A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Right after WWII people in America were curious about the Soviet Union in a big way. It coincided with a time when author John Steinbeck and world-renowned photographer Robert Capa were at a loss for what to do next. A scheme was hatched up to do a bit of light investigative journalism and see what was up with post-war Russia.
This wasn't political, so much as a social call. Steinbeck and Capa really just wanted to see what was going on in the lives and minds of the people.
They went to Moscow...
And they visited farmers in the provinces...
One thing you'll notice from the above photos (besides the ubiquitous recurrence of Stalin) is the general lack of men. A generation of males had been lost to war and the remaining women were left to carry on.
The people of Moscow came off as cold and officious. Everything needed to be categorized and catalogued. Steinbeck describes one meal in which hours elapsed before food hit the table, not because the cooks were slow. Rather, the paperwork that needed to be filled out and distributed to the proper authorities delayed the kitchen from even beginning.
The country farmers, though less educated, seemed freer and happier, even if they were worked ragged due to a lack of mechanization that had been available to them pre-war. However, they were welcoming and generous.
As it turns out, right after WWII, just about all people in Russia were curious about Americans in a big way and they had many questions for Steinbeck and Capa, so many that at times it seemed the journalists were becoming the story. Those interested in either gentlemen will enjoy some of the slight insights given herein. I've noted in his other autobiographical work that Steinbeck comes off as an impish trickster at times...though his friends might just flat out call him evil. Nonetheless, his sense of fun brings a welcome lightness to the text.
This is not to say the text is particularly heavy. In fact, this is quite a light read. Steinbeck seems to strike a good balance of post-war doom and gloom with hope and promise for a brighter future while relating it all in the easy-going manner of a master storyteller. This may be outdated and not give you an idea of what Russia's like today, but it's a nice sample of a recent historical time and place. Highly recommended!
A Capa and Steinbeck selfie...
(I apologize if not all photos are from this book, as websites like Pinterest have begun to make online photo attribution rather difficult.)
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