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In George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, some animals confess to crimes they didn’t actually commit because they symbolize human beings who did the very same thing in the mid- to late-1930s in Stalinist Russia. Since much of the purpose of Orwell’s novel is to satirize conditions in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule, Orwell was almost obligated to present something resembling the infamous “show trials” that did so much to damage the Soviet Union in the eyes of anyone genuinely concerned with justice.
In these trials, people often confessed to crimes of which they were not guilty. Some of them did so because of torture; some of them did so to avoid torture; some of them did so because they feared that their families would be harmed if they failed to confess; some of them even did so because they could not believe that they had been falsely accused and therefore felt that they must, somehow, be guilty.
The show trials were one of the main ways by which Stalin eliminated some real opponents, intimidated anyone else who might even think of opposing him, and inspired fear in many Soviet citizens, including such persons as Dmitry Shostakovich, the great composer whose only “crime” was writing music of which Stalin disapproved. Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase near his door in case the secret police should come for him unexpectedly.
The confessions in Animal Farm, like those in the Soviet show trials, are significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- They indicate that the farm has now fallen under a complete dictatorship in which any legitimate justice is no longer possible, at least for anyone who might be perceived as a possible threat to the new regime.
- They indicate that not only deeds are now punishable but even thoughts.
- They serve to intimidate anyone who might even think of opposing the regime, especially since the confessions are usually followed by vicious and bloody executions.
As the narrator puts it in a particularly memorable passage,
The three hens who had been the ringleaders in the attempted rebellion over the eggs now came forward and stated that Snowball had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon's orders. They, too, were slaughtered. Then a goose came forward and confessed to having secreted six ears of corn during the last year's harvest and eaten them in the night. Then a sheep confessed to having urinated in the drinking pool – urged to do this, so she said, by Snowball -- and two other sheep confessed to having murdered an old ram, an especially devoted follower of Napoleon, by chasing him round and round a bonfire when he was suffering from a cough. They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon's feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood . . . .
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