The Historical Context of Orwell’s 1984: Stalin’s Purges

There are clear parallels between Orwell’s historical context and his novel, 1984. One of these parallels is the Russian Revolution and its aftermath – Joseph Stalin’s takeover of the Communist Party, and his bloody purges of both officials and civilians.

Russian revolutionaries and leaders Joseph Stalin (1879 - 1953), Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 - 1924), and Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin (1875 - 1946), at the Congress of the Russian Communist Party. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky.

After Lenin, the leader of the Communist Party which assumed control of Russia shortly after the demise of the Tsars, died in 1924, it was expected that Leon Trotsky would assume the leadership. But Joseph Stalin, secretary of the Communist Party, seized the top job instead. Trotsky believed in a global Communist revolution, whereas Stalin was much more nationalistic, advocating for the Communism as a means to strengthen Russian. Stalin was a cunning political animal, and despite Trotsky being a favourite to take over the leadership, Stalin employed a series of crafty manuevres to remove Trotsky and claimed the leadership for himself. After Stalin took over the party, he ensured that Trotsky was out of the picture. In 1924, he moved to have Trotsky dismissed from the Party, defamed as an enemy of the state, and then finally, murdered in 1940.

Trotsky was the first major victim of Stalin’s ruthless pursuit of power. In 1927, he removed Kamenev and Zinoviev, opponents of his in a rival faction of the Party, and two years later, two other powerful members, Rykov and Tomsky were banished from of the party.

The 1930s was a decade when Stalin grew intensely paranoid about the security of his dictatorship, and during what is known to historians as The Great Purge, an estimated 600,000 to 3 million people were executed in the name of protecting the state from dangerous individuals who betrayed Communist ideals.

Stalin frequently altered photographs to literally erase his enemies from history. Consider the examples below:

Original Photographs




After Stalin removed Trotsky, he tried to rewrite the past by erasing Trotsky from photographs where he appeared close to the beloved former leader Lenin. His purpose was to frame Trotsky as an enemy of the nation, who never had the support of Lenin.

Altered Photographs

In these images, Trotsky (top: centre-left, bottom: centre left), has been erased.


We can pinpoint the chapter in Orwell’s novel 1984 which most explicitly deals with this event in Russia’s history. In Chapter 7, Winston reflects on his encounter with the old leaders of the Party, on how Big Brother had systematically exiled them then invented false confessions in order to justify their executions to the public. Central to this chapter  is the theme of the invalidation of an individual’s memory and perspective of reality by a totalitarian regime’s distortion and falsification of history.

Extract from Nineteen Eighty-Four

Chapter 7.

The story really began in the middle sixties, the period of the great purges in which the original leaders of the Revolution were wiped out once and for all. By 1970 none of them was left, except Big Brother himself. All the rest had by that time been exposed as traitors and counter-revolutionaries. Goldstein had fled and was hiding no one knew where, and of the others, a few had simply disappeared, while the majority had been executed after spectacular public trials at which they made confession of their crimes. Among the last survivors were three men named Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford. It must have been in 1965 that these three had been arrested. As often happened, they had vanished for a year or more, so that one did not know whether they were alive or dead, and then had suddenly been brought forth to incriminate themselves in the usual way. They had confessed to intelligence with the enemy (at that date, too, the enemy was Eurasia), embezzlement of public funds, the murder of various trusted Party members, intrigues against the leadership of Big Brother which had started long before the Revolution happened, and acts of sabotage causing the death of hundreds of thousands of people. After confessing to these things they had been pardoned, reinstated in the Party, and given posts which were in fact sinecures but which sounded important. All three had written long, abject articles in ‘The Times’, analysing the reasons for their defection and promising to make amends.

Some time after their release Winston had actually seen all three of them in the Chestnut Tree Cafe. He remembered the sort of terrified fascination with which he had watched them out of the corner of his eye. They were men far older than himself, relics of the ancient world, almost the last great figures left over from the heroic days of the Party. The glamour of the underground struggle and the civil war still faintly clung to them. He had the feeling, though already at that time facts and dates were growing blurry, that he had known their names years earlier than he had known that of Big Brother. But also they were outlaws, enemies, untouchables, doomed with absolute certainty to extinction within a year or two. No one who had once fallen into the hands of the Thought Police ever escaped in the end. They were corpses waiting to be sent back to the grave.