[bas relief by Oleh Lesiuk]
Review by George Orwell of
Assignment in Utopia by Eugene Lyons
in New English Weekly, 9 June 1938
Anyone who has followed the Russian trials knows this is scarcely a parody . The questions arises, could anything like this happen in England? Obviously it could not. From our point of view the whole thing is not merely incredible but a genuine conspiracy, it is next door to incredible as a frame up. It is simply a dark mystery, of which the only seizable fact - sinister is its way - is that Communists over here regard it as a good advertisement for Communism.
Meanwhile the truth about Stalin's régime, if only we could get hold of it, is of the first importance. Is it Socialism, or is it a peculiar form of state capitalism? All the political controversies that have made life hideous for two years past really circle around this question, though for several reasons it is seldom brought into the foreground. It is difficult to go to Russia, once there it is impossible to make adequate investigations, and all one's ideas on the subject have to be drawn from books which are so fulsomely ‘for' or venomously ‘against' that the prejudice stinks a mile away. Mr Lyons's book is definitely in the ‘against' class but gives the impression of being much more reliable than most. It is obvious from his manner of writing he is not a vulgar propagandist, and he was in Russia a long time (1928-34) as a correspondent for the United Press Agency having been sent there on Communist recommendation. Like many others who have gone there full of hope, he was gradually disillusioned, and unlike some others he finally chose to tell the truth about it. It is an unfortunate fact that any hostile criticism of the present Russian régime is liable to be taken as propaganda against Socialism; all socialists are aware of this, and it does not make for an honest discussion.
The years that Mr Lyons spent in Russia were years of appalling hardship, culminating in the Ukraine famine of 1933, which a number estimated at not less than three million people starved to death. Now, no doubt, after the success of the Second Five Year Plan, the physical conditions have improved, but there seems no reason for thinking that the social atmosphere is greatly different. The system that Mr Lyons describes does not seem to be very different from Fascism. All real power is concentrated in the hands of two or three million people, the town proletariat, theoretically the heirs of the revolution, having been robbed by the elementary right to strike; more recently by the introduction of the internal passport, they have been reduced to a status resembling serfdom. The G.P.U. are everywhere, everyone lives in constant terror of denunciation, freedom of speech and of the press are obliterated to an extent we can hardly imagine. There are periodical waves of terror, sometimes the ‘liquidation' of kulaks or Nepmen, sometimes some monstrous state trial at which people who have been in prison for months or years are suddenly dragged forth to make incredible confessions, while their children publish articles in the newspapers saying ‘I repudiate my father as a Trotskyist serpent.' Meanwhile the invisible Stalin is worshipped in terms that would have made Nero blush. This -- at great length and in much detail -- is the picture Mr Lyons presents, and I do not believe he has misrepresented the facts. He does, however, show signs of being embittered by his experiences, and I think he probably exaggerates the amount of discontent prevailing among the Russians themselves.
He once succeeded in interviewing Stalin, and found him human, simple and likeable. It is worth noticing that H. G. Wells said the same thing, and it is a fact that Stalin, at any rate on the cinematograph, has a likeable face. Is it not also recorded that Al Capone was the best of husbands and fathers, and that Joseph Smith (of brides in the bath fame) was sincerely loved by the first of his seven wives and always returned between murders?
Notes in relation to Orwell's above parody of the Moscow Show Trials:
• Lord Nuffield - was the UK 's leading car manufacturer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Morris,_1st_Viscount_Nuffield
• Norman Birkett, was an eminent lawyer at the time; one time Liberal MP who later went on to become the UK 's main War Crimes' trial judge at Nuremberghttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Birkett,_1st_Baron_Birkett
• Bulls' Eyes, used to be popular English sweets, which from personal memory, were actually the size of actual eye balls with the texture & consistency of rock-hard, ivory pool-balls, no doubt given to children since Edwardian days & by completely filling their small mouths, kept them quiet, as proverbially; 'children should be seen and not heard'!
• The Primrose League – now defunct, was a popular 19th Century Conservative society which upheld capitalist principles and apparently named after Disraeli's favourite flower and conceived by Churchill's father, Randolph. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primrose_League
• The brothers; Alfred & Harold Harmsworth – AKA Lord Rothermere & Lord Northcliffe; were British newspaper magnates. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/BUrothermere.htm
• And finally, Westmorland, is an archaic term for a small rural county in the North-West of England's Lake District, which became part of Cumbria in the 1970s, where the sheep were and presumably still are the predominant inhabitants. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westmorland
Notes on the Historical Significance of this review...
