Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was about liberalism, not totalitarianism, claims Moscow diplomat

George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four was written to describe the dangers of western liberalism – not totalitarianism – a top Moscow diplomat has claimed.

“For many years we believed that Orwell described the horrors of totalitarianism. This is one of the biggest global fakes … Orwell wrote about the end of liberalism. He depicted how liberalism would lead humanity to a dead end,” Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry, said during a public talk in Ekaterinburg on Saturday.

Published in 1949, the book is seen as a cautionary tale warning of the consequences of totalitarianism and mass surveillance. Orwell is believed to have modelled the totalitarian government depicted in the novel on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.

Zakharova had been asked by a member of the public how to respond to friends and relatives abroad when they suggested that Russia was living in a modern-day replay of Orwell’s novel.

“Orwell did not write about the USSR, it wasn’t about us,” she said. “He wrote about the society in which he lived, about the collapse of the ideas of liberalism. And you were made to believe that Orwell wrote it about you.” Zakharova suggested the audience member tell her relatives abroad: “It’s you in the west who live in a fantasy world where a person can be cancelled.”

Russia’s aggressive state media campaign to justify its invasion of Ukraine has drawn comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four and its most celebrated line: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

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Moscow has mobilised the full force of the state propaganda machine to portray Vladimir Putin’s invasion as a defensive campaign to “liberate” Ukraine, and authorities have introduced strict laws banning the description of the country’s actions in Ukraine as “war” and “an invasion”.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Moscow’s efforts, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four have risen sharply in Russia recently, with one marketplace saying they had witnessed a 75% increase.

There has also been anecdotal evidence that Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine have turned to Nineteen Eighty-Four. When one Ukrainian couple returned to their home last month after the Russian retreat from Irpin, a town just outside of Kyiv, they found that a Russian-language copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four had been removed from their shelf and lay open on the sofa, suggesting that the Russian soldiers had been reading it.

Viktor Golyshev, a prominent linguist who translated the novel into Russian, disputed Zakharova’s assertions and said the novel was “not at all” about the decline of liberalism.

“I think it is a novel about a totalitarian state. When he wrote it, totalitarian states were already in decline, but between the first and second world wars, half of Europe had totalitarian governments. At the time there was no decline of liberalism, not at all,” the translator said.

It is not the first time Russian officials have blasted liberalism. In 2019, Putin told the Financial Times that liberalism was “obsolete”.

In 2017, while comparing mainstream western media to “Big Brother”, the leader of the totalitarian state in Orwell’s novel, Zakharova mistakenly called the book 1982.

Across the border in Belarus, itself subjected to a crackdown on civil society and freedom of speech, authorities last week banned Nineteen Eighty-Four and local publishers were instructed to withdraw it from their shelves.