Author: John Steinbeck, with Robert Capa
Published: April, 1948
I once read an interview with the singer Feist who said that during a hiatus at her ranch she set about reading “every word that John Steinbeck had ever written.” Needless to say, my opinion of Feist instantly skyrocketed and I decided I would work towards the same goal - albeit over the course of a lifetime and not between albums. This is because John Steinbeck is my favorite author. He secures this spot in my pantheon unopposed - there is no close second. He has moved me to tears, made me laugh out loud, stirred my outrage and patriotism and left me pondering the miracle of life - often times all within the same book. He spins the mundane into magic by channeling his unflinching honesty and wry wit into every sentence that pours from his restless mind. I have found no other voice like him.
As such, I’ve been poking around the obscure corners in Steinbeck’s catalogue and came across A Russian Journal, a collection of his notes and diary entries written during his travels in Russia in the year 1948. It was an audacious trip to take at the time. The second great war had just ended. The violence, suffering and slaughter still fresh in everyone’s mind. The destruction everywhere. The two great powers left standing, the democratic United States of America and Communist Russia, circled each other warily. People fretted openly about the Russian threat. Rumors, lies and exaggeration filled the airwaves, feeding on people’s fear and paranoia. Nightmares of a nuclear winter haunted government leaders. In typical fashion, John Steinbeck decided to cut through the hyperbole in the press and meet these dangerous Russians for himself.
“We were depressed,” Steinbeck writes, “not so much by the news but by the handling of it. For news is no longer news, at least that part of it which draws the most attention. News has become a matter of punditry.” I think we can all relate. “It occurred to us” Steinbeck continues, “that there were some things that nobody wrote about Russia, and they were the things that interested us most of all. What do the people wear there? What do they serve at dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? How do they make love, and how do they die? What do they talk about? Do they dance, and sing, and play? Do the children go to school? It seemed to us that it might be a good thing to find out about these things, to photograph them, and to write about them.” With this mindset, Steinbeck decided politics and larger issues were to be avoided. The Kremlin and military men evaded as much as possible. The trip (as it came to be arranged) was purely a fact-finding mission about the people of Russia. For it is through contact with people - true person to person interaction - that understanding develops, striking down all embellishments and embroidery. It is vintage Steinbeck - humble in approach and remarkable in consequence.
Steinbeck sets down the trip as it happened, “day by day, experience by experience, and sight by sight, without departmentalizing.” He admits that such a straightforward take is “contrary to a large part of modern journalism, but for that reason it might be a relief.” As always with Steinbeck, it is a trip worth taking. His descriptions of the people and places of Russia are equitable and non-judgmental, but also lively and heartfelt. He is man of zero pretension, who drinks in life to the fullest, and humbly seeks to understand his surroundings. The accompanying photos throughout the book, taken by renowned photographer Robert Capa, lend the project an indispensable visual record - documenting a journey almost no American was able to take at the time. Memorable passages include details of his harrowing plane rides, the unending bureaucracy of Moscow, the legion of portraits, murals and statues of Stalin and Lenin gazing over the multitudes with benign, resolute authority (and the erasure of Leon Trotsky from the historical record.) His trips with Capa out into the farm country of Kiev and Georgia are sumptuous. It is in these countrysides, amongst the common people, that Steinbeck and Capa are treated as honored guests, exotic ambassadors from another world - and must endure endless feasts and toasts in their honor, testing the outer limits of their stomach capacity. The good will felt by all those involved practically makes the pages glow. Capa and Steinbeck also write dueling chapters describing their quarrels over bathroom etiquette and morning routines (each takes care to carefully detail the fault of the other) are endlessly entertaining.
But there is an unmistakable sadness that permeates the pages. Russia had been gutted by the second world war, with estimates of 27 million dead. Steinbeck writes movingly of a young girl turned crazed animal, living amongst the rubble of Stalingrad behind their hotel, surviving off the scraps and garbage of neighbors. The horrors of war appear permanently etched into her being. He writes of the empty chairs at dinner tables, the missing limbs, and the ghost-like presence of German POW's led through the streets at gunpoint and forced to rebuild the wreckage of their actions brick by brick.
But it seems for every horror visited an act of resiliency is there to erase it. “More and more,” Steinbeck writes, “we were realizing how much the Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today. … It is the crops next yet, it is the comfort that will come in ten years, it is the clothes that will be made very soon. If ever a people took its energy from hope, it is the Russian people.” Devastation and loss haunt the populace, but sentiments and declarations in support of peace and understanding are paramount in every toast given.
While the book has its shortcomings (Steinbeck admits to the tight leash they were put on by the Russian government), it is also an important historical document. A snapshot of an empire in the wake of their greatest catastrophe. “We found, as we suspected,” Steinbeck writes at the end, “that the Russian people are people, and, as with other people, that they are very nice. The ones we met had a hatred of war, they wanted the same things all people want - good lives, increased comfort, security and peace.” It is a lesson we must never stop learning, and one worth remembering in these troubling times when Russia and the US once again openly circle each other like two bruised fighters. Even when it comes to our greatest enemies, we are always more alike than different. Fortunately for us, there are still brave and unprejudiced souls like Steinbeck who continue to take up the cause of truth - who strive to detail the world as it is, and not as we’re led to believe. It can be hard finding their voices amidst the clamor and hearsay, but they’re out there - talking to us now and echoing from the past. Reading the timeless truths of John Steinbeck is food for soul. Pull up a chair to his bounty.