When Russia launched the war that Russians must not call a war—the “special military operation,” in the Kremlin’s parlance—many Russians immediately recognized the Orwellian reality in which they now lived. As forbidden language was replaced with official euphemisms and the authorities launched an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent, many Russians felt a distinct sense of déjà vu. Suddenly, George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian novel about a totalitarian regime in a state of perpetual war written in the 1940s, became the most popular fiction book. In 2022, it could be seen in the hands of people strolling on Moscow’s boulevards or lying next to vacationers sunbathing on Kaliningrad’s beaches.
1984 is not the only book on Russians’ wartime reading list, which offers a window into how the book-reading public is processing its country’s increasingly militarist and totalitarian turn. As the economy foundered, laws against opposition tightened, and news of Russia’s military failures in Ukraine began to trickle in, people started buying noticeably fewer business and self-improvement tomes and more fiction. Predictably, escapism was in high demand: Sales of romance, fantasy, science fiction, and detective books have grown especially strongly.