Six years ago, George Orwell’s 1984 rose to the top of the U.S. bestseller lists as a result of comparisons between Big Brother and Donald Trump. This winter, the book was again at the top of the bestseller list—but this time in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. An official bulletin on December 13 by TASS, Russia’s state news agency, announced that 1984 had led the 2022 e-book sales totals in fiction on LitRes, the state online bookseller, and was the second-most popular download in any category. Within hours, this curious piece of news was being reported throughout the West.
Critics have not been slow to point out the numerous resemblances between Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and Putin’s puppet propagandists. In Great Britain, the Independent declared in December that it was hardly surprising that Orwell’s vision “about citizens living under an oppressive regime that is continuously engaged in senseless war has become the most-read book in Russia.” A columnist for MailOnline, the website of Britain’s Daily Mail, claimed that Orwell’s novel—published in 1949 when the cult of Joseph Stalin was at its height in the Communist world—“was based on Stalin’s Russia,” and that the “comparisons…drawn with Putin” are inevitable, because both tyrannical regimes are “Orwellian.” Both Stalin’s regime and Putin’s could serve as a gloss on a famous sentence from the novel: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.” State-controlled broadcasters in Russia brazenly continue to insist that Russia did not attack Ukraine and does not occupy any Ukrainian territory (translation: this Ukrainian territory is not technically “occupied” by Russia because it has been annexed).
The story of 1984’s surge in popularity in Russia—TASS announced that sales of the book had soared 45 percent since the invasion of Ukraine in late February 2021—was even bigger news in continental Europe. “Orwell’s Novel about Repression Bestseller in Russia,” ran a headline in Portugal’s Financial News. “The story of absurd wars and totalitarian governments is all the rage in Moscow,” announced Turin’s La Stampa on December 18. Meanwhile, in Ouest-France, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the Francophone world, Carole Grimaux, a professor of geopolitics at the University of Montpelier III and the founder of the Center for Russian and Eastern Europe Research, noted that “the book resonates with the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin…. [I]t is a work that brings Russians back to the Soviet past, because of similarities between the fiction they read and the reality they live.” Russian readers’ current encounters with1984 represent “a return to their past to understand their present and their future.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Fortune.com drew attention to the similarities between 1984’s Newspeak and the euphemisms the Putin regime had foisted on Russian journalists, who were forbidden to describe the Russian military’s activities in Ukraine as a “war” or “invasion.” They were instead to call it a “special military operation.” A jailed Russian dissident, writing from his Moscow jail cell for the Calgary Herald, told Canadian readers that the Kremlin’s “relentless pro-regime and pro-war messaging” resembled 1984’s Two Minute Hates, except that “in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, televised hate goes on for hours.” The dissident political prisoner noted that Putin’s propaganda also includes the rewriting of history, with the USSR cast in a self-glorifying New Year’s Eve state broadcast as “a noble and benevolent state—the ‘Empire of Good,’” which was “destroyed by a mischievous scheme” of “domestic traitors” in league with Ronald Reagan.
Noticieras Financieras, the online Latin American news service, reminded readers in December of Orwell’s status in Stalin’s Russia, where he was banned and “listed as one of the writers most critical of the Soviet totalitarian system.” Commemorating the seventy-third anniversary of Orwell’s death on January 21, Noticieras Financieras added that the “imaginary future” projected by Orwell “in which totalitarian governments monitor their inhabitants and manipulate information” was “still relevant today”—especially in Russia.
And yet, in a development that bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of 1984, it remains unclear whether the popularity of Orwell’s novel in the Russia of 2022–23 is part of a protest against Big Brother or a propaganda maneuver organized by the Putin regime itself. There’s plenty of evidence for both interpretations—as implausible as the second one might seem to Westerners.
But first let’s address the conventional wisdom—namely, that Russians’ growing alarm at Putin is responsible for 1984’s sales surge. Several Russian intellectuals who have emigrated (or escaped) to the West since the invasion have been jailed over the years for denouncing the Putin regime as “Orwellian” and comparing it with the government described 1984. A prominent Russian protester, the businessman Dimitri Siline, was giving out copies of 1984 in March 2022, just weeks after the war started. He had paid $1,500 for the copies he distributed—five hundred in March and another several hundred in April—in his own city of Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, as well as in Moscow subway stations and parks. Noting the parallels between Orwell’s Oceania and Putin’s Russia, Siline explained in an interview with Le Monde: “I wanted to offer people the chance to read it, and to start to think about it seriously.” He was soon arrested and charged with “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” He was later fined and released.
