An original Polish ‘samizdat’ of Orwell’s Animal Farm

by Ian Brotherhood

First editions of Orwell’s Animal Farm are rare – a signed Secker & Warburg 1945 copy is currently available online (via Abebooks) for £45,000.

The samizdat  (lit. ‘self-published’) edition illustrated here is not an attractive object – I bought it via ebay, about six years ago, for just under £5, most of that cost being postage from Poland.  The paper is very poor quality (Polish: bibula lit. ‘flimsy blotting paper’), text typewritten (average 650 words per page). Twenty-three A4 sheets are stapled within a card cover bearing the title and author’s name in hand-embossed transfer, probably Letraset. The cover and end-papers feature eight crude line-drawings of ‘humanised’ pigs, some dressed in Politburo-style overcoats, basic decoration using a primitive arabesque rubber-stamp, and the price, ‘40,-‘ (Zlotys).

The text is dense, at times illegible, and bears longitudinal crease marks suggesting that the master was a carbon-copy, further copied using Xerox or Gestetner equipment.. Comparison of the text with a typical English edition suggests that the whole of the original has been transcribed. There is no date anywhere in the book, but all who’ve seen it judge that it was probably produced in Warsaw in the late seventies, very early eighties.

The scribe copying the original aimed to make publication as efficient as possible while retaining the integrity of the original text viz. clear chapter headings, accurate rendering of verse-passages, and dialogue. Fine judgement was required: the more layers of paper/carbon-paper being typed upon, the greater impact required; risk of damaging the typebars and increasing the noise/vibration, possibly alerting nosy neighbours. Anyone familiar with typewriters will appreciate how much work this must have involved, and the considerable skill required to get so many words packed onto one sheet of A4 with negligible margins.

The publisher of this Animal Farm samizdat knew to expect serious consequences if caught – a fixed prison sentence of seven years and five years exile. Possession was also punishable, hence the relatively good condition of such fragile material – the copy was kept flat and dry, probably  hidden, then forgotten. There is no evidence of any sunning to the covers.

Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet author and activist, was one of those imprisoned for his support of dissident poets, and organising samizdat operations. He wrote:

 

Scan courtesy of John Ferry

‘I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and get imprisoned for it.’ *

It is a text which makes reading arduous (especially if you can’t read Polish) but it embodies – in production and material – the subject of the text in a way that professionally produced editions, even those signed by Orwell, do not.

So, what?

We must assume that these websites we read, these blogs we write and recommend to others, are being closely watched by the intelligence services, just as the KGB kept close tabs on samizdat publishers, distributors, sellers, and readers. It would be remiss of any ‘intelligence agency’ worth its salt not to monitor such material.

Some may say there is no need for samizdat in this country, where we have ‘a free press’ and ‘freedom of speech’, but the premise of that response is flawed – we are told (and may even believe) that we have a free press, but it does not follow that the Fourth Estate fully exercises that freedom. If, for example, the so-called ‘quality’ press in Scotland was doing what most perceive its job to be? There would be no demand for websites of this kind, and they certainly wouldn’t be experiencing the huge surge in readership being reported.  Ongoing stushies over EU membership/Alex Salmond/legal advice and Nicola Sturgeon/Gordon Brewer/BBC are small but significant examples of online commentators applying rigorous journalistic standards and discourse analysis, thereby forcing the mainstream, however grudgingly, to react.

As the credibility of the MSM plummets, the blogosphere’s rises. It has become impossible (particularly in the wake of rangerstaxcase winning the Orwell Prize) for defenders of the status quo to dismiss web-based citizen journalism as the collective ravings of ‘internet bampots’.

Whether or not what we’re doing here is classifiable as ‘samizdat’, there will come a time, post-referendum, when academics, historians (and, possibly, the citizens of a newly-independent nation) will want to take stock, review the material produced in those crucial years when as-yet undecided voters scanned websites and blogs, open to persuasion, swithering, susceptible to agitprop of every conceivable political shade. We can be pretty sure that the effort to organise such an archive has been ongoing for years, but not so sure that its existence will ever be revealed to us, let alone access granted.  Nevertheless – it will, in time, become possible to compare/contrast the material produced by contemporary MSM with their blogging peers, and then identify, with empirical certainty, who was telling the truth. Some of us feel we already know the answer to that, but, in the absence of solid material to examine, our bias is of little use to future academics, researchers and historians – our efforts deserve a permanent home, well away from the Memory Hole and those revisionists who would happily jettison every word we’ve ever written.

Hence the obvious reason why we should, from time to time, make an effort to do some judicious editing of our own, select those discussions and articles which we feel are most important and/or useful, and preserve them offline: the fear that the www-plug may be pulled is seldom voiced, but remains a possibility – we should never take this technology, this interconnectedness, for granted. It’s not so long ago that it existed only in the pages of sci-fi novels and the imaginations of lonely boffins.

It’s cautionary to consider that only three decades ago, somewhere in Poland’s capital, a ‘dissident’ – call her Tanya  – sat at an ‘illegal’ (i.e. unregistered) typewriter, carefully fed-in the layers of paper and carbon sheets, and painstakingly set about transcribing Orwell’s ‘fairy-story’ in the certain knowledge that, if she was caught, the consequences, for friends, family and herself would be the stuff of nightmares.

Scan courtesy of John Ferry

We don’t know anything about her. Only that she undertook a difficult job in circumstances most of us cannot begin to imagine. Perhaps she did it off her own bat, determined that as many of her fellow citizens would share the chance to enjoy a text which most of us here were nonchalantly encountering in Secondary school. Perhaps she had no idea what it was, wasn’t interested – just earning a few extra Zlotys.  Perhaps the copy I bought is one she kept for herself, souvenir of a time when she was youthful, felt rebellious, nay reckless. Whatever her motivation, and whatever her fate, there’s no way Tanya, in her wildest dreams, could ever have visualised her handiwork being viewed by you, in the comfort of your home, or on your mobile device, wherever it is you happen to be right now.

As we in Scotland make our way through what may be the most ‘interesting times’ any of us are ever likely to experience, it’s maybe a good time to ask – what would Tanya and her brave friends do, if given the freedom and tools we have at our fingertips?

* As quoted on wikipedia.org/wiki/Samizdat



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2 replies

  1. Great stuff Ian. I look forward to reading properly. Right now, I am looking at it on my mobile device while out walking. But just wanted to say how it ties in with something I heard the other night. At Glasgow Girls at the Citizens’ Theatre, discovered the teacher who helped the Glasgow Girls, Mr Girvan and the actor playing him, Callum Cuthbertson both had their 1st theatre experience at the same Citz show. I thought how Mr Girvan couldn’t have dreamed in 25 years time that he’d be a character on that same stage. But that is what involvement in struggle can produce- miracles and connections undreamt of…

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