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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stalinism as Swinocracy: 'Animal Farm' Hits 50

When George Orwell shopped his manuscript for "Animal Farm" around London in 1944, doors slammed in his face. It was refused by such eminent literary authorities as T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber, and Orwell had letters from the British Ministry of Information asking that he not offend "our Russian friends."


But 50 years ago, on Aug. 17, 1945, the publishing house of Secker & Warburg finally brought the book out, in a press run of 4,500. Since that time Orwell's "fairy tale" has been translated into some 70 languages, becoming the standard political allegory of totalitarianism for three generations, whose story was played out in Nazi Germany no less than in the former Soviet Union.


"Quite simply, this was the most important book we ever published," Max Eilenberg, the current publisher at Secker & Warburg, said by telephone from London this week. "It is a key text of our culture of the last 50 years. In a sense, it's easy enough to place it within the context of satirical allegory from Gulliver onwards, and I am sure that it will endure as a great classic in this line."


In the post-war Soviet Union, "Animal Farm" was -- not surprisingly -- banned. The book tells of a farm in which the animals wrest control from the humans to form an egalitarian utopia, but the dream quickly sours, with the pigs taking on the role of human autocrats and a strict hierarchy developing among the rest of the animals.


In its most famous line, the final commandment of Napoleon's swinocracy -- "ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS" -- not even the most dull-witted censor could fail to make the connection with Soviet reality.


As with most important Western works, however, Orwell's tale became widely known in the typescripts and handwritten copies of samizdat. Kirill Kovaldzhi, a poet and the present editor in chief of Moskovsky Rabochy publishing house, first read "Animal Farm" some 20 years ago in just this way.


"The book had great significance in Russia, as it helped people to understand the basic mistakes in Marxism as it was practiced here," Kovaldzhi said. "But in addition, because of its similarity to the Russian fairy-tale tradition -- especially to the work of the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin -- it had resonance time in 1989.


The journal Inostrannaya Literatura brought the book out under its samizdat title, "Skotny Dvor," in a run of 50,000, which editor in chief Alexei Slovesny said was bought up almost instantaneously.


"Our intention in publishing 'Animal Farm,' in a series of books that included the works of Henry Miller, James Joyce and others, was to fill in the blank spots left by the Soviets," said Slovesny, one of the original editors at the journal.


Slovesny, unlike most, first read the book in English while studying at a privileged linguistic institute some 45 years ago, when, he said, "it made quite a stir among the students."


To commemorate this 50th anniversary, Secker & Warburg have prepared a jubilee edition of "Animal Farm," whose most important contribution to the book's publishing history will be illustrations by Ralph Steadman, famous for his Rolling Stone covers and illustrations in Hunter S. Thomson's novels.


"It only seems odd to me that the book was never illustrated then, or in subsequent editions by someone like David Low who ... [like Orwell] saw both Hitler and Stalin as two sides of the same coin, or at worst the scum of the earth," Steadman wrote in a statement released to The Moscow Times.


"It cries out for that kind of visceral playfulness, a parallel commentary in pictures, something more than illustrations that can be viewed separately with their own built-in implications," Steadman wrote.


The BBC has also chosen to celebrate the anniversary by including "Animal Farm" as its Book at Bedtime this week, narrated by Ben Kingsley.


The enduring popularity of "Animal Farm" -- even after the collapse in Eastern Europe of the system it depicted with such condemning precision -- lies less in the broad sweep of its political significance, which has depreciated particularly in Russia, but in the simple appeal and frequent humor of its tale.


"This is a book that every schoolchild reads," Eilenberg said. "It works as a fairy story, and one can read it at 10 years of age, then pick it up again at 14 when he is slightly more sophisticated, and it is always remains completely relevant."