Russia recently introduced a 15-year prison sentence for “discrediting” the country’s armed forces by referring to the war in Ukraine by its real name, and in March Vladimir Putin blocked Twitter and Facebook in his totalitarian country. Many news channels were also banned from operating there because they did not conform to the Kremlin’s declared views. For that same reason, thousands of people in Russia are now in prison or detained. This is probably only a small step of which Putin is taking to curb freedom of expression and to take control of society into his own hands.
While Orwell’s novel 1984 was not meant to foretell the future, but only to warn – don’t let it happen; it’s up to you. The totalitarian system depicted in the novel is strikingly reminiscent of none other than… Russia. Big Brother’s despotism, the mastery of man’s irrational side to achieve their goals, the bilingualism that completely defies the laws of logic, the propaganda, the fear of foreigners, the crackdown on opponents and the Iron Curtain. As you read this text, you will keep thinking that Orwell, like some oracle at Delphi, really did foretell the future.
The Bible tells us that man went from being a child of paradise to a worm once he tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This means that he wanted to be able to judge for himself what is good and what is bad. He grew up when he tasted the forbidden fruit. This should have given him the power to distinguish truth from falsehood.
The philosophy of positivism, which dates back to the 18th century, states that reality is only what we see. That black cannot be white, and that the mathematical composition of two plus two will always be four. Yet Dostoevsky questioned this claim by declaring that human free will also exists. This assertion not only means that the individual is free to choose his own destiny, but that he is also a complex psychological construct, susceptible to nothing else but pressure.
George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 reflects these pivotal moments in human history; we are not always able to tell the truth from a lie, and the human psyche is wired in such way that it can believe anything if it succumbs to psychological pressure, whether that black is white, or that two plus two is five.
Moscow, Russia. A policewoman reading 1984 by George Orwell while in Moscow metro. pic.twitter.com/2kyVrwmDUE
— Belarus Free Theatre (@BFreeTheatre) April 29, 2021
The novel depicts a totalitarian regime and a society completely enslaved by it. The aim of the totalitarian regime, i.e., the political party, is not only to eradicate all heretics and to turn individuals into one indivisible volatile mass, but also to convince them that lies are truth and truth is lies, because the only measure of truth is the word of Big Brother. And while Big Brother pats the hunched backs of his vassals on the shoulder, they love him even more for it.
Winston Smith, the protagonist of the story, is not so vulnerable and still believes that the hand of Big Brother will never reach the depths of his being, his heart and mind, because how can one believe in statements such as “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, “ignorance is power”? But the despot, who, by playing on the fears of his victims and inflicting inhuman pain, knows how to conquer the soul of even the most resilient man.
This dystopian society is driven forward by hatred that according to the party’s infiltrated confidant O’Brien is the source of power, and power is the end goal of everything, just as killing is the end goal of killing, and war is the end goal of war itself. To put it in terms of modern films, it is absolute evil. The totalitarian system depicted in Orwell’s novel is the expression of absolute evil.
It’s hardly believable that any human being would be so evil as to deliberately choose absolute evil. Though Orwell is not talking about a person. He is talking about a system in which the main means of public education is propaganda and the conditions for propaganda are isolation and oblivion. Oceanic society is isolated from the rest of the dystopian world because foreigners are seen as a source of evil to be combated, and the past is not even falsified, but completely erased. The party’s stooge O’Brien’s attitude is quite postmodern; he who controls consciousness controls reality. Thus, the party controlling the present can convince anyone that it has risen five meters above the ground and claim that the past does not exist. O’Brien is the mad undercover man of whom Dostoevsky wrote about. Only this time, he is coming out of the shadows and trying to take over the world.
Orwell created the dystopian world of 1984 in 1948, just after the Second World War and the horde of totalitarian systems that had just shaken humanity. In the Soviet Union, the totalitarian system described in the novel continued to exist until the collapse of the union in 1991. According to Orwell’s book, modern totalitarian systems have been able to take hold because unlike in the Age of Enlightenment it considers the irrational nature of man. Human sacrifice, cruelty without reason, indiscriminate worship of the Leader, that is the irrational side of every totalitarian system.
Although 1984 is a dystopian novel, it was inspired by Orwell’s personal experiences: not only in World War II but also serving as a police officer in British-ruled India, then volunteering as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. All this experience under his belt showed that political regimes are trying to brutally suppress the truth. However, according to Orwell, a person can resist this because he has the power of speech and his own creative powers. This is what helps him to remain a free soul.
This is why the writer felt that in order to preserve objective truth one had to be very careful with language. If people do not have the right words, if their minds are narrowed, they will not be able to oppose the totalitarian system even in their minds. Laura Biers, professor of history at American University, writes that when the government tries to control the language of citizens, for example by calling war a “special operation”, it is trying to manipulate reality. If we cannot call a war a war, does it really exist?
“Don’t say the word “gay” law was recently introduced in Florida, which means that sexual identity cannot be discussed in kindergartens and schools. In Oklahoma a law has been passed that prohibits teaching children things that may cause them “discomfort, guilt, anxiety or any psychological distress because of their race or gender”. If alternative sexual identities cannot be talked about in school, then do homosexual teenagers even exist or does anyone even have family members from the LGBTQ community?
Recently, the book 1984 has been republished in many countries. It is in line with current events not just in Russia, but elsewhere else; Donald Trump’s lie bombs, the fight against lies in the media and social networks. We live in a post-truth era, where information is so abundant that we need to be very careful not to yield to the pressures of political regimes and to be able to separate the truth from the lies.