This is a book I've been meaning to read for ages but never got around to - last week I not only read it but gave a lesson on the historical context for the grade 8 class, who will be reading this book and The Wave. As I found, out of the class of 24, about 20 of them had already read the book, and at least one kid knew it was an allegory of the Russian Revolution. Still, my lesson wasn't totally redundant :)
For anyone who isn't familiar with the story, Animal Farm is about the animals on a farm in England rising up against the incompetent, cruel farmer (Mr Jones, who represents the deposed Tsar, Nicholas II) and taking over the farm, renaming it Animal Farm (USSR) and - so the glorious vision intended - running it for themselves, so their lives would be better.
The vision is given to them by a pig, Old Major, who dies not long afterwards. Old Major probably represents Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, and it's not the socialist ideal put forward that is critiqued by this book but how that vision is corrupted by certain other characters, namely another pig called Napoleon, who represents Joseph Stalin. Napoleon chases a pig called Snowball (Leon Trotsky) off the farm with his personally trained dogs (while still just the General Secretary of the Party, Stalin recruited people who would follow him blindly, so that when Lenin died in 1924 he was able to defeat Trotsky for the leadership position and his "dogs" kept everyone else in line).
The pigs then take charge, and with their literacy skills keep changing the rules the animals established in order to suit themselves, using a pig called Squealer to convince the other animals that their memories are faulty. After all, as the drafthorse Boxer keeps saying, "Comrade Napoleon is always right".
Boxer is - for me - the most heartbreaking character in the novel. He represents the peasants, and is the most hardworking animal on the farm. He has utter faith in the leadership of Napoleon and works himself to the bone - literally. His reward is very telling, though I don't want to give it away. Most of the characters represent either a person, several people or groups of people, and for the complete list you can check it out on Wikipedia.
Orwell, while a socialist, was very cynical about Stalin's communist USSR - and for good reason! Animal Farm is a very well-written critique of how socialist ideals are corrupted by powerful people, how the uneducated masses are taken advantage of, and how the dictator or communist leaders turn into capitalists (just look at China). It's a wonderful example of how effective the allegorical style/format can be, and a well-deserved classic.