Monday, 21 April 2014

1984 revisited

Early last week, I felt an irresistible temptation to reach out for a second time for the George Orwell’s book. I first and last read it on the spur of the moment in the summer of 2006 and just like with The Beautiful Mind, I remembered little from the first encounter with the work. For no apparent reason until the beginning of the last part, I was deluding myself that the book would have a happy ending, something totally unimaginable in the communist nightmare depicted in George Orwell’s last remarkable piece of writing.

While delving into the book and taking in its purport much better than when I was eighteen, I wondered what had inspired George Orwell to think up horrifyingly bleak picture of the future world. Was there any premise in 1947 or 1948, when the book was committed into paper, why the world order could develop into a gloomy picture of communist tyranny? Three years have elapsed since the end of WW2, half of the very war’s duration. Great Britain was drowning in penury, Europe was divided into two political spheres of influences, Germany was divided into four occupation zones, in each Western European countries communist parties were meaningful, although not main players in political arenas, ordinary people were fearing the onset of the third, much more cruel world war. Was the threat of communism spilling over Western swathes of Europe so conceivable?

Around that time communism was still spreading and robustly competing capitalism. The Korean war about to break out in 1950, the communist party took over rule in China in 1949, Fidel Castro got hold of power in 1959, Stalin was still alive and mighty. At that time it could be said the peril of communism spreading far and wide was as serious as never before. Shortly after the warning George Orwell wanted to give to the world was published, the peril began to slowly wane. Stalin died in 1953, subsequently the totalitarian system in the Soviet Union and in the Soviet bloc countries set off to gradually thaw out. There was no possibility to break away from the fetters of the dreadful ideology, but its intensity was less callous. In the meantime in other parts of the world setting up communist regimes was in overdrive. The communism was to hold up well for a thousand years. For (above all) economic reasons it failed to stand the test of time much faster. In countries not being a part of Soviet bloc the system began to fall into pieces gradually. The Soviet bloc disintegrated in 1989, after a decade of progressing decomposition. These days the hard-core communist regime has its last bastion in North Korea and despite economic misery, the isolated country does not seem likely to break free.

George Orwell surely drew inspiration from the darkest side of Stalinist purge of 1930s, yet the cruel regime of Oceania outstripped the pre-WW2 Soviet Union. The abhorrent vision of totalitarian regime puts status of Poland when it was a part of the Soviet bloc in interesting perspective. Although Poland was not a free country, the oppressive system could have suppressed Poles much more. Władysław Pasikowski, director of Jack Strong, in his interview for Polityka weekly, attempting to weigh up whether Mr Kuklinski’s liaison with CIA was a treason, tackles the problem with a question, whether People’s Poland was an independent country or the 17th Soviet republic. Although we do not concur in assessment of Mr Kuklinski’s deeds, Mr Pasikowski very wisely points out Poland was neither a sovereign country, nor a part of the Soviet Union. It was somewhere in between. Between the white and the black there always is a wide area, with different shades of grey. In People’s Poland ordinary people, who led ordinary lives could feel they enjoyed some degree of freedom, while the statesmen and all the people active in top politics at that time were much closer to the Soviet Republic. Fortunately, in authoritarian Poland after 1956 individuals were given some autonomy and even if their lives were miserable, they at least could feel safe, provided they did not stick their neck out. From the perspective of Stalinist Russia, so much, from the perspective of today’s free Poland, so little…

On one of wintery evenings, being at the loose end, I indulged in watching Dziennik Telewizyjny, the main TV news broadcast in the state-controlled television. One of early January 1987 issues contained two long reports of Poland and United States struggling onslaught of winter. Footages from Poland showed snowploughs pushing away snowdrifts, trucks coming over with supplies of food to villages cut off from the rest of the world, news of heat supply being uninterrupted by winter, etc. In the meantime in the United States winter wreaked havoc to all the infrastructure – airplanes stranded, airports closed, drivers freezing in their cars on motorways, people falling over on slippery pavements and breaking limbs, cars skidding on icy roads. The message put over between the lines: look, winter brings the capitalist country to its knees, while we, despite adversities, are moving on! I was kind of impressed by the efforts of propaganda-engineers, at least their output was more clever than crass reports of “exceeded five-years plan of shoe-polish production”.

It took me two evenings to read the book from cover to cover. The next masterpiece of 20th century literature to swallow will be the Master and Margarita, to be revisited after over nine years.

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