A young man who had never liked reading once asked me where he should start. “What,” he asked, “was the most important book of the twentieth century?”
I only had to think for a few seconds before I responded. “Animal Farm,” I said, “by George Orwell. It must be the most influential book of the century.”
We were in a group having dinner somewhere in London, not too far from a bookshop. After dinner we went there and he bought himself a copy of the 1945 classic, still on bookshelves decades after its first appearance.
I was thinking about the book again yesterday when I heard on a news program that President Vladimir Putin is the richest man in Russia.
The book, you will remember, is a satire on communism, based around the Russian Revolution and subsequent events. But it’s amazing how the book is applicable to all forms of dictatorship. When we lived in Ghana, it was banned. We were in the country when the ban was lifted and the British Council showed the cartoon film of the book in celebration of the country’s new found freedom. I attended to show my support.
In 1985, while on a second visit to the Soviet Union, a young man (I was young then, myself) approached me and asked if he could buy my jeans. As I was wearing them at the time, it was quite out of the question. He then asked if I had any books with me. I told him I did not as, on my previous visit, my copy of Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” had been confiscated by a burly Red Army officer who bore a disturbing resemblance to Ivan the Terrible.
The young man continued to talk and shared with me that he was a member of an illegal book club. There were many such clubs around Russia. Members clubbed together, sharing resources, to try to get hold of a banned book (of which there were very many) and then pass it around so everybody could read it. He told me that “Animal Farm” was the most sought after book and offered me $800 if I could bring a copy next time. This was when $800 could buy a fairly good used car, so we’re talking serious money here! He said he knew someone who had a copy smuggled in from India, which publishes more books in the English language than the UK or the US. It’s not surprising that the number one banned book was “Animal Farm,” the best history of communism available. Unsurprisingly, six years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
So, why did I think of the book yesterday upon hearing that Putin is the richest man in Russia?
Because it bears out the inherent truth of Orwell’s book.
In the book, Farmer Jones is overthrown by his own animals, who seize control of the farm and attempt to run it themselves. Jones represents the Czar, the animals the peasants. Before too long, the pigs rise to the top, just as some of the peasants got into top positions in the communist system. By the end of the book, the pigs are indistinguishable from Farmer Jones, eating and drinking to excess while the other animals (peasants) are struggling to eke out a meager existence just as they did before. Undoubtedly, Putin’s wealth is greater than that of the last Czar!
And so it is with every revolution.
Organizations and private companies are just the same – a new administration ends up being just like the last one, prisoners of their own history and culture. The three great Russian heroes remain Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin, three strong men who were also monstrously cruel. And very wealthy.
If you haven’t read the book since your schooldays, read it again – I’m sure you will agree that it’s the most perceptive book written in the last hundred years, a book that should be a “must-read” for everybody who values freedom. Then, follow “Animal Farm” by reading some of Orwell’s other books, still a good read almost 64 years after his death.