Book Review

A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck

Photo on 03-05-2015 at 15.48

I’m going on a trip to Russia in about six weeks, so have begun my travel research. Unlike normal people, this doesn’t involve trawling through Tripadvisor and Wikitravel, or buying a Lonely Planet*, but instead involves me finding the out-of-date travel journals of a writer I like. This time, I’ve managed to find a nice little text by John Steinbeck, recounting a two month trip he and the photographer Robert Capa took to Russia in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War.

There is, of course, nothing of value to my forthcoming trip to St Petersburg, but there is a lot of value to the historian. Steinbeck’s trip was highly choreographed and impeccably planned by the Soviet authorities, and it is his simultaneous awareness of that and expressed sense of seeing “real” Russia that gives A Russian Journal its interesting nexus.

The motive of the trip was for Steinbeck to discover and witness the “truth” of the people and places in Russia. Propaganda was already beginning to escalate in both the US and Russia about the other, and Steinbeck wished to try and offer a personal and non-politicised description of a foreign country that was recently an ally and fast becoming a nemesis. Obviously, within a few years his trip would have been impossible, and the “hot”, proxy, wars in Korea and later Vietnam would turn American opinion of Russia from suspicion into hatred. In 1947, though, the dislike was fresh and new and in development. Steinbeck arrives to a country still rebuilding from the German bombing of the Second World War, and finds a resilient people finally getting enough to eat after years of hunger, but still rationed and checked due to the heavily centralised Soviet systems.

Capa and Steinbeck visit Petrograd and Moscow, as well as the ruins of Stalingrad and the lush, untarnised Elysium that is Georgia. The rapturous descriptions of Georgian food and drink, of Georgian beaches and landscapes, of Georgian people and music, of Georgia’s lush, fertile plans and stunning vistas made some of the most compelling travel writing I’ve read in a while. For me, the mark of good travel reportage is the ability to make me a) want to visit and b) say “Oooooh” aloud. Steinbeck’s descriptions of Georgia definitely did both.

The rest, though, was a little bit… bleak. A country heavily touched (not touched, but slapped) by war slowly coming to its feet, huge amounts of gluttonous and alcoholic excess at every place the visitors are taken to – feasts are laid on, parties were given – it is a propaganda machine, a show. When the men visit Moscow all they seem to do is get drunk with ex-pats – there aren’t really ever any encounters with Russians that are unorchestrated. As unadulterated descriptions of the interior of a foreign country go, this is far from unimpeached, but is interesting for that.

It is interesting to see the things and the ideas that the Soviets wanted America to perceive in them. Generosity, plenty, rebuilding, pride at a long history, optimism and weird worshipping of a dictator. Bureaucracy and pictures of Stalin are ever-present, as are out-dated American mechanics utilised for something different.

A Russian Journal is a portrait of a damaged country that is looking to the future and looking to its image in foreign eyes. Unable and unwilling to give Steinbeck free reign, it is the things he is not able to see and do that are most important. He cannot speak to anyone who has not been pre-arranged to speak with him, and he can never chat without an official translator. Every photograph taken by Capa must be developed and checked before they leave the country. The pictures in the book do add a nice visual bounce: there are gorgeous landscapes and characterful portraits, but there is a distinct lack of the dirt and damage that form so much of Steinbeck’s text. These images, it seems, were the ones that felt the wrath of the censor.

An intriguing text for people interested in Soviet propaganda or in Steinbeck, but not a very helpful book for someone planning a trip there. Then again, I didn’t expect it to be. Not a bad read.

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* My girlfriend won’t allow Rough Guides in the house, for a reason I will not divulge.

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