“More than 150,000 Ukrainian refugees have now crossed into neighbouring countries, half of them to Poland, and many to Hungary, Moldova, Romania and beyond. Displacement in Ukraine is also growing but the military situation makes it difficult to estimate numbers and provide aid.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Kolgosp Tvarin, the first Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm, has sat, unfingered, in a protective sleeve next to the other Eastern European translations of the novel on my shelf. Translated by Ivan Chernyatinskii, this edition, which had a complex publication history, included an important new preface from Orwell that was not widely available in English for many years. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine gives the historical context, in which a young refugee wrote to George Orwell for permission to translate the novel, ongoing contemporary relevance.
11 April 1946
Dear Mr. Orwell,
About the middle of February this year I had the opportunity to read ‘Animal Farm’. I was immediately seized by the idea, that a translation of the tale into Ukrainian would be of great value to my countrymen…
Ihor Szewczenko (1922-2009) was a talented linguist who had been producing pocket-sized Ukrainian-English dictionaries for refugees in displaced persons camps in Germany, often in exchange for canned food, when he read Orwell’s satire and recognised the powerful relevance of the allegory. Szewczenko, who had nearly finished translating the novel by the time he wrote to Orwell seeking ‘authorisation’, explained that effect the story had on Soviet refugees who had been listening to his ad hoc verbal translation:
“The effect was striking. They approved of almost all of your interpretations. They were profoundly affected by such scenes as that of animals singing ‘Beasts of England’ on the hill. Here I saw, that in spite of their attention being primarily drawn on detecting ‘concordances’ between the reality they lived in and the tale, they very vividly reacted to the ‘absolute’ values of the book, to the tale ‘types’, to the underlying convictions of the author and so on. Besides, the mood of the book seems to correspond with their own actual state of mind.”
In another letter, Szewczenko explained that his Ukrainian publishers were former Bolsheviks and had been political prisoners in Siberian concentration camps. They were the “nucleus of a political group” disgusted at Stalin’s exploitation of the Ukrainian people. His own parents, leaders in a nationalist movement that sought an independent Ukraine, had chosen exile in Poland after the Russian Revolution. Szewczenko employed his parent’s names to construct a pseudonym, Ivan Chernyatinskii, as the translator of the novel.
The novel was not printed until November 1947 as his publisher’s insistence on including a preface caused delays. Szewczenko felt that he could not write this himself and thankfully Orwell obliged:
21 March 1947
Dear Mr Szewczenko,
I enclose the preface herewith, and I hope it is the kind of thing you wanted. You are at liberty to cut out as much as you wish, and to add any notes you think necessary. I also enclose a photograph in case it should be wanted.
Yours sincerely [Signed]
Terribly, 5000 copies of the novel were confiscated by American soldiers as anti-Soviet propaganda. Possibly 2000 copies were distributed. With this in mind, I carefully removed my copy of the first edition from the plastic sleeve, curiously turning the pages, checking to see which photo Orwell had mailed or if one had even been included in the edition. It was a shot taken by Vernon Richards, in late 1945.
In the preface, Orwell outlined his reasons for writing the novel and provided biographical detail for the readers. He explained that:
“… it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class. Moreover, the workers and intelligentsia in a country like England cannot understand that the USSR of today is altogether different from what it was in 1917. It is partly that they do not want to understand (i.e. they want to believe that, somewhere, a really Socialist country does actually exist), and partly that, being accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life, totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.”
Although Szewczenko had a long and successful life, emigrating to the USA where he became widely known as Ihor Ševčenko, professor of Byzantine literature at Harvard, large numbers Ukrainian refugees were forcibly repatriated, under an agreement reached at the Yalta Conference. Many committed suicide rather than returning to the Soviet Union which led to a cessation of that policy by the British and Americans.
Szewczenko and Orwell would be horrified, although not surprised, that once again the Ukrainian people are being displaced by war and that the international politics are not at all easy to understand. We can appreciate, like those refugees at the end of of WWII, who recognised Orwell’s work, the value of seeing clearly and getting to the truth.
Chalupa, Andrea (2012) Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm, Kindle edition
Fenwick, Gillian (1998) George Orwell: a Bibliography, Winchester: Oak Knoll Press & St. Paul’s Bibliographies
Orwell, George; Chernyatinskii, Ivan (1947) Kolgosp Tvarin, Munich: Vidavnitstvi Prometei
Orwell, George (1998) Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 18, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) It Is What I Think: 1947–1948, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 19, Secker & Warburg