Last summer, 1984 was banned in Belarus by Alexander Lukashenko, “the Kremlin’s iron ally,” as La Stampa characterizes him. Some observers believe that the surge of interest in 1984 may arise from a fear that Putin, too, may soon ban 1984. These observers note that 1984 had become a bestseller in Belarus in 2020–21, reflecting—and perhaps contributing to—the massive protests against President Lukashenko that led to severely repressive state measures.
Other Russian dissidents echo the prevailing Western view that the novel’s rise newfound popularity in Russia is attributable to the obvious and eerie parallels between Orwell’s Oceania and Putin’s Russia. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician, wrote in December that Russian documentaries, cultural programs, “and even sports coverage” are “filled with propaganda messages” à la Oceania. He notes that “Kremlin propaganda has also been ramped up to unprecedented levels” on television, with virtually all light entertainment on every station “scrapped” in favor of current-events programming. Channel One, Russia’s flagship station, is now devoted exclusively to agitprop from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. throughout the week. Kara-Murza, who now writes his articles from a jail cell, having been arrested in April for speaking out against the war, observes that “the leitmotifs are always the same: Russia is surrounded by enemies. The West seeks to humiliate and dismember it. The Soviet Union was a noble and benevolent state—'the Empire of Good,’ as chief TV propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov put it…. the only reason Russia still exists is because Putin is there to protect it.”
The Kremlin has a very different explanation for the reemergence of Orwell’s novel in Russia. A half dozen official editions of 1984 are sold in Russian bookstores and by LitRes and other online sellers, and all of them are translated and introduced by officially approved writers. Their prefaces argue that 1984 is really about “Western decadence” and “totalitarian liberalism.” These are the talking points of various Kremlin-sponsored cultural institutes, such as the Russian Strategic Culture Foundation (RSCF) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).
The RSCF has published more than two hundred articles that make reference to Orwell’s critique of the West. One contributor contends: “I think it is safe to say that Orwell intended Big Brother to symbolize the British Empire, the largest empire that has ever existed in world history.” Meanwhile, MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has been insisting for several years that 1984 mirrors the West. (She embarrassed herself in May 2017, when, in response to reports about Russian meddling in American electoral politics she said, “This is pure disinformation—just as in Orwell’s ‘1982.’” Her critics jeered, perhaps unaware that Orwell had indeed considered that title, along with “1980” and “The Last Man in Europe”—before finally choosing Nineteen Eighty-Four—or 1984, as his American publishers retitled it.) Asked last May at a public briefing “what Russians should tell their relatives and friends in the West who maintain that 1984 mirrors Russia today,” Zakharova repeated her line about Western disinformation and then went on the offensive, calling 1984 a looking glass for Western liberalism’s “unfreedom” of thought and castigating Western media “propagandists.” Indeed, Zakharova reserves her sharpest criticism for member of the Western media, lashing out above all at the “doublethink” and “Newspeak” of American media, which she characterized in March 2017 as “shameful” exhibits of “media vandalism”:
What U.S. and other media write is an attempt at total disinformation of…the global public, but the main target is the American public. First, we called this a disinformation campaign. And then we changed the tone and described it as hysterics. But it is even worse than that, it’s George Orwell’s 1984. We see now what he meant when he wrote about Big Brother. The Big Brother in the United States today is the U.S. media, which have moved far beyond the limits of professional ethics and competence and feel free to denounce and condemn, or simply to fabricate news. This is exactly what is happening now. This is terrible, because the heat of internal political competition has reached the media, including the U.S. media, which have joined the hostilities and are destroying the prestige and trust in media publications, not only of their own public but also the international community as a whole.
