Animal Farm is based on the Russian Revolution and the tyranny that followed. Some of the key characters and plot points in the book represent actual people and events. Remember, that while the story is very much a reaction to the the Russian Revolution, its exploration of power and corruption tells us a lot about every government and serves as an important cautionary tale about the preservation of democracy and freedom.
The Russian Revolution started in 1917. At the time, Russia was ruled by Tzar Nicholas II. The Russian people had endured centuries of oppression from the royal family which was known as The House of Romanov.
The rule of Tzar Nicholas II was characterised by unrest and violence. Even his coronation in 1896 was marked by tragedy. Almost hundred thousand people gathered in a field outside Russia and, when rumours spread that there wouldn’t be enough food, there was a massive stampede that killed approximately 1300 people, earning him the nickname Bloody Nicholas.
In 1904, Nicholas II dragged the Russian people into an unpopular war with Japan. Throughout the conflict, he maintained confidence in a Russian victory despite overwhleming evidence to the contrary.
At the time, Russia was also in the midst of an industrial revolution.Thousands of peasants had flocked to cities to work in factories where they received little pay and endured terrible conditions. As a result, in 1905, as many as 50,000 demonstrators descended on the Winter Palace to present the Tzar Nicholas II with a petition demanding better working conditions, improved wages and an eight hour day. In response, the Tzar sent 10,000 troops to meet the protestors. Shots were fired and some historians estimate that up to 1000 people were killed in the skirmish and ensuing panic.
After terrible losses in World War I, the country was on the verge of collapse. It’s estimated that 1.7 million Russian solders were killed in the war. Skyrocketing food prices and a bitter winter also contributed to the unrest. Tzar Nicholas abdicated the throne in 1917 and a provisional government was formed. The provisional government was very much sympathetic to the royals and the upper classes, what were called the ‘bourgeois’. In October of 1917, the Bolsheviks— a revolutionary social organisation led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky—took power. This led to a bloody and violent five year civil war between the Bolsheviks and the White Army, who represented the monarchy and the interests of the bourgeois.
The Soviet Union was formed in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War. Vladmir Lenin, one of the leaders of the October revolution, became its first leader. After his death in 1924, and a power struggle with Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin came to power and led the country for the next thirty years. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union became a repressive totalitarian government.
Stalin began a series of Five Year Plans which saw the rapid industrialisation of Russia. He set high targets for coal, steel, oil and electricity. Factories that failed to meet quotas were criticised and the government took increasingly repressive measures to increase output.
Stalin dealt ruthlessly with political opponents. Leon Trotsky was exiled and eventually assassinated in 1940. The Great Purge of 1937 and 1938 saw up to 1.2 million people killed. Many were sent to labor camps or gulags where they were ultimately executed. The Moscow Trials of 1938 involved the trial and execution of Stalin’s high profile political opponents. After threats and torture, many of these people confessed to crimes such as treason. The Russian secret police—or NKVD—were instrumental in this process. Throughout Stalin’s reign, propaganda was used to promote the Communist Party. Books, newspapers, films, radio and art all promoted the Soviet cause.
When it comes to Animal Farm, many of the characters represent actual historical figures.
Farmer Jones—the brutal, drunk and incompetent owner of Manor Farm—represents Tzar Nicholas II. His callousness and neglect leads the revolution early in the novel.
The wise and benevolent pig Old Major is an obvious representation of German philosopher Karl Marx who developed the idea of Communism, the notion that the working class would eventually rise up and seize control, creating a classless society where wealth is shared.
In the novel, the pig Snowball represents Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was a key figure in the Russian Revolution. After the death of Vladmir Lenin, who was leader of the communist party, there was a leadership struggle between Trotsky and Stalin. Defeated, Trotsky lived the rest of his life in exile where he was ultimately assassinated.
Napoleon, the ruthless leader of Animal Farm, is clearly a representation of Joseph Stalin and his brutal leadership of the Soviet Union.
There are a number of small characters as well—the vain mare Mollie who represents the bourgeois sympathetic to Tzar Nicholas II; Boxer who represents the hardworking people of the Soviet Union; the tame raven Moses who stands in for the Russian Orthodox Church; Foxwood and Pinchfield represent Britain and Germany.
There are many parallels between history and the characters and events in the novel. We’ll talk more about these as we study the book but, at stage, what’s important to remember is that we’re still talking about Animal Farm because its lessons about power and corruption continue to have relevance.
Now that you know a bit more about Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution, it’s time to start reading Chapter 1 of the novel!