1) Orwell's stated in his 1947 Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm : "Thus the main outlines of the story were in my mind over a period of six years before it was actually written [in 1943]", which would have coincided with his reading & reviewing of Lyon's book. Indeed there is to my mind, a notable similarity between Orwell's above Churchillite parody and the 'fairy tale' style of writing he later used in Animal Farm.
2) Orwell mistakenly called the 'NKVD', the ‘GPU', four years after their change of name; he was not up-to-date with Soviet secret police nomenclature, despite personally being on the ‘wrong' side of their modus opernedi in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. He was also probably not 'au fait' about previous Soviet shenagigans over the Holodomor, until such time as after his experiences of Spain, when Eugene Lyons' words would have been music to his ears; and especially realising that Lyons mentions Gareth's murder.
4) As an aside, Lyons and Orwell both specifically use the phrase ‘human being(s)' in their descriptions of Gareth exposing the famine. In Animal Farm:
3) Lyons' book is most probably Orwell's first realisation of Duranty being worthy of inclusion in his controversial, 'deathbed', MI5 crypto-Communist list! FYI - Lyons' 550-page book contains just one 10-page chapter on the famine, and in the above review, he chose to remark only upon this subject and Lyons' personal meeting with Stalin; though nothing from the rest of Lyons' book is mentioned, bar the odd show trial.
4) Orwell's references the Ukrainian famine (and Duranty, obliquely) in his 1945 essay “The Prevention of Literature”,;
"The fog of lies and misinformation that surrounds such subjects as the Ukraine famine, the Spanish civil war, Russian policy in Poland, and so forth, is not due entirely to conscious dishonesty, but any writer or journalist who is fully sympathetic for the U.S.S.R. - sympathetic, that is, in the way the Russians themselves would want him to be - does have to acquiesce in deliberate falsification on important issues."
5) And finally from a Gareth perspective, if one accepts that Lyons' famine chapter (which relates Gareth's off-limits trek through Ukraine at the height of the famine) made a lasting impression upon Orwell; was he perhaps alluding to Gareth (who overcame both the difficulty of visiting the USSR as well as making independent observations), when Orwell wrote in this review?:
"It is difficult to go to Russia, once there it is impossible to make adequate investigations..."
Lyons acually wrote of Gareth's off-limits trek and subsequent murder, which certainly would have been noted by Orwell;:
"The first reliable report of the Russian famine was given to the world by an English journalist, a certain Gareth Jones, at one time secretary to Lloyd George. Jones had a conscientious streak in his make-up which took him on a secret journey into the Ukraine and a brief walking tour through its countryside. That same streak was to take him a few years later into the interior of China during political disturbances, and was to cost him his life at the hands of Chinese military bandits."
[Lyons clearly remarked upon Gareth's untimely murder by bandits in North China.; One might ponder whether Orwell did too, even back in 1938, having his own suspicions as to who might have been behind Gareth's untimely death; namely, possibly the NKVD?
One might also like to cross-reference this possible Soviet retributional notion in relation to Gareth, with Orwell's passage from his 1945, 'Prevention of Literature' essay, hen Orwell wrote:
“A heretic-political, moral, religious, or aesthetic-was one who refused to outrage his own conscience. His outlook was summed up in the words of the Revivalist hymn:
Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm
Dare to make it known
To bring this hymn up-to-date one would have to add a 'Don't' at the beginning of each line. For it is the peculiarity of our age that the rebels against the existing order, at any rate the most numerous and characteristic of them, are also rebelling against the idea of individual integrity. 'Daring to stand alone' is ideologically criminal as well as practically dangerous…” ]
CLICK HERE for Nigel Colley's 'work-in-progress' critique on whether Gareth was possibly behind Orwell's naming of 'Mr Jones', the farmer in his fairy tale; Animal Farm?
Finally, to read an online transcript of Lyons' chapter 'The Press Corps Conceals a Famine' from Assignemt in Utopia, then please Click HERE
Original Research, Content & Site Design by Nigel Linsan Colley. Copyright © 2001-17 All Rights Reserved Original document transcriptions by M.S. Colley.Click here for Legal Notices. For all further details email: Nigel Colley or Tel: (+44) 0796 303 8888