Zakharova’s critique of the Western media has been seconded by members of the Russian parliament and Putin’s political colleagues. As the war began in 2022, Anatoli Wasserman, a deputy of Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party and formerly Russian TV’s top current-affairs pundit, told the Kremlin-backed editors of News.ru that “everything Orwell wrote about was his own experience at the BBC,” where he served as a broadcaster during World War II. The setting in 1984, said Vasserman, is Orwell’s London—the capital of Airstrip One, the post-apocalyptic Britain—not Moscow or any city in Russia. Why? Because Orwell was determined to expose the pretensions and lies of the West’s so-called liberal democracies, which were, and remain, the real despotisms. Similarly, Yelena Panina, formerly a member of the Duma’s foreign-affairs committee, rechristened YouTube as the Ministry of Truth on account of its alleged anti-Russian biases and anti-Putin cancel-culture policies. Panina also derided the German foreign ministry’s decision to remove all Russia-sponsored channels and news archives from the internet, which she termed an historical rectification worthy of Winston Smith’s Newspeak forgeries for “Minitrue”.
However unlikely or even preposterous it may seem to Westerners that Putin’s puppets are orchestrating a sales campaign to promote 1984, it’s worth noting that they are not the first Kremlin mouthpieces to recognize 1984’s potential propaganda value—or to claim that Orwell's novel is actually about the West. As long ago as the late 1950s, the cultural bureaucrats of the post-Stalin era were publishing articles about Orwell’s “satire of the West.” From the early Cold War era through the glasnost era under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s (when Soviet readers first encountered Orwell in an official translation), the Kremlin has sought to portray 1984 as a capitalist nightmare. In a 1959 article titled “Under the Hood of Mr. Hoover,” a Soviet critic cleverly presented 1984 as a portrait of the American future, in which the power of “the Hoovers…has reached fabulous heights.” The following year Kommunist instructed its readers that the secret affair of Winston and Julia really did make them guilty of sexcrime and typified “the amorality which flourishes in some strata of bourgeois society…the growth of all kinds of temporary extramarital and family relations and open prostitution.” A quarter-century later, just as the West was crazed by “Orwellmania” as New Year’s Day 1984 approached, the Soviet press under Yuri Andropov (once Putin’s boss at the KGB) greeted the arrival of that year with a reminder that Orwell was indeed a visionary—about the global dominance of American imperialism under “Big Brother Reagan.” As the Soviet daily Izvestia put it in January 14, 1984:
Every year from 1949 to 1984 made it clearer and clearer that Orwell, unwittingly or unknowingly (one could argue the latter), had painted not a caricature of socialism and communism, but a quite realistic picture of contemporary capitalism-imperialism.
Even in Gorbachev’s USSR, the May 1988 edition of the Literary Gazette spun 1984’s “Hate Week” into a portrait of Islam and claimed that “the totalitarian shadowing of the population by means of the newest electronic equipment” was “a reality precisely in the advanced countries of the West, most of all America.”
In general, the main difference between the Soviet and Putin eras with respect to 1984 has to do not with their interpretations of the novel, but with Putin’s eagerness to distribute copies of 1984 to the Russian reading public, which the Soviets never dared to do until shortly before the USSR’s collapse in 1991. Under Stalin and his successors, headlines and sound bites referring to 1984 were everywhere in the state media (the FBI and CIA were regularly described as “Thought Police”), yet the novel itself was proscribed. You could not buy it in a bookstore. You could not find it in a library. One knew little or nothing about its plot or characters. Yet ordinary Russians knew all its infamous coinages—because they had read and heard them in the state media. And some may have heard more—from the whispers of acquaintances who managed to get hold of a copy. For 1984 could only be read as samizdat—that is, as a “forbidden” book passed on surreptitiously from person to person through the dissident underground.
The rise of 1984 to first place on the Russian bestseller list may seem sudden, but the novel has been selling well in Russia for years. It’s just that this fact wasn’t noticed by the Western media until December. In June 2022 Victoria Feuillebois, a scholar in Russian studies at the University of Strasbourg, wrote in a French magazine that 1984 has been “a literary phenomenon as well as a political touchstone” in Russia for a dozen years. It sold approximately 1.8 million copies between 2009 and 2019, according to a French press report—and broke into the Russian “top ten” list in 2015. In the spring of 2022, within weeks of the Ukrainian invasion, bookstore sales of the book were up 30 percent and online sales had jumped 75 percent. Sales increases since then have been ever higher.
