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ALGEBRAIC POLITOLOGY OF THE ROMANIST: the unfortunate relevance of George Orwell

ALGEBRAIC POLITOLOGY OF THE ROMANIST: the unfortunate relevance of George Orwell
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«It’s hard to say whether the novel «1984» is more relevant now than ever, but it’s damned more relevant than it should be!« — we read in an exciting book by a British critic (literature, film, music) Dorian Lynskey «The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s “1984”» (H.: Fabula, 2020).

A variation of this shocking thought is found in an article by Viktor Shenderovich in the almanac Huxleў: «The real victory of dystopia is that it did not come true. It did not come true, we should note, where it was read in time». If we bring these reflections together, a paradoxical spark arises: is «1984» sufficiently actualized today for the novel to finally lose its relevance?


The start of sales of this dystopia (June 1949) — is memorable in the history of the book business: within a year in Britain sold several hundred copies, in America, the count went into the millions, and the novel was kept on the bestseller list of The New York Times twenty weeks in a row.

The reading boom, fueled by television and cinema, continued until the mid-1950s: In 1954, a television adaptation of the novel appeared on English TV, which was watched by more than seven million British people, and in 1956, the first full-length film adaptation was released. Of course, all this was accompanied by reprints of the book.

The second peak of relevance quite predictably came on the date fixed in the title. At the beginning of 1984, in the world daily, 50 thousand copies of new editions of the novel were sold. And for the entire period of «celebration« was bought almost four million «1984», published in sixty-two languages. The dystopia returned to the top of the lists of The New York Times, and it was the first literary work that hit the bestseller lists so many years after publication.


Обкладинка книги «1984» Джорджа Орвелла
George Orwell’s «1984» book cover / vivat.com.ua


The first wave of popularity of «1984» was fueled by fear of Soviet expansion — the novel resonated with both Churchill’s «Iron Curtain» speech and the anti-communist vector of McCarthyism. Over the forty years without war, this anxiety was almost subsided, «forgotten», and the cruelties of the Soviet military in «liberated» Europe and the Russian military doctrine itself, quite like Chinggis Khan’s, with zero value of the soldier.

It is now clear that the Cold War might have ended with Western defeat if there was not Brezhnev’s sybaritism. For the Western reader back in 1984, this was not obvious, and so he mostly rejoiced, as Lynskey attests: «The West was humiliated and distorted by the course of the Cold War, but did not turn into a despotism».

Here is the basic formula: a country in which you can freely read «1984» is not the one described in «1984». As is now clearly evident, it was an ostrich’s delight. A temporary one. For the next forty years. Until Putin started to correct Brezhnev’s «mistakes».

The next surge of relevance was caused by Trump in January 2017, when, contrary to obvious statistics, he called his inauguration the most massive in the history of the United States, and the press secretary of the newly elected president had to disavow this statement with the help of an elegant substitute for the word «lie» — «alternative fact».

Book market monitoring immediately recorded a sharp increase in sales of the novel «1984», and four days later, this retirement-age book was back in the top sales.

«The long-standing dystopian horrors of «1984» have been revived with renewed force in Donald Trump’s America», Lynskey writes. New readers have noticed that the new president meets most of the criteria from a definition of fascism that Orwell articulated in 1944: «Something violent, unscrupulous, pompous, obscurantist, anti-liberal». It has come out that Trump’s mentor in the 1970s was one of Senator McCarthy’s protégés, who passed on the virus of «democratic fascism» of the early 1950s.

In addition, the renewed interest in «1984» was fueled by the then-current investigation into Russian cyber-interference in the U.S. election campaign. And analysts there — including those in literary studies — remembered well the Harvard project of Mikhail Geller and Alexander Nekrich’s two-volume study «Utopia in Power», which described Orwell as «probably the only Western author who understood the nature of the Soviet world».

And what about Russia itself? Here is how the fate of Orwell (in Britain, the third most quoted author after Shakespeare and Carroll) in the USSR is described by Ukrainian publisher Oleksiy Zhupansky: «The novel «1984» saw the light of day only in 1989, at the same time as Solzhenitsyn’s «The Gulag Archipelago»… They allowed it at the time when for several years everything was allowed, including rock music, God, prostitution, racketeering, and even the most horrible — private property».


