At a public event, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry caused outrage. She compared life in democratic countries to George Orwell’s “1984”. What’s the point of the claim? A search for clues.

George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is a milestone in literature about the dangers of totalitarianism, oppression and surveillance – at least that’s how most interpret it – including Orwell himself. But at least since Russia invaded Ukraine and Putin’s propaganda machine went up a gear again switched on, the Kremlin is apparently doing everything it can to defame the West – even with a completely made-up interpretation of an almost 80-year-old book.

Russian diplomat: “George Orwell wrote about you, not about us!”

Maria Zakharova, a diplomat and spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, claimed at a public event on Saturday: “For many years we believed that Orwell described the horrors of totalitarianism. This is one of the biggest global fakes… Orwell wrote about the end of the Liberalism.” He described how liberalism is leading the world to a dead end, Zakharova continued.

An idiosyncratic interpretation of the dystopia “1984”. The work is considered one of the most urgent warnings against totalitarian power structures and the all-encompassing surveillance of the entire population.

Orwell wrote what is probably his best-known book between 1946 and 1948. Since its publication in 1949, it has been considered one of the most influential science fiction novels of modern times. The Brit describes a world in 1984 – at the time of writing, the distant future. The world that Orwell describes combines the dictatorial power structure of fascist regimes with the social norms of strictly socialist states. Shortly after the novel was published, critics and readers drew clear parallels to the Nazi dictatorship in Germany and Stalinist Russia.

Central themes in Orwell’s story are total surveillance and propaganda. The latter keeps the population on course and distracts it from domestic political problems, such as a lack of supplies. The story is falsified, shortened or rewritten by a specially designed “Ministry of Truth” and related to a suitable enemy.

The propaganda goes as far as brainwashing, as a result of which the citizens of the state no longer even believe what they see themselves or what is scientifically proven – when in doubt, the government knows better than you do. Freedom of the press or freedom of science do not exist. Those who remain on the government line lead miserable lives, not realizing that they lack the most basic necessities, those who rebel are captured and tortured until they follow the lead or are killed.

Parallels between Russian propaganda and Orwell’s “1984”

At the event, Zakharova responded to a question from a viewer on how a Russian citizen should react when relatives or acquaintances in the West compare Russia with the dystopian world from Orwell’s novel. The diplomat raged: “Orwell didn’t write about the USSR, it wasn’t about us. He wrote about the society in which he lived, about the collapse of the ideas of liberalism.” And adds that Russians should tell their acquaintances: “Tell them: you in the west live in a fantasy world where a person can be canceled just like that.”

This seems more than cynical in view of the mass arrests at anti-war demonstrations in Russia during the first days of the invasion. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, many observers drew a parallel between Russian war propaganda and the regime’s mantra in Orwell’s book. While the Kremlin to this day dubs the war a “special operation” and claims that Ukraine must be “denazified” and that Russia will only defend itself against an aggressor, the regime’s central mantra in “1984” came to mind for many: “War is peace, liberty is slavery, ignorance is strength”.

Despite or perhaps because of this propaganda effort, sales of “1984” in Russia have risen sharply in recent months – up to 75 percent. Something similar could be observed in Belarus over the past year, when the Belarusian state apparatus cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators with increasing ruthlessness. The book was eventually banned in Belarus.

Orwell himself emphasized that he was writing against totalitarianism

Viktor Golyshev, a prominent linguist who translated the novel into Russian, contradicted Zakharova’s claims, saying the novel was “not at all” about the decline of liberalism.

“I think it’s a novel about a totalitarian state. When Orwell wrote it, totalitarian states were already crumbling, but between the first and second world wars there were totalitarian governments in half of Europe. At that time there weren’t any Decline of liberalism, not at all,” says the translator.

It would not be the first time that the Russian government has railed against a supposedly failing liberalism. As early as 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that he considered liberalism “obsolete”.

And what did the author himself say about his work? Orwell was a self-confessed socialist, but repeatedly warned of the social dangers in the Soviet Union, for example. In his essay “Why I write” he emphasized:

“Every line of serious work I’ve written since 1936 has been, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it. It’s simply a matter of which side you take and what approach you take. And the more conscious one is of one’s political affiliations, the greater the opportunity to act politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.”

Sources: The Guardian,, Arte documentation, George Orwell: “Why I write”, event with Maria Zakharova