Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution



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Critical Essays

Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution


One of Orwell’s goals in writing Animal Farm was to portray the Russian (or Bolshevik) Revolution of 1917 as one that resulted in a government more oppressive, totalitarian, and deadly than the one it overthrew. Many of the characters and events of Orwell’s novel parallel those of the Russian Revolution: In short, Manor Farm is a model of Russia, and Old Major, Snowball, and Napoleon represent the dominant figures of the Russian Revolution.

Mr. Jones is modeled on Tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918), the last Russian emperor. His rule (1894–1917) was marked by his insistence that he was the uncontestable ruler of the nation. During his reign, the Russian people experienced terrible poverty and upheaval, marked by the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905 when unarmed protesters demanding social reforms were shot down by the army near Nicholas’ palace. As the animals under Jones lead lives of hunger and want, the lives of millions of Russians worsened during Nicholas’ reign. When Russia entered World War I and subsequently lost more men than any country in any previous war, the outraged and desperate people began a series of strikes and mutinies that signaled the end of Tsarist control. When his own generals withdrew their support of him, Nicholas abdicated his throne in the hopes of avoiding an all-out civil war—but the civil war arrived in the form of the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nicholas, like Jones, was removed from his place of rule and then died shortly thereafter.

Old Major is the animal version of V. I. Lenin (1870–1924), the leader of the Bolshevik Party that seized control in the 1917 Revolution. As old Major outlines the principles of Animalism, a theory holding that all animals are equal and must revolt against their oppressors, Lenin was inspired by Karl Marx’s theory of Communism, which urges the “workers of the world” to unite against their economic oppressors. As Animalism imagines a world where all animals share in the prosperity of the farm, Communism argues that a “communal” way of life will allow all people to live lives of economic equality. Old Major dies before he can see the final results of the revolution, as Lenin did before witnessing the ways in which his disciples carried on the work of reform.

Old Major is absolute in his hatred of Man, as Lenin was uncompromising in his views: He is widely believed to have been responsible for giving the order to kill Nicholas and his family after the Bolsheviks had gained control. Lenin was responsible for changing Russia into the U.S.S.R., as old Major is responsible for transforming Manor Farm into Animal Farm. The U.S.S.R.’s flag depicted a hammer and sickle—the tools of the rebelling workers—so the flag of Animal Farm features a horn and hoof.



One of Lenin’s allies was Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), another Marxist thinker who participated in a number of revolutionary demonstrations and uprisings. His counterpart in Animal Farm is Snowball, who, like Trotsky, felt that a worldwide series of rebellions was necessary to achieve the revolution’s ultimate aims. Snowball’s plans for the windmill and programs reflect Trotsky’s intellectual character and ideas about the best ways to transform Marx’s theories into practice. Trotsky was also the leader of Lenin’s Red Army, as Snowball directs the army of animals that repel Jones.

Eventually, Trotsky was exiled from the U.S.S.R. and killed by the agents of Joseph Stalin (1979–1953), as Snowball is chased off of the farm by Napoleon—Orwell’s stand-in for Stalin. Like Napoleon, Stalin was unconcerned with debates and ideas. Instead, he valued power for its own sake and by 1927 had assumed complete control of the Communist Party through acts of terror and brutality. Napoleon’s dogs are like Stalin’s KGB, his secret police that he used to eliminate all opposition. As Napoleon gains control under the guise of improving the animals’ lives, Stalin used a great deal of propaganda—symbolized by Squealer in the novel—to present himself as an idealist working for change. His plan to build the windmill reflects Stalin’s Five Year Plan for revitalizing the nation’s industry and agriculture. Stalin’s ordering Lenin’s body to be placed in the shrine-like Lenin’s Tomb parallels Napoleon’s unearthing of old Major’s skull, and his creation of the Order of the Green Banner parallels Stalin’s creation of the Order of Lenin. Thanks, in part, to animals like Boxer (who swallow whole all of their leader’s lies), Stalin became one of the world’s most feared and brutal dictators.

Numerous events in the novel are based on ones that occurred during Stalin’s rule. The Battle of the Cowshed parallels the Civil War that occurred after the 1917 Revolution. Frederick represents Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), who forged an alliance with Stalin in 1939—but who then found himself fighting Stalin’s army in 1941. Frederick seems like an ally of Napoleon’s, but his forged banknotes reveal his true character. The confessions and executions of the animals reflect the various purges and “show trials” that Stalin conducted to rid himself of any possible threat of dissention. In 1921, the sailors at the Kronshdadt military base unsuccessfully rebelled against Communist rule, as the hens attempt to rebel against Napoleon. The Battle of the Windmill reflects the U.S.S.R.’s involvement in World War II—specifically the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, when Stalin’s forces defeated Hitler’s (as Napoleon’s defeat Frederick). Finally, the card game at the novel’s end parallels the Tehran Conference (November 28–December 1, 1943), where Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt met to discuss the ways to forge a lasting peace after the war—a peace that Orwell mocks by having Napoleon and Pilkington flatter each other and then betray their duplicitous natures by cheating in the card game.

