In December of 1936, George Orwell left England and traveled to Spain in to fight in the Spanish Civil War. If we want to understand Orwell's classic novel 1984, if we want to know what he was writing about and where his ideas came from, we must begin in Spain.
And then, next night, waiting at Torre Fabian for an attack that was called off at the last moment by wireless. In the barn where we waited the floor was a thin layer of chaff over deep beds of bones, human bones and cows' bones mixed up, and the place was alive with rats. The filthy brutes came swarming out of the ground on every side. If there is one thing I hate more than another it is a rat running over me in the darkness.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, 1938
The Spanish Civil War began with a military coup to overthrow an elected government. A left-wing government under the Popular Front had been elected in 1936 and in July of of that year a group of generals made their move. They were unable to control the entire country and war broke out. Fascist parties had already come to power in Germany and Italy by then and Leftists, Trade Unionists and Socialists from all over the world volunteered to fight on the Republican side in Spain. George Orwell was one of these. Spain was a poor country. Neither side in the Civil War could afford much in the way of modern armaments so both sides appealed to friendly foreign governments for assistance. Germany and Italy sent men and equipment in support of the Falangists, the Spanish Fascist party, and Mexico and the Soviet Union sent military assistance to the Republicans. Mexico, under left-of-center president Lázaro Cárdenas, sent only some financial aid, rifles and ammunition. The Soviet Union sent guns, tanks, aircraft and, of course, advisers. It is the work of these advisers that turned Orwell against totalitarian Communism forever and gave him the ideas for 1984.
Some date the beginning of Stalin's Great Terror to the 17th Party Congress in January of 1934, others to the assassination of Sergey Kirov in December of that year. However you date its beginning, the Terror was in full swing when the Spanish Civil War broke out. As a practical matter this meant that if the Spanish Republicans wanted Soviet arms and equipment, they had to accept them on Stalin's terms. The Spanish Republican forces were a broad coalition of anti-fascist parties and organizations. Soviet tanks, air support and technical assistance were given only to units under the control of the Spanish Communist Party which, in turn, was under the direct control of the Bolsheviks in Moscow. NKVD officers advising the Spanish communists encouraged them to set up a system which mirrored the Bolshevik regime with its purges, paranoia and blatantly counter-factual propaganda. The Republicans had something called the Servicio de Investigación Militar, SIM for short, which was sort of a Spanish NKVD that carried out purges and assassinations and ran its own prisons where torture was practiced on those suspected of disloyalty.
When Orwell went to Spain he signed up with the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista. The POUM was a Trotskyite party; they believed in worldwide Marxist revolution. Stalin, on the other hand, had declared "socialism in one country" and was busy purging the Bolshevik party of all internationalists. In the Soviet Union, to be linked to Trotsky was a death sentence. George Orwell was wounded in Spain, he took a sniper's bullet in the throat, and while he was recovering the Spanish Communists decided to purge the POUM. They claimed that the POUM was actually in secret alliance with the Germans. This is exactly the sort of outrageous charge that Stalin's NKVD was using against the Old Bolsheviks in the Soviet purges. Orwell was lucky to get out of Spain alive and, although he remained a Marxist, he developed a lifelong hatred for Stalinist totalitarianism.
Orwell's political novels, Animal Farm and 1984, were not about the economic system known as Communism nor were they about some generalized Fascism. Orwell's subject was Stalinism and nearly everything in both novels has its counterpart in Soviet reality. Animal Farm, for example, can almost be read as straight history. Did the pig dictator Comrade Napoleon eventually amend the 7 Commandments, adding, "some animals are more equal than others?" Here's what Stalin had to say about strict equality: "a piece of petty bourgeois stupidity, worthy of a primitive sect of ascetics, but not of a socialists' society organized on Marxian lines." It's the same with 1984. Everything in it, save the love story and two-way TV, is based on life in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
The class structure of Oceania under Ingsoc has a lower class of proles and an Inner and Outer Party. The term proletarian is straight out of Marxist theory and the Inner Party represents the nomenklatura, the privileged officials who ran the Soviet bureaucracy. The two-minutes hate was based on the first Moscow show trial in December of 1935. Trotsky, represented by Emmanuel Goldstein in the book, had been exiled in 1929. Stalin wanted to get rid of two old Bolsheviks, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, so he had them arrested and charged with an outlandish Trotskyite conspiracy. They were beaten until they confessed and then convicted and executed. Since the organization Orwell joined in Spain actually espoused Trotsky's internationalist program it's obvious why the NKVD would have to purge it.
Newspeak is based on the Russian habit of compressing the names of various government organs. Sometimes it was just initials. The Cheka was the original Bolshevik terror organ, precursor to the NKVD, and its name is just the initials for extraordinary commission, Che and Ka. GULag was short for Gosudarstvennoe Upravlenie Lagerei or State Administration of Labor Camps. The Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue, where Winston Smith worked is based on the Glavlit. The Glavnoe Upravlenie Literatury was the centralized bureau that censored all printed material. They did indeed declare some people nonpersons after they had been purged and removed all mention of these people from all printed documents. The example in the picture is the one Wikipedia uses and shows how NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov was removed from all official photos after he was shot and replaced by Lavrenty Beria. The prison where Winston is taken after his arrest is obviously the Lubyanka. The Lubyanka was the building in Moscow that housed the NKVD's central headquarters and it contained a prison and interrogation rooms, like the novel's room 101.
This brings us to the famous rat torture and this too has a real, or at least legendary, antecedent in history. The following account comes from an anti-Soviet/anti-Semitic tract circulated in Germany in the 1920s. (I'll link it below but remember, right-wing German propaganda in the 20s was very anti-Semitic and conflated Bolshevism with Judaism. Be warned.)
They take hostages — such as people who wore ties (which also includedThe legend of the Bolshevik rat torture was circulating in Spain during the Civil War. I read one account that described it as putting a rat in a steel pipe, pressing the pipe up to the victim's abdomen and then heating the other end of the pipe with a torch.
workers wearing their Sunday best) — stripped them naked (since their torture-sprayed blood would otherwise soil their clothes, which normally became torturers’ property) and then bound onto the stomach of the murder victim an empty flower pot into which a ravenous, starving rat had been placed. Through the small water hole
in the base of the flower pot a red-hot iron rod was pushed to torment the rat and make him wild, causing him to try to burrow himself away from the rod — and into the abdomen of the horrified human victim.
So there you have it. I mean in no way to diminish Orwell's achievement but 1984 was not a completely original and prescient vision of some future dystopia. It was a thinly veiled description of Stalinist Russia. If you seek a current example of such a society look to North Korea, a closed society remarkably unchanged since its founding in Stalin's time and with his assistance.
Spanish Civil War
Moscow Show Trials
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell, Project Gutenberg Australia, full text, here
The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Antony Beevor
Stalinism As A Way of Life, Lewis Siegelbaum and Andrei Sokolov
A Sea of Blood: The Truth About Bolshevism, German, ca. 1926, pdf