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212 pages, Paperback
First published April 1, 1948
What Stalin was thinking about, the plans of the Russian General Staff, the disposition of troops, experiments with atomic weapons and guided missiles, all of this by people who had not been there, and whose sources were not above reproach. And it occurred to us that there were some things that nobody wrote about Russia…What do the people wear there? What do they serve at dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? How do they make love, and how do they die? What do they talk about? Do they dance, and sing, and play? Do the children go to school?…We wanted to get to the Russian people if we could.This might have been when I started to notice something weirdly sentimental and childlike about Steinbeck's writing (do they play?), but I can't fault his intention. He makes a point that resonates with my sense today that a lot of the news we get here in the U.S. about the rest of the world is presented in a dramatic context, relevant only insofar as it plays a role in our reality show. Not everything has to be screamingly relevant to be interesting...or maybe a better point is that most of what's presented to us as relevant really isn't, and that with some patience and subtlety we might find the most unexpected and striking relevance in stories of ordinary human experience. I'm with Steinbeck there. And to be sure, his general approach to traveling seems wise:
We knew there would be many things we couldn’t understand, many things we wouldn’t like, many things that would make us uncomfortable. This is always true of a foreign country. But we determined that if there should be criticism, it would be criticism of the thing after seeing it, not before.He refers to "we" and "us" throughout, by the way, in order to include his partner on the journey, war photographer Robert Capa; it’s clear that Steinbeck wants to mirror in his prose the objectivity that he believes Capa has achieved with his photographs. Capa's most famous photo is The Falling Soldier, taken during the Spanish Civil War, although there's some controversy over whether or not it was staged. Impossible as true objectivity may be, Steinbeck demonstrates an openness to the common people of the USSR, a trait that couldn't have been taken for granted in his time (nor today, for that matter). On this journey, those people are mostly Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians, because Moscow, Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Kyiv, Tiflis (now Tbilisi) and Gori, as well as a few collective farms in Ukraine, are the places the Soviets want Steinbeck and Capa to see. And it’s this quality of curiosity about everyday life that allows Steinbeck to take note of interesting characters like the customs official who inspects his belongings:
The customs man was very polite, and very kind…But, as he proceeded, it became clear to us that he was not looking for anything in particular, he was just interested. He turned over our shining equipment and fingered it lovingly. He lifted out every roll of film but he did nothing about it and he questioned nothing. He just seems to be interested in foreign things…But it's also this same quality- or at least an adjacent quality, a certain lack of cynicism and skepticism- that prevents Steinbeck from wondering about what might become of this very polite customs official, so kind to foreigners and so interested in foreign things. My guess is nothing good.
[Kyiv] at one time must have been a beautiful city. It is much older than Moscow. It is the mother of Russian cities. Seated on its hill beside the Dnieper, it spreads down into the plain. Its monasteries and churches and fortresses date from the 11th century...now it is a semi-ruin. Every public building, every library, every theater, destroyed, not with gunfire, not through fighting, but with fire and dynamite."In Russia it is always the future that is thought of" isn't an objective fact of course, it's an impression, but that's fine with me. It's an insightful and poetic passage that shows me Steinbeck was a great observer- at least about certain things. "It is like a religious thing" is also an impression, but a perspicacious one:
Counting soldiers, there would be many more, but six million out of forty-five million civilians have been killed...Every piece of machinery in the Ukraine has been destroyed or removed, so that now, until more can be made, everything must be done by hand. Every stone and brick of the ruined city must be lifted and carried with the hands, for there are no bulldozers. And while they are rebuilding, the Ukrainians must produce food, for theirs is the great granary of the nation.
Here in white plaster [in the museum] was a model of the new city. A grandiose, fabulous city to be built of white marble, the lines classical, the buildings huge...the people come through the wreckage...to look at the plaster cities of the future. 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.
Later we went to Red Square, where a queue of people at least a quarter of a mile long stood waiting to go through Lenin’s tomb…All afternoon, and nearly every afternoon, a slow thread of people marches through the tomb to look at the dead face of Lenin in his glass casket…It is like a religious thing, although they would not call it religious.
In nothing is the difference between the Americans and the Soviets so marked as in the attitude, not only toward writers, but of writers towards their system. For in the Soviet Union the writer’s job is to encourage, to celebrate, to explain, and in every way to carry forward the Soviet system. Whereas in America, and in England, a good writer is the watch-dog of society. His job is to satirize its silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults. And this is the reason that in America neither society nor government is very fond of writers. The two are completely opposite approaches toward literature. And it must be said that in the time of the great Russian writers, of Tolstoi, of Dostoevski, of Turgenev, of Chekhov, and of the early Gorki, the same was true of the Russians. And only time can tell whether the architect of the soul approach to writing can produce as great a literature as the watch-dog of society approach. So far, it must be admitted, the architect school has not produced a great piece of writing.The most skilled propagandist couldn't have done much better than this unconscionable paragraph. It's not the obliteration of individual expression and thought through torture and mass murder, it's merely...a cultural difference. Granted, Steinbeck almost certainly didn't know just how bad the repression really was, but if he didn't find the idea he expresses here deeply suspicious, he wasn't much of the watchdog he seems to regard himself as existing in the tradition of. A real watchdog would be skeptical of all governments, and wouldn't spare foreign governments out of politeness, or the politically correct dogma that we can't pass judgment on them because they're foreign. Whom does Steinbeck think made the decision that the "job" of Soviet writers is to celebrate their system? Doesn't he sense that the Soviet relationship between writer and government is a version of the American one in which the government has crushed the watchdogs? Steinbeck may have set the artistic parameters that he didn't want to offer interpretation, but he is interpreting, and his attempt to sound fair and objective in this case instead makes him sound naive at best. The passage is also a profound insult to every Soviet writer who had the courage to write the truth about what was happening in their country.
