By and large, British author George Orwell addressed his essays and novels to the English-speaking world. During the war, he wrote a “London Letter,” about the political situation in England, to the readers of the anti-Stalinist American journal, Partisan Review. Even his stint as a BBC broadcaster with programs designed for Indian consumption were to audiences who spoke English.
But there was one instance in which Orwell wrote to a non-English-speaking audience, the Ukrainian readers of Animal Farm. Orwell wrote a preface to the Ukrainian edition that is remarkable in what he revealed about himself. Something about writing for a foreign audience, particularly one with Stalin’s boot on their throat, liberated Orwell, a notoriously private man, and the essay is invaluable because it contradicts what biographers would later write about him.
In the preface, Orwell, despite his fervent anti-Stalinism, accepted that Russian conditions may have made a Stalin necessary:
“Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs; I would not condemn Stalin and his associates for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.”
Nevertheless, Orwell returned to his pulling-no-punches characterizations of the Soviets. As always, he used a socialist yardstick by which to condemn the regime and, despite his audience – huddled in prison camps no less, condemned Russia as having the worst features of capitalism updated with totalitarian trappings: “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.”
But in his charting of when his revulsion against the regime began, he revealed himself to be an even more premature anti-Stalinist than biographers would report. The standard “coming out” date of Orwell by biographers has usually been located in the 1937-38 period when Orwell saw his non-Stalinist comrades in the Spanish Civil War hunted by the Stalinist secret police, many of whom “disappeared;” Orwell himself was lucky to get out of Spain alive.
To the Ukrainians, Orwell gave an earlier date to his awakening that the USSR was no “worker state” but a totalitarian regime years before he ever shouldered a pack in Spain:
“Since 1930, I have seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing toward anything that one could truly call Socialism.”
Orwell followed up with the same theme he had been addressing to the British for years: that the working class of Britain needed to shed their illusions about the Soviets being a socialist paradise. Because the British were “accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life,” “totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.”
But Orwell had larger goals than merely waking up his countrymen to the Soviet menace. Orwell’s intended audience for Animal Farm was worldwide: “I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be translated into other languages.”
And, although he was loathe to explain a novel to audiences—he considered the novel a ‘failure” if he had to do so— he interjected about what the actual ending of the novel meant. In contrast to critics who saw the novel conclude with “the complete reconciliation of the pigs and humans,” which they saw as inspired by the wartime Tehran Conference between the Russians and the West, Orwell had the novel “end on a loud note of discord;” this was based on his belief that despite the Conference’s assertion that the Soviets and the West would continue their good relations, he believed such relations would not last.
As usual, his political antennae was correct. He wrote that “such good relations will not last long, and as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.”
Those Ukrainians lucky enough to procure a copy of Animal Farm, even behind barbed wire, were amazed to learn that Orwell was not East European, such was his spot-on recreation, even through animals, of how the “revolution” was betrayed. And if the preface was included in their copy, they would have been granted more information about the author than he usually shared with his Western audiences.