A Russian Journal – John Steinbeck

“We found as we expected that Russian people are people. And as with other people, they are very nice. The ones we met had a hatred of war. They want the same things that all people want: Good lives, increased comforts, security, and peace.”

John Steinbeck’s 1947 journey to the Soviet Union had one goal. And that is to “do honest reporting, to set down what we saw and heard without editorial comment, without drawing conclusions about things we didn’t know sufficiently”. So far as humanely possible, that’s what he’s done. Occasionally, some of Steinbeck’s personal views have crept onto his account, but this is to be accepted. No one can do a 100% job of detached, objective reporting.

Steinbeck’s account of his journey through the Soviet Union post-war is non-political. It is only a social account based on what he observed. Coupled with his and his photographer friend Robert Capa’s own experiences during their stay, this humourous account is an attempt to tell the world that all people are much more the same no matter where in the world they live.

Through his visits to Moscow, Kiev (Ukraine), Stalingrad, and Georgia, Steinbeck together with the aid of Capa, records the lives and living of the ordinary people in Russia in the aftermath of the war. He reports the massive destruction caused by the war, and the people’s struggle to live as normally as possible, their attitudes, wishes, and hopes for the future. He compares the people of the different cities, their attitudes, and their lifestyles. He also compares the similarities and the differences between these Russian people and those at home. I was much amused by Steinbeck’s comparison of the literary men in both countries: “Although Starlin may say that the writers are the architects of the soul, in America, the writer is not considered the architect of anything, and is only tolerated at all after he is dead and carefully put away for about twenty-five years”. Steinbeck explains that this dissimilarity stems from the difference in the system of governance in each country and the peoples’ attitude toward their government. “The Russians are taught, and trained, and encouraged to believe that their government is good, that every part of it is good, and that their job is to carry it forward, to back it up in all ways. On the other hand, the deep emotional feeling among Americans and British is that all government is somehow dangerous, that there should be as little government as possible, that any increase in the power of government is bad, and that existing government must be watched constantly, watched and criticized to keep it sharp and on its toes.”

While A Russian Journal is mainly a report of his observance of the people in Russia, this hasn’t prevented Steinbeck from blending it with his and Capa’s personal experiences during their stay. And it hasn’t also prevented him from slight criticism on Russian bureaucracy. All these different elements made reading this journal interesting.

I was much impressed by Steinbeck’s style of writing this journal. The whole report was done in a humourous tone. Even the most serious facts were recorded with a slight undertone of humour. But the fact is he is not resorted to this style to satirize them but only to make them interesting. That was just incredible! Steinbeck has yet again proved that he is indeed a master of writing art.

This journal, however, is not an in-depth account of the Russian people nor the Soviet Union as was then. It was just an account of what they had seen and heard. As Steinbeck admits, “it is superficial. How could it be otherwise? We have no conclusions to draw except Russian people are like all other people in the world.”

Rating: 4/5

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.

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