Animal Farm is a beloved novel, one of the more enjoyable books that we're forced to read in high school.
It's a tragic satire of totalitarianism. Yet there's an inspiring story behind this classic.
Shortly after getting married to his muse Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a poet, Orwell and his wife spent their honeymoon fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War. It was in Spain where, through a series of unfortunate events including a sniper bullet piercing his throat, that Orwell's eyes were opened to the terror of Joseph Stalin. He would spend the next ten years being a lone voice in the wilderness, trying to open the eyes of the West to the fact that "Uncle Joe," our great World War II ally, was really a monster.
There's a reason why Animal Farm was written in the style of a children's book -- so people could easily swallow the uneasy truth. In fact, Orwell originally titled it Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, and the child of a publisher was an early fan of the manuscript. But Orwell struggled to get his book, which he had spent almost a decade developing, out into the world. He even received a lecturing rejection letter from T.S. Eliot, then head of Faber & Faber, who called Orwell's maniacal pigs proof that the world needed "more public-spirited pigs." How strange.
One marginalized group heard Orwell's message loud and clear: the refugees who used the hell of World War II to escape the Soviet Union.
It was in a Ukrainian refugee camp, outside of Munich, then occupied by the Allies, where a copy of Animal Farm was translated out loud by a young brilliant Ukrainian man, Ihor Sevcenko, who had learned English by listening to the BBC. (Orwell's book had just been published by the small, brave British press Secker & Warburg.) These refugees, as written in a fan letter to Orwell in London, were shocked that anyone in the West "knew the truth."
Orwell couldn't have received their letter at a more perfect time. His wife Eileen had recently died in routine surgery, leaving him a widow and a single father to their newly adopted infant son Richard, whose parents had been killed in the Nazi raids on London. So here was Orwell, in mourning and declining health -- a few years away from death himself -- having fought so hard to get his carefully crafted Animal Farm out into a world that seemingly didn't want it. His book was a message of hope to these refugees, and their letter was a message of hope to Orwell.
"In 1936 I got married. In almost the same week the civil war broke out in Spain. My wife and I both wanted to go to Spain and fight for the Spanish Government," Orwell wrote in a long, heartfelt letter to the Ukrainian refugees. "[In Spain] many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared. These man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them... To experience all this was a valuable object lesson: It taught me how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries."
Orwell's letter, considered today his most in-depth discussion of Animal Farm, became the preface to a Ukrainian translation that was published and distributed in the refugee camps.
The details of the lives of these escaped Soviet citizens, the cultural renaissance that they created in the freedom of the refugee camps, and how they developed a correspondence with a struggling, fringe writer in London is a story that will inspire anyone to stay true to her or his convictions. As long as your message is true, it will receive a worthy audience, and it will last.
I have written about this little known history before, explaining how Stalin was able to get away with deliberately starving to death an estimated 10 million of his own citizens. You can read more about Stalin's 1932-33 genocide famine, the Holodomor, in my piece in The Atlantic.
I also wrote a screenplay, currently in development with an Academy Award-winning production company, about this remarkable story of Orwell and the refugees. Starting on Sunday, I will be traveling across Canada for two weeks, giving lectures, complete with noisy hand gestures I learned from my extended Ukrainian family, about this inspiring true story, the larger-than-life personalities who together, along with Orwell, produced the refugee camp edition of Animal Farm. It was one of the few treasures that my mother's family brought with them when they immigrated to New York City.
For more information on the lecture tour, please go here for dates and locations. Or visit the websites of the organizers, including the UCC National Holodomor Awareness Committee and SUSK : Ukrainian Canadian Students' Union.