until it was too late. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 has somewhat reset their response, but is it too little and too late?   

In order to get to this point, Karp begins her book fascinatingly with an account of Orwell’s first encounters with Soviet reality of the 1920s.  These came about as a result of lodging with his aunt Nellie and her lover Eugène Lanti in Paris.  Lanti had founded a new organization of Esperantists called SAT – Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (Worldwide Non-National Association), which brought together adherents of the new universal language of Esperanto.  SAT’s express aim as formulated by Lanti was “to overturn the capitalist order” with the help of Esperanto.  Nellie being a communist, signed up straightaway.   She was 56 and Lanti 47 when they started living together in Paris in an arranged partnership of Nellie’s design.   

Eric Blair had left Eton in 1921 and had served in the Imperial Police Force in Burma before returning to England to pursue his ambition to become a writer.  In 1928, he travelled to Paris to lodge with his aunt.  At that time, membership of SAT was at its height and Nellie and Eugène spoke Esperanto at home.  Karp writes informatively about Orwell’s relationship with language and the English language in particular:    

The aversion that Eric Blair, with his outstanding flair for languages, felt for Esperanto is difficult to overstate – after all, he kept it throughout his life and borrowed some of its features for Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Good, ungood, plusungood, doubleplusungood).  For the young poet enchanted by the beauty of English, who at sixteen had ‘discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words’ and confessed that ‘the lines from Paradise Lost . . . sent shivers down [his] spine’, Esperanto seemed lifeless, mechanical, dry, arid. Orwell’s attitude towards it never changed.

In his pursuit of overturning the capitalist order, Lanti had visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s, meeting Russian Esperantists, and learning about the brutality, hardships and imprisonments and the birth of a new ruling caste. He saw poverty, beggars and rough sleepers on the streets of Moscow and understood that the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution had been sold out.

In 1946, Orwell wrote: “I have never fundamentally altered my attitude towards the Soviet regime since I first began to pay attention to it sometime in the nineteen twenties.”  It was at Aunt Nellie’s in Paris that Orwell’s attitude had been forged, listening to the accounts of Lanti, arguing and discussing, playing Devil’s advocate, in order to shake out his own true feelings about what he was hearing.  And, of course, Orwell’s attitude forged in Paris was then tempered by his experiences of the Spanish Civil War, brilliantly captured in Homage to Catalonia. Karp writes:  “There is no doubt that Orwell’s understanding of the fear a human being feels when faced with a huge, ruthless, inhuman power was born in Spain, where he suddenly found himself under the arbitrary rules of an oppressive regime.” 

Karp has not made it her mission to write another Orwell biography. What she does do, drawing on a breadth of sources in any number of languages that is in itself a spectacular achievement, is to pursue Orwell’s intellectual development through his engagement with the big political issues of the day, demonstrated in his letters and essays, as he sparred with the writers, critics and intellectual heavyweights of his time. The resulting picture of George Orwell is one in which his political convictions seem to be at war with his wish to write literature. Karp quotes from a letter Orwell wrote in early 1934: “This age makes me so sick that sometimes I am almost impelled to stop at a corner and start calling down curses from Heaven like Jeremiah or Ezra or somebody.” She continues: “His outcry: ‘I was not born for an age like this’ meant that still hoping to be a writer he resented the thought of his personal, artistic, lyrical side being destroyed by the need to fight political evil, which, he must have already guessed, was inevitable and urgent.”  

And it wasn’t only the need to fight political evil that was in danger of destroying his lyrical side. Orwell once wrote that he’d unfortunately not trained himself “to be indifferent to the expression of the human face.”  And whilst confirming that Orwell was more inclined towards Socialism than any other political doctrine, Karp elaborates: ““Socialism as a grand system of reorganizing and improving life scared him precisely by its lack of humanity and individual choice.”  

Throughout Orwell and Russia, the author excels at pinpointing the crossovers between Orwell’s lived experience, Soviet history and her own deep understanding of the Soviet system.  

