How 'Animal Farm' Gave Hope to Stalin's Refugees

An underground Ukrainian translation of George Orwell's subversive novel infiltrated postwar Europe's displaced persons camps.


Reading the introduction to Animal Farm by Christopher Hitchens a few years ago, I was stunned to learn that George Orwell, then a struggling writer in London, worked by letter with a group of refugees to publish the novel in Ukrainian in the displaced persons camps of postwar Europe.

The story of Orwell and the refugees was an incredible triumph of life amidst so much death and destruction. Between Stalin's terror famine and the Gulag, Hitler's concentration camps, the clash of Soviet and Nazi armies in World War II, it was as though hell had opened up across Eastern Europe. Sixty-five years ago this March, Orwell wrote a heartfelt letter to a group of Ukrainian refugees sharing in their solidarity of wanting to expose the incomprehensible evil of totalitarian regimes. The refugees turned the letter into Orwell's only published introduction to Animal Farm, and the only known personal account of how he developed the book that would be considered his masterpiece.

Hell was opened for over a decade—for much of the '30s and the first half of the '40s. After Hitler was defeated, the terror continued behind the Iron Curtain—resembling the 1984 that Orwell had warned about.

During Orwell's time, information was tightly controlled by a few known names at the top. These were the windmills he quixotically fought against: reading through the lines of mainstream dogma and rubbing the fog off the rosy glasses of his generation overly enamored with Stalin's strength, which they confused with the hopes and dreams of the Russian Revolution. When Stalin's approval rating in the West was at its highest, thanks to cheerleaders with international influence like Watler Duranty of the New York Times, George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Stalin had already become one of the vilest mass murderers in history with the 1932-1933 terror famine in Ukraine. In this year that Stalin starved to death an estimated 6-10 million Ukrainians, Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for his spineless coverage of Stalin and the Soviet Union was officially recognized and feted by the United States.

Like Winston daring to keep a journal in the Thought Police world of Oceania, Orwell forged ahead in finding a publisher in March 1944 for his first artistically driven novel, even though, as he said in a letter to a friend, it was "not O.K. politically." Animal Farm was rejected by four publishers, including his usual go-to Victor Gollancz. Jonathan Cape agreed to publish it but then backed out after consulting with "an important official in the Ministry of Information" who, unbeknownst to him, was a Soviet agent. Cape excused himself by expressing his fear that Stalin wouldn't like it. According to Orwell's close friend Inez Holden, who wrote in a 1967 letter that an amused Orwell had joked: "Imagine old Joe (who doesn't know one word of any European language) sitting in the Kremlin reading Animal Farm and saying 'I don't like this.'"

On behalf of Faber & Faber, T.S. Eliot wrote a rejection letter that lectured Orwell about being too hard on old Joe: "your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm."

"Stalin is sacrosanct," Orwell wrote of the prevailing ignorance in "Freedom of the Press," his essay chastising media self-censorship that had been "universally observed since 1941" and even "ten years earlier than that," he wrote. Orwell wanted this essay to be the introduction of Animal Farm, which he finally managed to publish with the small press Secker and Warburg that offered him £100—around $4,000 today—but this preface for some reason was not included. (Perhaps the publisher didn't want to court more controversy).

Animal Farm came out in August of 1945, almost four months after the Nazis surrendered, and by the following February it had traveled east and was read by a young highly educated language and literature scholar 24-year-old Ihor Ševčenko, an unscathed refugee of Ukrainian origin who spent the final years of the war earning a doctorate at a university in Prague. Ševčenko was raised by parents who, during the Russian Revolution, helped lead a movement against the Bolsheviks for Ukraine's independence, and was drawn to the Ukrainian DP camps to help. There, he translated aloud in Ukrainian while reading Orwell's Animal Farm, a book he had recently picked up somewhere, to a transfixed audience. (Ševčenko learned English from listening to the BBC.) He wrote to Orwell on April 11, 1946, asking if he could publish his novel in Ukrainian for his "countrymen" to enjoy. Orwell agreed to write a preface, refused any royalties, and even tried to recruit his friend Arthur Koestler, author of the Soviet dystopian novel Darkness at Noon, writing, "I have been saying ever since 1945 that the DPs were a godsend opportunity for breaking down the wall between Russia and the West."

In over a year, Ševčenko produced his translation, and worked during the upheaval and violence of Soviet repatriation—a dark episode of British and American history. To illustrate, think of the sinking sequence in James Cameron's Titanic: the passengers are the Soviet refugees, and the Titanic rising perpendicular to the ocean is the pact Roosevelt and Churchill made with Stalin at Yalta to return Soviet refugees by any means necessary. It would be an exchange for Western POWs. In the DP camps, American and British soldiers encountered mass suicides and fierce resistance, but managed to repatriate over 2 million Soviet citizens, most of whom were immediately executed or sent to labor camps upon arrival. Luckily, Ševčenko was born in an independent Poland, a nationality that did not fall under repatriation, and just as luckily, printing presses had sprouted up in the DP camps across the American Zone, where he worked.

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Andrea Chalupa is a journalist in New York. Her screenplay about Stalin's famine in Ukraine is being developed in Europe.

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