Of course, it is still likely that growing public discontent with Putin’s government is the main driver behind 1984’s sales, and that the typical Russian reader is not succumbing to Kremlin propaganda about Orwell’s novel. It is likely they are reading the novel with an awareness of its horrifying parallels to their own lives—and simply ignoring (or even defying) the anti-Western prefaces and state agitprop. On the other hand, 1984 is still being taught in government-approved literature classes at the university level, apparently in keeping with the official line parroted by the Ministry of Culture that the novel is anti-Western and anti-liberal, not anti-Soviet. Those who credit Putin with the savvy to exploit 1984 for his own purposes also note that many Russians may indeed believe the prefatory propaganda—even if they are also feeling unease with the drawn-out war. The Kremlin’s propaganda about the book is well suited to a common Russian paranoia that sees Mother Russia as the isolated victim of a nefarious Western conspiracy. Orwell (along with writers ranging from Kafka and Huxley to Solzhenitsyn and Cormac McCarthy) is easily coopted as a dystopian precursor of “liberpunk,” a prominent new literary current in Putin’s Russia that is Slavophile and politically conservative. Condemning hideously invasive Western bureaucracies, along with Western “decadence” and “liberal immorality,” liberpunk projects various apocalyptic near-future scenarios whereby the “soft,” “indulgent” capitalist West simply self-destructs under the weight of its own depravity.
A trio of Russian political dissidents under the Soviet Union—Andrei Sinyavsky, Vladimir Voinovich, and Vladimir Bukovsky—were well known in the West as votaries of Orwell’s work and as exemplars of Orwellian moral courage and intellectual integrity. After the USSR’s collapse, all of these men became vocal critics of the re-emerging authoritarianism in post-Communist Russia and (except for Sinyavsky, who died in 1997) of Vladimir Putin’s regime since his rise to the presidency in 1999.
The most prominent recent example of what the dissident émigré journalist Masha Karp—the author of the forthcoming George Orwell and Russia (Bloomsbury)—calls “the ritual invocation of Orwell’s name among members of the Russian intelligentsia” occurred in October. The occasion was the publication of an open letter connected with the announcement of the annual 2022 Anna Politkovskaya Prize, awarded in honor of an investigative journalist murdered in October 2006 after protesting the Chechnya war and publishing articles critical of the Putin regime. This past year’s “Letter to Anna” was written by the eighty-year-old human-rights and peace activist Svetlana Gannushkina, who has spoken out loudly against Kremlin warmongering from the Chechnya campaign to the Ukraine invasion. In the course of both honoring her friend “Anya” and condemning the Putin regime for making Oceania the daily reality of 140 million Russians, Gannushkina exalts Orwell as a kindred spirit and inspirational presence. She writes:
It is not only people who are repressed, but words, too. You can end up in detention [in Putin’s Russia] simply for uttering them. Do you remember, Anya, that Soviet-era catchphrase: “We were born [according to Soviet propaganda] in order to make Kafka a reality?” We are now successfully making Orwell a reality.
We, many of us, are ashamed, but the country will be different when we succeed in transforming this shame into something constructive and learning to take responsibility for what is being done in our name.
The dissident newspaper Novaya Gazeta (“New Gazette”), the independent Russian newspaper for which Anna Politkovskaya wrote, recently ran the headline “Making Orwell a Reality.” That is, making George Orwell himself—not Big Brother—a reality by imitating his example of intellectual courage. The Russian sales figures for 1984 suggest that these two brave women and the brave staff of Novaya Gazeta (published in Moscow) are not alone in seeking to “make Orwell a reality.” Whether 1984 continues to sell widely in Russia or becomes the victim of a repressive backlash as in Belarus, two developments seem likely to continue: Kremlin propagandists will continue to use a kind of doublespeak in order to manipulate public opinion; and Putin’s Russian critics will continue to commit what Orwell called thoughtcrime. Denouncing the Kremlin’s suppression of dissent and political opposition, they will dare—in full view of the many risks to their own safety—to invoke the language and vision of 1984.