This question is inspired by being surprised at the insight of George Orwell's Animal Farm.

For some reason, I had the impression that the western world was in the dark about the horribleness of the Soviet Union, and things only came into public knowledge with the publication of Gulag Archipelego.

Am I just ignorant, or did George Orwell have privileged knowledge that the general population didn't?

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    Confused as all get up. What is the western world? Are you interested in publicly available knowledge of the knowledge of the mass of or average petits bourgeois or proletarian? The former is easy, the latter nearly impossible. Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 0:45
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    Also your impression of horribleness is probably conditioned by the moralising of anti-Soviet propaganda, rather than post-1989 historiography. Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 7:28
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    Yes, it is. Solzhenitsyn had a discrete political position against the Soviet Union bound up in his ideas of a unique redemptive national mission grounded in Orthodoxy. He's particularly weak on the working class and peasantry in camps; entirely weak on them in civil life; has an antipathy towards thief and Bitch culture; plays deceptively with genre. He's a primary source with a strong political opinion on what constitutes "horribleness," and that political opinion while present at the time doesn't represent all historical opinions on what was horrible. He has little sympathy for Banderites. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 7:43
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    The most general point being: historians don't judge things to be horrible. We do the past "as it was" (Ranke). This includes honestly documenting what happened, and what the variety of people at the time considered horrible. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 7:53
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    The scholarly discipline deliberately gave up injecting moral positions into works. Moral conflicts are endemic and unresolvable. We can "know" to the satisfaction of scholars what people at the time did; and know what they they said was moral. What is moral is a problem for philosophers (is / ought problem). Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 8:06

3 Answers 3


It is not clear what exactly you are asking. One thing is the knowledge AVAILABLE, I mean available in principle, to any Westerner who takes an effort to search it. Another thing is how much a random person in the street, who reads major newspapers knows. I do not think Orwell had special access to any information that was not available to other writers on Soviet Union. The problem is with what they wanted to know and see. In all periods of existence of Soviet Union, there were people who escaped from it and published books in the West. But "general public" either did not believe them or did not care.

The fact is that "public opinion" was deceived by Soviet propaganda, very much helped by the propaganda of many left-wing Western writers of high standing. Most people in the West do not realize that Soviet Union (and Modern Russia) has an enormous State-sponsored and highly effective propaganda machine on the scale unimaginable in the West.

To put is short: adequate reports of what is happening in Soviet Union were always available in the West, since the very beginning of Soviet Union. But they did not receive wide attention, for several reasons which I outlined above. And were unknown to the "broad public".


Politically oriented proletarians in Western Europe were well aware of the nature of the Soviet Union and chose to support or oppose it based on their organised theories of revolution. For example, working class communists in Australia often supported the Soviet Union on the basis of preserving a revolutionary nucleus, rather than on the liberal appeals to intelligentsia that the Soviet Union was a wonderland.(Brecht 1930 The Measures Taken exemplifies this knowing revolutionary defensist position) This can be evidenced by the rapid decline in support for the Soviet Union due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, rather than due to purges or famines. Right wing social democrats and labourites opposed the Soviet Union based on the large and available non-Bolshevik left emigre literature.

The material was available, cf Strauss /Soviet Russia: Anatomy of a Social History/; Koestler Darkness at Noon; Koestler The Gladiators; the betrayal of the POUM and then CNT-FAI. Let those who had ears, hear.

  • Interesting that both Koestler and Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War.
    – Benjol
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 5:11

As so often, the answer depends on the specifics. You ask about pre-WWII, yet you mention the GULAG Archipelago published in 1973, long after WWII.

  • Read up on McCarthy and the HUAC. They saw Communism as quite horrific, and would go to extraordinary lengths to fight it.
  • Long before the Gulag Archipelago was published, the last German POWs had returned from Russian camps. Those who talked told of awful conditions, and many people were prepared to believe them.
  • For that matter, there were uprisings in Germany and Hungary. Western media was quite aware of those.

On the other hand, quite a lot of people were all to aware of the shortcomings of capitalism, from the Great Depression to capitalist sponsors of the Nazis. Quite a lot of whataboutism going on.

  • Last paragraph is non-responsive tot he question.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 3:47
  • @MarkC.Wallace, the OP asked why people seemed to ignore the failings of communism which should have been obvious. In the historical context, leftists thought that it was necessary to fight capitalism at almost any cost, and accepted the failings of communism as fighting fire with fire.
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 5:42

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