She navigates her readers through an astonishing array of Orwell’s contemporaries, often no more than a name, who provided the grit in the oyster that was to become the full-fledged George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Of the more fleshed out characters, the German sociologist Franz Borkenau stands out.  Orwell was greatly influenced by his writings and they had a shared experience of fighting against Franco in Spain, which had shaped their attitudes to Stalinist tactics in the USSR.  Borkenau, half Jewish and half Communist, in Karp’s description, was an inspiration to Orwell, who called him: “one of the most valuable gifts Hitler made to England.”  Orwell was fascinated by Borkenau’s sociological approach and Karp shows how he influenced Orwell’s literary voice in Nineteen Eighty-Four

Karp also cites Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia as a major influence on Orwell, and the source of 2+2=5.  She writes: “Its origin was local and crystal clear to the people living in the country: it was a numerical embodiment of the slogan ‘The Five-Year Plan in Four Years’.”  To Lyons, it was a source of astonishment: “The formula . . . seemed to me at once bold and preposterous – the daring and the paradox and tragic absurdity of the Soviet scene, its mystical simplicity, its defiance of logic, all reduced to nose-thumbing arithmetic . . . 2 + 2 = 5: in electric lights on Moscow housefronts, in foot-high letters on billboards, spelled planned error, hyperbole, perverse optimism; something childishly headstrong and stirringly imaginative.”

What emerges from reading Orwell and Russia is just how much was known about the inner workings of the Soviet Union as early as 1931.  

There are marvellous descriptions of Orwell’s interactions with Arthur Koestler, arguably the other great novelist of the age, for his psychological novel Darkness at Noon.  Together they tried to organise like-minded people to counter the totalitarian threat emanating from Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.  Orwell didn’t live long enough to see their efforts come to fruition.

In the second part of the book, Karp takes the reader through events that came into being after Orwell’s death in January 1950 but which gave new life to his work: from the inauguration of the Congress of Cultural Freedom and its measures to counter Soviet propaganda with journals offering an opposing ideology published in several European languages, to official Soviet responses to Orwell’s books through the party’s small-circulation translations for high party functionaries, to tamizdat and samizdat, the BBC Russian service serialisations and Radio Liberty’s publishing initiative. It’s fascinating as a reflection of the time, especially for me. I worked for a period in the early 1980s on one of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s erstwhile titles. When it was revealed in 1967 that the CIA was behind the funding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, other sources of income had to be found.  I remember asking my editor, Leo Labedz, what he had felt when he discovered that the CIA had been funding him.  He replied: “It’s too bad that their good work came under the same banner as their dirty deeds.”  Mel Lasky, the editor of Encounter, whose role in the propaganda war Karp mentions often, told me: “At least then we knew where the money was coming from.” 

When I joined the BBC Russian Service as a producer in 1985, an article I had written had recently been published in Encounter.  It was a survey of the foreign titles in Russian translation published in the official Soviet journal of foreign literature, Inostrannaya Literatura.  On one of my first days at Bush House, a Russian colleague brought to my attention an article in the very same Soviet journal (Inostrannaya Literatura), in which the author dissected my Encounter piece, tearing it apart and referring to me as the “so-called Teresa Cherfas.’”  It sent shivers down my spine until I realised it was a badge of honour and distinction among my new Russian colleagues, anti-Soviet to a man and woman.  It was only upon reading Orwell and Russia that I discovered that Inostrannaya Literatura “had a special task to acquaint a limited number of high-ranking officials with non-Soviet views.”  A badge of honour indeed!

As the book’s chronology approaches the present day, Karp’s position becomes more intransigent, and Orwell even more of a standard against which the collective West continuously falls short.  She blames Western leaders for failing to grasp in time that Putin is just another incarnation of Borkenau’s Totalitarian Enemy and derides Western critics who saw in Nineteen Eighty-Four a reflection not of Soviet totalitarianism but of the dangers threatening to engulf Western social and political models.  Why didn’t we see Putin coming?  Far from being an anomaly unique to Russia, whose legacy of Stalinist repressions and mindgames made Putin’s rise to totalitarian power a perfect fit, I think Peter Pomerantsev is right to see him as the future, as a foretaste of what can happen when democracy is eroded and populists are elected.  Liberal democracy is a fragile concept in today’s post-truth world. 

But Masha Karp still finds inspiration in Orwell, allowing her to end her exploration of Orwell and Russia on a hopeful note.  Going back to 1942, when Orwell was looking for ways to stop the world from sliding into a totalitarian nightmare, Karp quotes him one last time:

Against that shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree, there are in reality only two safeguards. One is that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back, and you consequently can’t violate it in ways that impair military efficiency. The other is that so long as some parts of the earth remain unconquered, the liberal tradition can be kept alive.

The question that Karp leaves unaddressed is how to fight totalitarianism in a post-truth world, one in which AI will make military efficiency impermeable to truth and the liberal tradition seem like a quaint strand of intellectual thought that belongs in the twentieth-century? 

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