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IDEAS

‘1984’ was meant as a critique of the USSR, but it really fits Putin’s Russia

George Orwell foresaw today’s particular combination of lies, violence, and profit.

A flag with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the words "For the Motherland, for sovereignty, for Putin," held by a pro-Kremlin activist.Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press

In recent months, memorial plaques have been disappearing from buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Each plaque had been placed in memory of a victim of Stalin’s repressions, marking their last known residence, profession, and dates of birth, arrest, and death or rehabilitation. The markers, Russia’s equivalent of Germany’s “Stolpersteine” for victims of the Nazis, have been installed all over the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries and even in France since 2014 by the Last Address project. The thousandth plaque went up in 2020. When journalists have asked why the plaques are now coming down in Russia, they’re being told that the building authorities made the decision.

This is one of the many absurd claims being made as part of President Vladimir Putin’s revision of Russian history. The campaign is epitomized by the publication of a textbook, “The History of Russia: 1945 to the Start of the 21st Century.” It’s now being used to teach 16- and 17-year-olds that the war in Ukraine is an aggressive move by the West against Russia, which is using Ukraine as a “battering ram.” This supports two essential elements of Putin’s propaganda: that Russia is under relentless attack by the West, and that Ukraine is not a real country. A tidal wave of lying has engulfed Russia, and it’s no surprise it would also carry away plaques about the Stalin years that arose from efforts to insert snippets of Russia’s actual history into its public life.

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This all brings to mind George Orwell’s observations on organized lying. In recent years, Orwell has been invoked often in the context of threats to Western democracy. After the 2016 election, sales of “1984″ exploded. The author’s explorations of the psychology of unfreedom were widely cited in an effort to explain how a wide swath of the population of a democratic country could fall prey to a purveyor of transparent falsehoods. But in some ways the system Orwell described in “1984″ fits Putin’s Russia and the crimes it is committing in plain sight — the invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine under the flimsy cover of a series of shifting lies, the systematic revisions of the past, and the disposal of evidence — even more precisely than it did the Soviet system Orwell meant to critique.

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Victory everywhere

The journalist Masha Karp’s recent book “George Orwell and Russia” starts with a vivid account of what it was like to read “1984″ in the later years of the Soviet Union. “The frightening resemblance of the bleak and cruel life in Oceania to our own was overwhelming,” Karp writes. “How did he know? we wondered.”

Indeed, Orwell never visited Russia. Instead he developed his insights over a lifetime that, Karp shows, constitutes a guide to thinking freely. When he was young, Orwell was exposed to the concocted “universal” language Esperanto through his aunt Nellie and her companion Eugène Adam. He reacted with allergic vehemence to all manipulations of language to serve a political idea — no less in the case of a noble idea, as it was with the utopian underpinnings of Esperanto, than in the case of an ignoble one.

George Orwell in an undated photo.Uncredited

Putin’s attempts to recast Stalin as a national hero are among the many language manipulations that make up what Winston Smith, the protagonist of “1984,” calls “reality control.” A classic example has been happening at the Museum of Political Repression Perm-36. It was established in 1995 by the human rights organization Memorial on the site of a former gulag camp. At its peak it received around 35,000 visitors a year. In 2014, a state-funded museum with a similar name was created and gradually took over management of the site, refurbishing the museum to remove references to Stalin. Instead it now highlights Russian science and showcases “important inmates” and their contribution to the Soviet economy.

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Another similarity between “1984″ and Putin’s Russia is the obsession with victory. In the novel, Karp writes, “Winston Smith lives in Victory Mansions, drinks Victory gin and Victory coffee; smokes Victory cigarettes; Trafalgar Square is renamed Victory Square.” And in Putin’s Russia, a mindless triumphalism is the constant tone of pro-war social media. As the BBC recently reported, the government now provides the most popular “Z-bloggers,” the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of Russian battle “victories,” with large advertising revenues. When such triumphalism began to swell in Russia around 2005, the 60th anniversary of the victory over Hitler, opponents of the regime coined the pejorative term “pobedobesie,” or victory frenzy, to describe the atmosphere encouraged — engineered — from above.

