7:19:20 A Russian Journal, a book review

John Steinbeck's A Russian Journal is a travelogue of a 40-day visit he made to the Soviet Union in 1947. The end of WWII is fresh in memory. Americans stood with Russians to defeat the Axis powers, and appropriately Steinbeck and accompanying photographer Robert Capa fly from Helsinki to Leningrad, to Moscow and elsewhere on their itinerary in Lend-Lease Douglas C-47s the Russians got during the war. With quiet humor, Steinbeck describes these cargo planes as basic transportation. They could use a new coat of brown paint; once aboard, all luggage is stowed in the aisles; and the planes fly at low altitude.

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Overwhelming bureaucracy is the first impression Steinbeck has about Soviet life: A meal at a restaurant is involved: “… the bookkeeping system is enormous. Thus the waiter, when he takes an order, writes it very carefully in a book.” The waiter won’t request the food, but goes to the bookkeeper, who writes out a slip, ad infinitum—food to table takes hours.

When Steinbeck and Capa leave for the hinterlands, they have a different take on food. After wartime deprivation, people show food insecurity (akin to how Steinbeck describes the Joad family and fellow migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath). These people always feast if they have food. Guests Steinbeck and Capa repeatedly suffer from overindulgence, an outcome not helped if every meal starts with ample vodka. This feast-and-famine psychology causes the travellers Steinbeck sees in their C-47 travels to pack suitcases with food, unsure about food where they’re going!

Bright spots in their travels are visiting farming communities in Ukraine and Georgia. Capa’s intimate, candid photographs capture the joy of these people content to work and live off the land as they’ve done for ages.

A truly sad visit is Stalingrad. If the defense of Stalingrad was successful, it was also the bloodiest. So many buildings came down that people live underground. They live in surviving basements of the houses they once occupied. Some live in extremis. They see a woman who has “gone feral,” scavenging garbage for food. Capa’s close-up photograph of this woman’s disturbing face is one of the few Soviet authorities confiscated before the two travellers departed the Soviet Union.

In short, A Russian Journal is a recommended travelogue to the Soviet Union in the aftermath of WWII. The combination of Steinbeck and Capa as a writer/photographer duo is unbeatable for word and image insight into an era now seven decades past.

A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck with Robert Capa, photographs. 1948. The Viking Press, New York. 183 pp.

Image credit: goodreads.com


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Read Charlie Dickinson's latest novel, Losing Laika, as an ebook in these five downloadable formats:

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Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

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