Orwellian Road – Frank McNally on Ukrainian echoes in Animal Farm

An Irishman’s Diary

The Orwell Road on which the Russian Embassy in Ireland is situated has nothing to do with the English writer of that name. But as pointed coincidences go, it's a sharp one. And it explains why, in a recent protest over the invasion of Ukraine, a temporary sign was erected there renaming the location "Animal Farm Road".

Reader John Byrne would like to go even further and persuade residents to adopt the new name formally until the Russians pull out. I'm not sure about that, personally. Using a literary pun as anti-war protest may be a little too oblique to be effective.

Still, John’s email set me searching through my 1,400-page edition of Orwell’s Collected Essays for the one he wrote in 1947 as a preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm. So there may well be an argument in favour of the road’s temporary renaming, on educational grounds alone.

Animal Farm was a satire on the Russian Revolution in general. But by the time he wrote it, at the turn of 1943/44, Orwell knew all about the horrors Soviet Communism had visited on Ukraine in particular. The worst of those was the "Terror Famine" of 1932-33, part of a wider famine that Stalinist policies had then produced in the Soviet Union.

It killed several million Ukrainians – the numbers are still debated. And unlike most famines, including Ireland’s, it was entirely deliberate, with forcible requisitioning of food and a military cordon erected around the territory to prevent relief supplies entering.

As historian Norman Davies summarised it: "The aim was to kill Ukrainian nationhood, and with it the 'class enemy'...The world has seen many terrible famines, [often] aggravated by Civil War. But a famine organised as a genocidal act of state policy must be considered unique."

Hence the lengths Orwell went to in 1947 when arranging with a group of Ukrainians in refugee camps to have a translation of his book published.

He wrote the introduction, explaining the evolution in his socialist thinking that had led him to write the book, and waived any royalties on the 5,000 copies printed.

Unfortunately, most of them never reached their intended readers. They were instead seized and destroyed by the Allies, still anxious then not to alienate Stalin.

Publishing the book even in English had been a challenge. “Stalin is sacrosanct,” Orwell complained in another essay of the period, decrying what he saw as the self-censorship of western media towards a recently acquired ally.

Despite the horrors he had inflicted before the war, Uncle Joe still had apologists in high places, including George Bernard Shaw. Rejecting Animal Farm on behalf of Faber & Faber, TS Eliot gave the author's allegory a Stalinist critique: "Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm."

Self-censorship had been a notorious factor in the Ukrainian famine too.

Chief villain, history records, was the New York Times Moscow Correspondent, Walter Duranty, Liverpool-born and Harrow-educated, who throughout the period either denied there was any starvation or echoed the official euphemisms that played the disaster down.

Happily, there were honest reporters too. One of them may explain the surname Orwell used for the chief human deposed by his Animals’ revolution.

Farmer Jones's main significance in the book is to represent Tsar Nicholas II, overthrown in 1917. But the author was perhaps also paying a compliment to the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who from 1930 onwards published anonymous accounts of starvation in Russia and, after smuggling himself into Ukraine in 1933, issued a press release describing what he had seen there too. A young Malcolm Muggeridge did something similar, with un-bylined reports for the Manchester Guardian.

Jones was the hero of a 2019 film, Mr Jones, which was written by a Ukrainian American whose parents were born in the postwar refugee camps and whose uncle had one of the surviving translations of the Ukrainian Animal Farm.

Alas, the real-life Jones did not live to enjoy much vindication of his famine exposé. Banned from visiting the Soviet Union again, he turned instead to Japan and then China, where he was kidnapped and murdered in 1935. He died the day before his 30th birthday, probably at the hands of a vengeful Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

Duranty, meanwhile, survived long enough to feature on Orwell’s 1949 list of Stalin’s “fellow travellers” abroad. In a similar vein, Muggeridge called him “the greatest liar I have met in journalism”.

But it was not all criticism. For his famine-free reports of life in the Soviet Union, Duranty had also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.

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