How Do Russians Read ‘1984’?
Formerly dangerous books have now been made available to the Russian people.
Officially banned in the Soviet Union until 1988—circulated only as samizdat at the risk of long prison sentences until the era of glasnost and perestroika—George Orwell’s 1984 topped the lists in fiction downloads in mid-December in the Russian Federation. TASS, the Russian state news agency, reported on December 13 that Orwell’s dystopia had led the 2022 e-book sales totals in fiction on the platform LitRes, a Russian online audio and e-book seller, and stood as the second most popular download in any category. Reports in Western media, where rumors circulate weekly that up to half the Russian population opposes continuation of the war in Ukraine, conveyed the impression that 1984’s current bestsellerdom in Russia is owed to widespread public dissatisfaction with the Putin regime and a growing conviction that it does indeed resemble Oceania in 1984.
That conclusion may, however, be misconceived or at least premature. Pointing to the still-strong support that Putin commands at home and the apparent willingness of the Russian populace to endure the hardships of a long war, one might note that TASS had no qualms about reporting 1984’s bestselling status. Nor do LitRes and other online booksellers hesitate to sell the book. Also noteworthy is the fact that the Russian editions of 1984 for sale are all edited and introduced by writers officially approved by the Ministry of Culture.
It warrants emphasis that the timing of the sales spike of 1984 since mid-2022 has coincided with the publication of a new edition of 1984 in which the translator, Darya Tselovalnikova, omits any mention of parallels between Oceania and Russia, but rather argues that today’s “liberal totalitarianism of the West” closely corresponds to Orwell’s nightmarish vision. According to Tselovalnikova, it is not Russia but rather the corrupted, “liberal,” so-called democracies of the West that are truly totalitarian in 2022—that is, dominated by demagogues and vulgar populists who manipulate their demos against Russia for their nefarious geopolitical purposes. “Orwell could not have dreamt in his worst nightmares that the era of ‘liberal totalitarianism’ or ‘totalitarian liberalism’ would come in the West, and that people—separate, rather isolated individuals—would behave like a raging herd.”
Remember that it is this edition of 1984 that is selling on LitRes—and that has been aggressively promoted by the Russian media. In a statement last May, Maria Zakharova, a leading spokeswoman in the Foreign Ministry, set the Kremlin line for Tselovalnikova's slant on 1984: “For many years we thought Orwell was describing totalitarianism,” she declared. That post-Gorbachev era of self-disgust and gullible acceptance of the West’s denigration of the USSR represented a surrender to Western propaganda. Such a view of 1984 “is one of the global fakes,” she noted. “Orwell wrote about the end of liberalism. He wrote how liberalism would lead humanity into a dead end.” Ignoring the obvious fact that most of the satirical referents in 1984 address events and personalities (including Stalin as Big Brother) in the USSR of the 1940s, Zakharova concluded that Orwell “wasn’t writing about the Soviet Union, but about the society in which he lived.”
Zakharova’s line on 1984 is seconded by a stable of dependable mouthpieces endorsed by the Ministry of Culture. “Russia’s actions in Ukraine are, in essence, anti-war,” Dmitry Kiselyov, the aforementioned Kremlin TV host, has declared. Sergey Lavrov, the head of the Foreign Ministry, has repeatedly denied that Russia “invaded” Ukraine, duckspeaking the official line that Ukraine is a “brotherland” that must be brought back into the “Russian world”—a euphemism favored by Vladimir Putin to rationalize and defend Kremlin domination of its sphere of influence and expansionist campaigns.
Surely both of these explanations for 1984’s popularity contain truth. Growing political dissent and disillusionment with the current regime of Vladimir Putin, with readers seeing parallels between the oppressive government depicted in the novel and the current political climate in Russia, has doubtless partly fueled the sales boom. Yet it appears incontrovertible that the novel is being co-opted by the government as part of a propaganda effort, with the book being used to attack the West and depict Russia as a victim, thereby justifying the regime's actions and control over the media.
A third possible explanation, which I consider the most plausible (and perhaps the most depressing), also deserves consideration: Have Vladimir Putin and the Russian establishment calculated that a form of literary glasnost is quite permissible—because it is quite harmless? The conjecture cannot be easily dismissed: Formerly “dangerous” books during the Soviet era such as 1984 are now available from the official state bookseller, promoted by the Ministry of Culture, reissued in new editions from leading state presses such as AST Publishers in Moscow, and taught in Russian universities because—unlike the case throughout the Soviet era—they apparently no longer pose a threat to a “totalitarian” regime, “liberal” or illiberal.
This opinion has been eloquently advanced by Orwell’s Russian-language biographer, Masha Karp, a dissident émigré residing in London and the author of the forthcoming George Orwell and Russia (Bloomsbury), scheduled for publication in mid-2023. In one passage in her book, Karp takes a line from “The Prevention of Literature” (1946)—Orwell’s most famous defense of freedom of thought and expression—and gives it a fresh accent. Orwell writes in the essay:
The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.
