Published in April of 1948, A Russian Journal remains a candid account of John Steinbeck’s (1902-1968) travels through the Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The Cold War was in full flow, but Steinbeck wanted to record the real thoughts and experiences of the country’s citizens. He was joined by esteemed photojournalist Robert Capa (1913-1954), who dreamt up the idea with Steinbeck over drinks.
This remains a lesser known work from Steinbeck’s canon, with Of Mice and Men arguably his most famous text. It was something of a surprise for us, though, and it remains our favourite read of 2018 (so far). It’s a compassionate, funny, thought provoking, and important historical record detailing Stalin’s rule, the ideals of the youth of the day, and much more.
A Russian Journal
In 1947, after much legal wrangling and uncertainty over official documents, Steinbeck and Capa headed into a partially destroyed Russia. Still reeling from the effects of WWII, and its people in the grip of Stalinism, the place wasn’t in the best condition. The duo was even even warned by many friends and colleagues their mission was madness – steer well clear, remained the vibe.
Steinbeck stated at the start of the work he wanted to produce objective journalism. Avoiding the hysteria and hyperbole of the Communist-fearing American press, a candid first-hand documentation was what he craved. Compassion was at the forefront of his drive; a genuine desire to find out what Russia’s people were going through. He’d written about honest, everyday working Americans in lowly jobs, so why not take this concept to a much misunderstood nation?
Into Moscow and Stalingrad (now Volgograd) the paid went, as well as Kiev and Georgia. Capa, obsessed and meticulous with his camera equipment and photography, drifted in and out of peoples’ lives like a ghost as he went about his duties. This impressed Steinbeck a great deal. The Hungarian’s images are presented in, of course, black and white, which adds an extra air of grandeur – they’re up close and personal, capturing a moment in time from 1947.
Steinbeck was much more talkative in his approach, as well as humble and considerate. He didn’t arrive at any destination as the know-it-all Yank – he had a genuine interest, in particular for the young people of the day and what their hopes and dreams were. What’s intriguing is how hardworking they all were – they also didn’t seem to be overly fazed in the aftermath of the carnage they’d seen during WWII – desensitised, perhaps.
But it’s a beautifully compassionate read. Steinbeck is self-deprecating but honest – he documented everything as he saw it. For readers now, it’s a time capsule of a short while in a far off land, catching up with everyday people now long gone. We meet humourists (a wisecracking older lady in a village, springs to mind, who flirts with Capa: “If God had consulted the cucumber before he made man, there would be less unhappy women in the world.”), brainwashed sorts, Stalin’s propaganda, and people with all manner of trades.
This one is highly recommend, we loved it a great deal. Capa even had a stab at writing in a brief section, where he complains (facetiously) about Steinbeck and various other issues on the trip. Whilst there’s that sense of fun there – the two enjoying a strong bromance, clearly – the poverty depicted across the nation is alarming, but is evened up by Russia’s humble people who, stoically, battled through it all with cool aplomb. A classic piece of reportage.
Capa was an extremely hands-on photographer, choosing to go into battle during World War II on the beaches of Normandy to take photos. Risking life and limb, only 11 pictures survived his efforts – these have since become iconic and are known as the Magnificent Eleven.
In A Russian Journal, Steinbeck refers to Capa fondly – he’s portrayed as a charismatic, meticulous, and enthusiastic sort. The two obviously shared a good relationship, but the author documents the photographer’s personality quirks – apparently, Capa’s bathroom routine of spending hours in the bathtub reading was most vexing. The writer details this briefly and warns Capa’s future wife this is what she’d have to endure.
Unfortunately, Capa was only 40 at the time of his death in Indochina, May of 1954. His hands-on approach to his job led him to tread on a landmine. To this day, he’s regarded by many as the greatest war photographer in history, with numerous iconic pictures documenting the visceral nature of warfare to his name.
Ever fascinating, Russia is the largest country on the planet (you should already know that), but its complex history is enough to keep any history buff occupied for their entire life. In the present day, it’s under the grips of Vladimir Putin and causing a ruckus on the international stage. It has, however, just hosted the World Cup – that ends tomorrow night. Creepy timing!
Sadly, Russia has again become a nation where people appear to fear going. Putin’s forceful approach to world politics is rarely diplomatic, in stark contrast to the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev. The latter triggered off glasnost, which was designed to make Russia more open and friendly with other nations. After him we had Boris Yeltsin, the often drunk individual who was in power until 1999.
Putin has ruled all since 2000, amazingly, presiding over an enormous country and its people. The 65 year old is here to stay, but after a successful World Cup we’ve had a more intimate examination of the country in the style of Steinbeck. However, expect further ructions to rumble on for years to come.