Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 15, 2011

A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck

A Russian Journal (Penguin Classics)This is a wonderful little book, and quite an eye-opener.  Written a scant three years after the end of the Second World war, when the world was coming to terms with the advent of the Iron Curtain, John Steinbeck and his photographer Robert Capa set out to see for themselves what Russia* was like.

Not surprisingly, they met some obstacles in the form of Soviet bureaucracy and prohibitions, and since they had to rely on government-approved translators, everywhere they went they were at their mercy and had no alternative but  to assume the translator had integrity.  Still, much of what is written has the ring of truth because Steinbeck insisted on meeting ordinary people wherever he could.

There’s a droll slyness to the reportage.  Steinbeck affects a simplicity that belies his reputation as one of America’s foremost writers.  He asserts again and again that they’re reporting only what they saw and heard for themselves, but of course choices were made about what to include and what to leave out.  He chooses to include commentary about idiosyncratic plumbing and queues and bizarre airline schedules.  He chooses also to explain that much of the inefficiencies he sees are due to having to make-do in the period of post-war reconstruction.  He chooses to omit information about schools and health care and disparities in income.

But in other ways, with the wisdom of hindsight, the journal seems naïve.  We, reading this book today, know much about Stalin that Steinbeck could not: about the purges, the famines, the gulags and the ruthless repression.  So when he tells us without apparent guile that Stalin’s portrait is everywhere and how people make pilgrimages to his birthplace and revere him as a father-figure, we see a different figure to the one that Steinbeck portrays.  The surveillance that Steinbeck finds mildly amusing had sinister connotations, but Steinbeck could not have known about that at that time.

What Steinbeck makes clear, in his inimitable style, is that ordinary Russian people were no more keen on the idea of war than the West was, and felt equally threatened by the other side’s hostility.  They had suffered terribly in WW2.  I knew about the siege of Stalingrad, but I did not know that retreating Germans had trashed the ancient city of Kiev and ruined its treasures, and that they had torched crops, butchered livestock, torn down buildings and left people with nowhere to live but underground cellars.  Three years after the war ended these people were still living underground, and Steinbeck paints a poignant portrait of girls somehow emerging from these cellars clean and neat and tidy as they set off for work, while their menfolk toiled away at demolishing the remnants of buildings with their bare hands because the Germans had destroyed every bulldozer, every tractor and every bit of usable machinery.  Not in war with bombs and artillery, but out of stupid spite  as they left.

The relentless propaganda that people of my generation saw during the Cold War was that Russia was backward.  Its peasants were still working the soil with hand ploughs and scythes.  But while the defeated Germans benefitted from the Marshall Plan, the Soviets did not, and postwar reconstruction there was slow and difficult.  Steinbeck celebrates their courage and determination, and – whatever their leaders may have decreed otherwise –  their earnest wish for peace and friendship with the West.

We found, as we had suspected, that the Russian people are people, and with other people, 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 just shows yet again that while ideological differences exercise the minds of our political leaders, ordinary people have much in common and would rather have peace.

An excellent book which made me think once more about the futility of war.

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

*What they saw, really, was the Soviet Union, because in addition to Stalingrad and Moscow, they also went to Georgia and the Ukraine, now independent republics.

© Lisa Hill

Author: John Steinbeck
Title” A Russian Journal (Penguin Classics)
Publisher: Penguin 2001, first published 1948
ISBN: 9780141186337
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Responses

  1. oh not heard of this by steinbeck ,I remember reading he’d spent time in russia but didn’t know he’d written about it will see if library has it ,otherwise I ll keep a eye out ,all the best stu

    • Hi Stu
      The more I think about it, the more curious I am about his politics….I’d love it if someone else whose opinion I respect read it and reviewed it!
      Lisa

  2. Interesting. I’ve got a couple of World War II posts coming up soon.

    • Hi Tony
      I look foward to seeing what they are! Lisa

  3. I did enjoy your review, Lisa. You make the book sound fascinating and subtle: there seems to be much scope for reading between the lines. I haven’t read any non-fiction by Steinbeck and had never heard of this before. Reading Steinbeck as Steinbeck is an appealing prospect. He sounds like a wonderful companion for an epic journey. On the TBR it goes :)

    • Hi Sarah – thanks for your kind comments:) Another one to watch out for is Once Was a War, which is a collection of his war correspondent articles – it’s one of the most moving books about WW2 that I’ve ever read.
      Lisa

      • That sounds like a must-read too. Thanks for the tip. In an ideal world I would be looking to read the entire Steinbeck oeuvre, but I may have to settle for less.

  4. Maybe North Korea is the equivalent today? My recent read describes the Soviet destruction of Konigsberg by the invading Russians – but that was in retaliation for what the Germans did to them. You’ve written a very informative review (as always!) here which makes me want to get the book.

    • North Korea makes me want to weep when I hear about the famines there, and yes, I sometimes think that some time in my lifetime we’ll find out the truth about what’s going on there. I saw your review about the Konigsburg book, and I’ve put it on my wishlist. (I think there are more books on my wishlist from your blog than any other, you are a bad influence on my savings plan!)

  5. Dear Lisa, I wonder are you aware of your UK namesake who also worked in the Russian subject area? I give a link http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary–professor-dame-elizabeth-hill-1281970.html

    Rgds Alan (former beneficiary of Hill’s Russian teaching)

    • Hello Alan, oh, you may not realise it, but your comment brings a real pang to my heart. I don’t have any relation by the name of Elizaeth, and thanks to WW2 none by the name of Hill in the UK, but I live in hope that one day one of my UK cousins on my mother’s side may get in touch, perhaps through recognising my name on this blog or in some other way.
      I have only two cousins in this world, Steven and Linda whose surname was once Hoare, but after divorce from my Uncle Pat, their mother Valerie changed their surname and my family has had no contact with them since the 1960s. I would so dearly love to find them, and the internet is my best hope of that. One day, maybe…
      Thanks for getting in touch
      Lisa :)

  6. Lisa, another great post & the wish list grows again. I had not heard of this Steinbeck.

    Talking of your cousins, if you really would like to locate them drop me an email or FB message & I will see what my genealogical sources can turn up.

  7. A great review Lisa. An important point to clarify is the Marshall Plan was offered to The Soviet Union but Stalin turned it down. It is explained thoroughly in Greg Behrman’s The Most Nobel Adventure – The Marshall Plan and the time when America helped Save Europe.

    • Thanks for this, Greg, I shall see if I can hunt out a copy, another to add to my burgeoning NF TBR!


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