Critical Essays

Major Themes of Animal Farm


Satire is loosely defined as art that ridicules a specific topic in order to provoke readers into changing their opinion of it. By attacking what they see as human folly, satirists usually imply their own opinions on how the thing being attacked can be remedied. Perhaps the most famous work of British satire is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), where the inhabitants of the different lands Gulliver visits embody what Swift saw as the prominent vices and corruptions of his time. As a child, Orwell discovered and devoured Swift’s novel, which became one of his favorite books. Like Gulliver’s Travels, Animal Farm is a satirical novel in which Orwell, like Swift, attacks what he saw as some of the prominent follies of his time. These various satirical targets comprise the major themes of Orwell’s novel.

The Nature of Tyrants

Broadly speaking, Animal Farm satirizes politicians, specifically their rhetoric, ability to manipulate others, and insatiable lust for power. Despite his seemingly altruistic motives, Napoleon is presented as the epitome of a power-hungry individual who masks all of his actions with the excuse that they are done for the betterment of the farm. His stealing the milk and apples, for example, is explained by the lie that these foods have nutrients essential to pigs, who need these nutrients to carry on their managerial work. His running Snowball off the farm is explained by the lie that Snowball was actually a traitor, working for Jones—and that the farm will fare better without him. Each time that Napoleon and the other pigs wish to break one of the Seven Commandments, they legitimize their transgressions by changing the Commandment’s original language. Whenever the farm suffers a setback, Napoleon blames Snowball’s treachery—which the reader, of course, knows is untrue. Napoleon’s walking on two legs, wearing a derby hat, and toasting Pilkington reflect the degree to which he (and the other pigs) completely disregard the plights of the other animals in favor of satisfying their own cravings for power. Thus, the dominant theme of Animal Farm is the tendency for those who espouse the most virtuous ideas to become the worst enemies of the people whose lives they are claiming to improve.



The Role of the Populace

Orwell, however, does not imply that Napoleon is the only cause for Animal Farm’s decline. He also satirizes the different kinds of people whose attitudes allow rulers like Napoleon to succeed. Mollie, whose only concerns are materialistic, is like people who are so self-centered that they lack any political sense or understanding of what is happening around them. Apolitical people like Mollie—who care nothing for justice or equality—offer no resistance to tyrants like Napoleon. Boxer is likened to the kind of blindly devoted citizen whose reliance on slogans (“Napoleon is always right”) prevents him from examining in more detail his own situation: Although Boxer is a sympathetic character, his ignorance is almost infuriating, and Orwell suggests that this unquestioning ignorance allows rulers like Napoleon to grow stronger. Even Benjamin, the donkey, contributes to Napoleon’s rise, because his only stand on what is occurring is a cynical dismissal of the facts: Although he is correct in stating that “Life would go on as it had always gone on—that is, badly,” he, too, does nothing to stop the pigs’ ascension or even raise the other animals’ awareness of what is happening. His only action is to warn Boxer of his impending death at the knacker’s—but this is futile as it occurs too late to do Boxer any good.



Religion and Tyranny

Another theme of Orwell’s novel that also strikes a satiric note is the idea of religion being the “opium of the people” (as Karl Marx famously wrote). Moses the raven’s talk of Sugarcandy Mountain originally annoys many of the animals, since Moses, known as a “teller of tales,” seems an unreliable source. At this point, the animals are still hopeful for a better future and therefore dismiss Moses’ stories of a paradise elsewhere. As their lives worsen, however, the animals begin to believe him, because “Their lives now, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; Was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?” Here, Orwell mocks the futile dreaming of a better place that clearly does not exist. The pigs allow Moses to stay on the farm—and even encourage his presence by rewarding him with beer—because they know that his stories of Sugarcandy Mountain will keep the animals docile: As long as there is some better world somewhere—even after death—the animals will trudge through this one. Thus Orwell implies that religious devotion—viewed by many as a noble character trait—can actually distort the ways in which one thinks of his or her life on earth.

False Allegiance

A final noteworthy (and again, satiric) theme is the way in which people proclaim their allegiance to each other, only to betray their true intentions at a later time. Directly related to the idea that the rulers of the rebellion (the pigs) eventually betray the ideals for which they presumably fought, this theme is dramatized in a number of relationships involving the novel’s human characters. Pilkington and Frederick, for example, only listen to Jones in the Red Lion because they secretly hope to gain something from their neighbor’s misery. Similarly, Frederick’s buying the firewood from Napoleon seems to form an alliance that is shattered when the pig learns of Frederick’s forged banknotes. The novel’s final scene demonstrates that, despite all the friendly talk and flattery that passes between Pilkington and Napoleon, each is still trying to cheat the other (as seen when both play the ace of spades simultaneously). Of course, only one of the two is technically cheating, but Orwell does not indicate which one because such a fact is unimportant: The “friendly” game of cards is a facade that hides each ruler’s desire to destroy the other.

Thus, as Swift used fantastic places to explore the themes of political corruption in the eighteenth century, so Orwell does with his own fantastic setting to satirize the twentieth. According to Orwell, rulers such as Napoleon will continue to grow in number—and in power—unless people become more politically aware and more wary of these leader’s “noble” ideals.

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