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Of course, illegal translations were distributed in elite reading circles. On the black market, a photocopy of a translation cost two-thirds of an average monthly salary. But the readers in uniform did not slumber: the Latvian translator of «1984» Gunars Astra, received seven years in a labor camp for «anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda» — the same crimes mentioned in Orwell’s novel.

And even earlier, Andrei Amalrik received five years of hard labor for publishing his essay «Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?» (1970) in the West. The same thing happened in the Soviet protectorates of Europe. For example, in 1958, in the GDR, a teenager was sentenced to three years for reading and discussing «1984».

In Ukraine, the boom in the relevance of Orwell’s novel came at the beginning of the war with Russia. The first professional translation came out in 2015 in Kyiv’s «Zhupansky Publishing House». In the then all-Ukrainian rating «Book of the Year», Viktor Shovkun’s translation was next to Joyce’s «Ulysses», translated by Oleksandr Mokrovolskyi, and Dante’s «The Divine Comedy» translated by Maksym Striha.

However, two years earlier, an amateur translation appeared, which — although a small number of paper copies were printed in Kryvyi Rih — was mainly distributed electronically through the resource Hurtom.com.

Since then, several other translations have been made, and the book has been published a dozen and a half times by different publishers. Last year even Kharkiv «Vivat» released a graphic version under French license (adaptation and illustrations by Xavier Costa).

The fact that the Ukrainian translation appeared much later than the Russian one has an understandable — colonial — explanation. But here is an interesting fact: the world’s first translation of the story «Cattle Yard», which was a kind of «test case» for Orwell’s later masterpiece, was the Ukrainian one, realized in 1947 in the D.P. camp by future Harvard professor Igor Shevchenko. However, only a few of those copies made it to pre-Soviet Ukraine. As Dorian Lynskey testified, «Most of the copies were intercepted by the U.S. Army Command at the request of the Russians».


Обкладинка книги «Колгосп тварин» Джорджа Орвелла
Cover of the book «Animal Farm» by George Orwell / vivat.com.ua


When you read Orwell attentively, the question will inevitably come up: who was he really? A novelist, a political publicist, a literary critic, a visionary? Orwell-critic? Yes, an unremarkable one. Here are just a few of his visionary theses: «Hamlet» is the tragedy of a man who does not know how to commit murder. «Macbeth» is the tragedy of a man who knows it».

Or about Herbert Wells: «Our views, and therefore the physical world, would be markedly different if it did not exist». Or about Jack London, «a socialist with the instincts of a pirate». And even of his literary opponent Evelyn Waugh: «As good a novelist as a man can be».

And Orwell was a novelist to the fullest extent, even before «1984». He wrote several social melodramas, to which he was skeptical, considering them only a part-time job. Biographers uncritically picked up on this self-assessment, but when «Zhupansky Publishing House» published all these novels (and later they were duplicated by the publishing house «Folio»), it became obvious that this is a solid average level of the then-existing European novelism.

Orwell originally envisioned himself as a political publicist-investigator. Today, he would perhaps be called a fact-checker. When, in 1936, he went to Spain, the purpose was to see firsthand the extent of the fascist danger and the effectiveness of resistance to its socialist ideas. But the result was totally unexpected.

«Orwell was led to Spain by his hatred of fascism, but six months later, he left there, having discovered another enemy. The behavior of the fascists was exactly as he had expected, but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists struck him deeply», Lynskey writes.

The young Orwell’s fashionable left-wing preferences had completely dissipated. On his return from Catalonia, he recalled socialism in Britain, of which he had been an adherent until then, as something that «has the odor of comicality, the reverence for machines and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you manage to eliminate that odor — very soon fascism will have a chance to win». And after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, Orwell finally broke off relations with his former socialist colleagues and spoke out about pacifism as «an objectively pro-fascist form of complacency».

Yes, Orwell could well be considered a visionary. He predicted many things — for example, he was the first to use the term «Cold War» back in December 1943. His metaphors of totalitarianism, honed to mathematical clarity, have entered textbooks like political science formulas. That is why Orwell, unfortunately, remains relevant to this day.

Is there an opportunity to archive the brilliant novel «1984»? To get rid of the depressive anxiety that it has been powerfully radiating for more than seventy years? It seems that this question is being solved right now, although it is voiced in other words: what to consider as a victory in the Russian-Ukrainian war.


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