Karp argues that the system used by Putin and his cronies to hide and protect their colossal wealth bears a striking resemblance to what “1984″ characterizes as “oligarchical collectivism” — a system in which a group of powerful and wealthy men share accounts and vehicles for hiding and moving money so as to avoid scrutiny or accountability. Orwell, she notes, first used the phrase in 1939 in a review of his friend Franz Borkenau’s “The Totalitarian Enemy,” applying it to both Fascist Germany and the Soviet Union.

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But Orwell was perhaps most prescient in his depiction of a specific alloy of lies and violence that undermines what Karp calls “belief in objective reality.” Violence must be lied about and lies must ultimately be shored up by violence. She cites Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by Russian forces occupying eastern Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin kept changing its story: It said Flight 17 was shot down by a Ukrainian jet; then it said the plane was blown up by a missile intended for the Russian president’s plane; then it offered the obscene and ridiculous suggestion that the plane had been full of dead bodies and crashed deliberately. Finally, when the Kremlin made a half-acknowledgment that the Malaysian flight was brought down by a Russian-made missile, it said the missile hadn’t been one from Russia’s own arsenal.

Another element of Putinism that reeks of “1984″'s Oceania, though not part of Karp’s analysis, is the powerful drive to control sexuality, present most obviously in contemporary Russia in the extreme homophobia fomented by the state. The Winston and Julia of the book would today most likely be a same-sex couple meeting in fear of discovery, with an insuppressible knowledge that freely lived sexuality is one of the few forms of rebellion still available to subjects of a tyrant. Putin’s regime also uses mythologies about sex to slander and incarcerate members of the political opposition — such as the historian Yuri Dmitriev, who has been jailed on trumped-up charges of pedophilia.

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Children with a banner bearing the letter Z, which has become a symbol of the Russian military.Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press

The resources for faking information as well as the technology available for constant visual surveillance and location tracking as portrayed in “1984″ are much closer to the realities of Putin’s Russia than they were to what existed in the Soviet Union when the book was released. Orwell also anticipated the cynical use of catastrophe in propaganda. The thousands of victims of Stalin’s police dug up by Dmitriev and his colleagues in Sandarmokh are shown on television relabeled as Soviet “victims of Finnish Fascists.” Early on in “1984″ Winston records in his diary seeing film of “a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean . . . a child’s arm going up up up”; the channel Russia Today routinely shows images of refugees at European and American borders to illustrate the decline and fall of the West.

Karp is eloquent on how the Kremlin uses implausible lies to express contempt for the West while it winks at Russians and yet spreads uncertainty about the reliability of any information. She quotes “1984″'s torturer, O’Brien: “You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. . . . But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists . . . only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is the truth.”

In Stalinist practice, the mind of the Party early on came to mean simply the mind of the tyrant. Putin, on the other hand, keeps reeling out his phantasmagoric versions of Russian history because he believes he can and should impose his own mind on external reality, regardless of what it does to contradict him.

Russia under Putin has had its own Orwells, stubborn independent researchers who have written truthfully about dangerous subjects. Many of them have been “vaporized” like the thought criminals of Oceania — killed, arrested on bogus charges, sent into remote penal colonies, or, when they were lucky, forced to leave the country. Karp mentions Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova, two of the bravest and best-known of them, but there are scores of journalists, artists, and rights activists who have been targeted. Yuri Dmitriev and other activists are surviving somehow, somewhere in the immemorial Russian penal system, but Sergey Parkhomenko, originator of the Last Address project, is still at large.

Karp is herself a keeper of Orwell’s faith, ending her book with a quote from his “Looking Back on the Spanish War”: “Against that shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree, there are in reality only two safeguards. One is that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back. . . . The other is that so long as some parts of the earth remain unconquered, the liberal tradition can be kept alive.”

Alissa Valles is a poet, a translator from Polish and Russian, and a lecturer at Boston University.