Christopher Hitchens has reread “Animal Farm” (as everyone should do from time to time) and writes about it in The Guardian, along with some interesting details about George Orwell’s difficulty in getting it published and disseminated, in large part because of the wartime alliance between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the UK.
The book was written at the height of the second world war, and at a time when the pact between Stalin and Hitler had been replaced abruptly by an alliance between Stalin and the British empire. London was under Nazi bombardment, and the manuscript of the novel had to be rescued from the wreckage of Orwell’s blitzed home in north London.
The cynical way in which Stalin had switched sides had come as no surprise to Orwell, who was by then accustomed to the dishonesty and cruelty of the Soviet regime. This put him in a fairly small minority, both within official Britain and among the British left.
It is thinkable that the story might have ended in this damp-squib way, but two later developments were to give the novel its place in history. A group of Ukrainian and Polish socialists, living in refugee camps in post-war Europe, discovered a copy of the book in English and found it to be a near-perfect allegory of their own recent experience. Their self-taught English-speaking leader and translator, Ihor Sevcenko, found an address for Orwell and wrote to him asking permission to translate Animal Farm into Ukrainian. He told him that many of Stalin’s victims nonetheless still considered themselves to be socialists, and did not trust an intellectual of the right to voice their feelings. “They were profoundly affected by such scenes as that of animals singing ‘Beasts of England’ on the hill . . . They very vividly reacted to the ‘absolute’ values of the book.” Orwell agreed to grant publication rights for free (he did this for subsequent editions in several other eastern European languages). It is affecting to imagine battle-hardened ex-soldiers and prisoners of war, having survived all the privations of the eastern front, becoming stirred by the image of British farm animals singing their own version of the discarded “Internationale”, but this was an early instance of the hold the book was to take on its readership. The emotions of the American military authorities in Europe were not so easily touched: they rounded up all the copies of Animal Farm that they could find and turned them over to the Red Army to be burnt. The alliance between the farmers and the pigs, so hauntingly described in the final pages of the novel, was still in force.
Hitchens notes that 65 years on, “Animal Farm” is still considered so dangerous by some repressive regimes that it is has not been legally published in countries like Burma, China and North Korea. It would be most interesting to see a full list of countries in which “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” are banned, suppressed or otherwise made unavailable or hard to obtain, but I’ve never been able to find one.