To Americans, with their fear and hatred of power invested in one man, this is a frightening thing...at public celebrations the pictures of Stalin outgrow every bound of reason. We spoke...to a number of Russians and had several answers. One was that the Russian people had been used to pictures of the czar and the czar's family...another was that the icon is a Russian habit of mind, and this was a kind of an icon. A third, that the Russians love Stalin so much that they want him ever present. A fourth, that Stalin himself does not like this and has asked that it be discontinued. But it seems to us that Stalin's dislike for anything else causes its removal...But Steinbeck either fails to acknowledge or doesn't realize that any Soviet citizen who valued their health would have stayed far away from him, or offered only the blandest of cliches. Whether he has any inkling of this or not, he proceeds as if he doesn't, and I think that's what ultimately makes his approach untenable. In his effort to get away from political bickering, he forgets that every aspect of the society he's encountering is informed by politics and power. The answers that he receives from people are not representative of their uncensored, individual thoughts (as Orwell would suggest a couple of years later in 1984, one of the ultimate goals of a totalitarian society is to eliminate not just individual expression but individual thought)- they're perverted by the terror of Soviet life. In one of his last interviews, Anthony Bourdain told a story about eating with a man from Laos who was missing both his legs. When Bourdain asked him what had happened, the man told him that when he was younger he'd stepped on unexploded American ordinance...and just like that, a conversation about something seemingly individual had become a conversation about something seemingly world-historical. It's hard to keep these concepts separate for very long at all, and when we try, the results tend to be grotesque.
Being the guests of Voks, we walked through the public waiting-room and into a side room where there was a dining table, some couches, and comfortable chairs. And there, under the stern eye of a painted Stalin, we drank strong tea until our plane was called.
In the large oil portrait of Stalin on the wall, he was dressed in military uniform and wearing all his decorations, and they are very many. At his throat the Gold Star, which is the highest decoration of Soviet Socialist Labor. On his left breast, highest up, the most coveted award of all, the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union, which corresponds to our Congressional Medal of Honor. Below that, a row of campaign medals, which indicate what actions he has been in. And on his right breast, a number of gold and red enamel stars. Instead of theater ribbons such as our troops wear, a medal is issued for each great engagement of the Soviet Army: Stalingrad, Moscow, Rostov, and so forth, and Stalin wears them all. As marshal of the Soviet armies he directed them all.
Here we may as well discuss something which bothers most Americans. Nothing in the Soviet Union goes on outside the vision of the plaster, bronze, painted, or embroidered eye of Stalin. His portrait hangs not only in every museum, but in every room of every museum. His statue marches in front of all public buildings. His bust is in front of all airports, railroad stations, bus stations. His bust is also in all schoolrooms, and his portrait is often directly behind his bust. In parks he sits on a plaster bench, discussing problems with Lenin. His picture in needlework is undertaken by the students of schools. The stores sell millions and millions of his face, and every house has at least one picture of him. Surely the painting and modeling, the casting, the forging, and the embroidering of Stalin must be one of the great industries of the Soviet Union. He is everywhere, he sees everything.
To Americans, with their fear and hatred of power invested in one man, and of perpetuation of power, this is a frightening thing and a distasteful one. At public celebrations the pictures of Stalin outgrow every bound of reason. They may be eight stories high and fifty feet wide. Every public building carries monster portraits of him.
We spoke of this to a number of Russians and had several answers. One was that the Russian people had been used to pictures of the czar and the czar’s family, and when the czar was removed they needed something to substitute for him. Another was that the icon is a Russian habit of mind, and this was a kind of an icon. A third, that the Russians love Stalin so much that they want him ever present. A fourth, that Stalin himself does not like this and has asked that it be discontinued. But it seemed to us that Stalin’s dislike for anything else causes its removal, but this is on the increase. Whatever the reason is, one spends no moment except under the smiling, or pensive, or stern eye of Stalin. It is one of those things an American is incapable of understanding emotionally. There are other pictures and other statues too. And one can tell approximately what the succession is by the size of the photographs and portraits of other leaders in relation to Stalin. Thus in 1936, the second largest picture to Stalin’s was of Voroshilov, and now the second largest picture is invariably Molotov.