The “key words” that apply to 2023 Russia, argues Karp, “had ceased to be necessary.” Karp notes that “concentration camps” and “secret police forces,” albeit in rather different (and more insidious, less immediately visible) form, are still with us. “What has really ceased to be necessary is the censorship of books.” Observing that the print runs of most “dangerous books” are usually small (under 5,000 copies), she nonetheless emphasizes her main point: “You can’t imagine what wonderful books have been published in Russia in the last 20 years! It is only now, with this war, that they do not publish on the cover the names of the authors who left the country in protest against it, but before 24 February, everything… was published… [The Kremlin] realized that books were not so dangerous after all.”
I believe that Karp would also grant that our first two explanations for 1984’s bestsellerdom contain partial truths. She estimates that 20 percent of the Russian populace—numbering about thirty million citizens—quietly stands against Putin to varying degrees of opposition and would like in certain ways to see Russia more “westernized.” (This does not equate to backing the West’s positions and/or participation in the Ukraine war, she notes, for which there is still far less—and little public and vocal—support). She estimates further that at least 30 percent of Russians are strong supporters of Putin, consisting of “fascists, racists, and Empire-worshippers.” She concludes: “Half of the population can be turned this way and that way, depending on the media – whether it is state-controlled or free.”
A battle for the ghost of Orwell has been going on in Russia for several years, Karp notes. “Orwell’s name is a kind of shorthand among both Russians opposing Putin’s regime in general and the Ukraine war in particular…. Outside Russia, an incredible cult of Orwell exists among Russian readers of foreign online Russian newspapers and radio broadcasts. He is mentioned every day on Facebook, Twitter, in blogs, and also in newspapers, and radio.” Generally, Russians do not have access to these outlets. Even before the current war began, few media ever voiced criticism of the regime—and all of them (such as the radio station Echo Moskvy) were labelled “foreign agents” and banned in 2021. Nor can Russians listen to online Russian-language broadcasts from the BBC or Voice of America (except if one subscribes to Moscow’s online service Telegram, which can track and monitor subscribers’ activities).
Nonetheless, as the sales figures of 1984 attest, a ground swell of interest in Orwell has been building for a full decade. As early as 2015, various Russian sources—including the Russian Book Club, Russian Book Union, the Russian Publishers Association, and online bookstores such as ozon.ru and labirint.ru—were reporting that a sales upsurge of 1984 was under way. For instance, in a Christmas report in 2015 (December 23), the RBC announced that translations of 1984 had sold 85,000 copies in total, making Orwell’s novel “one of the ten top-selling books.” (1984 was not the only dire futuristic scenario on the Russia’s 2015 list: It was joined by 2035, a post-apocalyptic dystopia by Dmitry Glukhovsky set in the ruins of Moscow and—as in Orwell’s Airstrip One—in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.)
Given that 1984’s ascension to bestseller status in 2015 occurred in the wake of the Crimea invasion and “annexation” in 2014—shades of Moscow’s land grab annexations of four more Ukrainian provinces in 2022—I regard it as probable that the same mix of factors accounted for the sales spike of 2015 as in 2022-23. The difference between then and now is twofold: first, news of the Orwell vogue in Russia was confined to the Russian media in 2015 and went virtually unreported in the West. Secondly, 2022 witnessed 1984 ascend to #1 in Russia, not merely to break into the top ten. (Even before the bestselling edition translated by Darya Tselovalnikova and the Ministry of Culture in 2022, 1984 was well promoted by its Russian presses. One source reports that the print run for 2021 numbered 482,600 copies—that is, even before the upswing in sales during 2022 amid the Ukrainian war.)
1984 was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, almost four decades after it was first published in the West. Even after it was finally published, it was only available to a small number of Soviet Communist Party ideologists among the Ministry of Culture nomenklatura, and it was not read or discussed, even in Party circles. The novel had a long history of being banned and censored in the Soviet Union, whose official dissolution on another Russian Christmas 32 years ago—December 25, 1991—was widely celebrated in a spirit of naïve triumphalism as the birth of “the New World Order” and “the end of History” throughout the West. No prominent Sovietologists in the West then envisioned that a little-known functionary in the Communist Party—an obscure KGB lieutenant colonel—would rise by the decade’s close to become a Russian strong man unequalled since Stalin in power and durability (two dozen years, and counting).
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Or as Masha Karp writes in George Orwell and Russia:
In February 2022, Russia started a full-scale criminal war in Europe and used nuclear blackmail to prevent anybody from interfering. A new era [of international instability] has begun and we do not yet know how it will end. One thing is, however, clear—these disastrous developments have, unfortunately, been made possible by the stubborn refusal [in Orwell’s words] ‘to see the Russian regime for what it really is’.
Karp adds in a personal communication: “The West simply has not been interested in the ongoing ‘Orwellian’ events in Russia over the last two decades, such as the countless infringements on free speech and violations of human rights. It is this indifference which has given Putin his sense of impunity.”