Review: A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck

“In Russia it is always the future that is thought of. It is the crops next year, 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.”
~John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

Plot summary

“Steinbeck and Capa’s account of their journey through Cold War Russia is a classic piece of reportage and travel writing. Just after the Iron Curtain fell on Eastern Europe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and acclaimed war photographer Robert Capa ventured into the Soviet Union to report for the New York Herald Tribune.

This rare opportunity took the famous travelers not only to Moscow and Stalingrad – now Volgograd – but through the countryside of the Ukraine and the Caucasus. Hailed by the New York Times as ‘superb’ when it first appeared in 1948, A Russian Journal is the distillation of their journey and remains a remarkable memoir and unique historical document.

Journal. Photo: Andrew Kuznetsov (CC BY 2.0)
Journal. Photo: Andrew Kuznetsov (CC BY 2.0)

Unlike other Western reporting about Russia at the time, A Russian Journal is free of ideological obsessions. Rather, Steinbeck and Capa recorded the grim realities of factory workers, government clerks, and peasants, as they emerged from the rubble of World War II—represented here in Capa’s stirring photographs alongside Steinbeck’s masterful prose. Through it all, we are given intimate glimpses of two artists at the height of their powers, answering their need to document human struggle.” More on Goodreads

On John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck III (1902-1968) was an American writer. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939 and the novella Of Mice and Men, published in 1937. In all, he wrote twenty-five books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and several collections of short stories. In 1962 Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley region of California, a culturally diverse place of rich migratory and immigrant history. This upbringing imparted a regionalistic flavor to his writing, giving many of his works a distinct sense of place.

Steinbeck often populated his stories with struggling characters; his works examined the lives of the working class and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. His later body of work reflected his wide range of interests, including marine biology, politics, religion, history, and mythology.” More on Goodreads

John Steinbeck. Photo: edwardhblake (CC BY 2.0)
John Steinbeck. Photo: edwardhblake (CC BY 2.0)
Key concepts
  • Objective Cold War
  • Russia’s many flavors
  • Gentlemen adventuring
Review

John Steinbeck is among the first authors that really captivated me in my teen years. His characters were lovable – not in the sense that one could relate to them – but genuine in their vulnerability. They were so harmless but canny at the same time. Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday were the first novels by Steinbeck that I stumbled upon. The novels that I read later, such as Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Pearl (1947), did not make a similarly lasting imprint on me.

Maybe due to the early influence Steinbeck had on me in my critical years, he is one of my all-time favorite authors. It is hard not to remain loyal to someone who impressed you when one was young and easily entertained, and I mean this most positively.

Nonetheless, after a long pause of reading Steinbeck, the discovery of his travel books was such a delightful experience. I count Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), Once There Was a War (1943/1958), as well as A Russian Journal (1948) into this category of a Steinbeck outside the Salinas Valley region of California.

There was a huge moon over the western mountains, and it made the city seem even more mysterious and old, and the great black castle on the ridge stood out in front of the moon. And if there are ghosts anyplace in the world, they must be here, and if there is a ghost of Queen Tamara, she must have been walking the ridge in the moonlight that night.” ~John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

A Russian Journal offers a unique perspective on the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II in the latter half of the 1940’s. It seems that the various peoples of the Union were still searching for themselves in a society that was new and not new at the same time.

Industrial workers. CC0 Public Domain
Industrial workers. CC0 Public Domain

Steinbeck’s and Capa’s trial to view the Union and its peoples from an objective perspective is successful. They try to see the forest for the trees and not make assumptions on what the Soviet Union is or what it ought to be. In that sense they were able to offer a mental trip for others who were not there and open up the ordinary sphere of Soviet citizens to outside readers and viewers.

Capa and Steinbeck had both covered World War II as journalists and they both had seen and endured a great deal. Their journey through Russia moved them so deeply that their diary of the trip is by turns funny, poignant, shocking and even, considering their heft as major chroniclers of the 20th century, at times naive. Yet the two understood both the enormity and simplicity of their task: ‘This is just what happened to us,’ Steinbeck wrote. ‘It is not the Russian story, but a Russian story.’” (Fitzgerald 2013)

The photos by Robert Capa are available on Magnum Photos (see below for a link).

Travel lit on Russia and the Soviet Union
  • Farley Mowat: Sibir – My discovery of Siberia (1970)
  • Eric Newby: The Big Red Train Ride (1978)
  • Colin Thubron: Among the Russians (1983)
  • Ryszard Kapuściński: Imperium (1992)
  • Jeffrey Tayler: Siberian Dawn – A Journey Across the New Russia (2000)
  • Daniel Kalder: Lost Cosmonaut – Observations of an Anti-Tourist (2006)
  • Peter Thomson: Sacred Sea – A Journey to Lake Baikal (2007)
  • Ian Frazier: Travels in Siberia (2010)
  • Andrew Blackwell: Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places (2012)
My earlier war related review posts

More information
– Robert Capa: A Russian Journal, published by Magnum Photos in 1948, link retrieved on 7 March 2017
– Nora Fitzgerald: When John Steinbeck went to Stalingrad, published in Russia Beyond the Headlines on 7 December 2013, link retrieved on 7 March 2017

“They taught us a toast in Ukranian [sic!] which we like: ‘Let us drink to make people at home happy.’ And they toasted again to peace, always to peace. Both of these men had been soldiers, and both of them had been wounded, and they drank to peace.”
~John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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