John Steinbeck Goes to the USSR
Robert Capa (with camera) and John Steinbeck, USSR, 1947

At the peak of his career, having published three powerful novels in the 1930s – especially one of his best-known books, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck decided to make a forty-day trip to the Soviet Union in 1947. World War Two had just ended and Winston Churchill announced that an “Iron Curtain” had been drawn across Eastern Europe.

To Steinbeck, who for twenty years had been writing books about ordinary people, the Russian people were the focus of his trip. He had no plans to meet any “big shots” and was going to consciously avoid political and military topics. For him it was “an expedition of the curious.” His traveling companion was Robert Capa, a famous war photographer, and the two of them had a difficult time together, which is clearly documented in Steinbeck’s journal. Capa shot over 4,000 photos, but these two creative personalities repeatedly clashed.

The Travel Itinerary and Goals

Steinbeck and Capa began their trip in Moscow, then made their way to Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and on to smaller cities in the Ukraine and the Caucasus. Steinbeck’s eye for detail and his compassion for the average Russian farmer or factory worker, together with the sharp photographic perspectives of Capa, make for a fascinating study.

Steinbeck noted that the newspapers in America contained thousands of words about Russia, especially about Stalin’s aggressiveness and the plans of the Soviet General Staff, but very little was written about the people themselves: what they wear, what they serve for dinner, and how they celebrate. While Steinbeck said that politics are important, there is another side to life, just as there is the United States and he was determined to learn more about this. He wrote: “There must be a private life of the Russian people, and that we could not read about because no one wrote about it, and no one photographed it.” So Steinbeck and Capa decided to fill this void.

They agreed before they left, “We should not go in with chips on our shoulders and we should try to be neither critical nor favorable. We would try to do honest reporting.” Once their travels began, they decided to record their experiences as they happened, day by day, experience by experience, sight by sight, without much editorializing. They agreed to simply write what they saw and heard which, Steinbeck noted, “ . . . is contrary to a large part of modern journalism, but for that very reason it might be a relief.”

Notable Differences in Culture

One of the first major differences that Steinbeck observed between Russian and American culture was the way in which the citizens of the two countries viewed their government. When Steinbeck and Capa were in Moscow, they were struck by the way in which Russians were taught, trained and encouraged to believe that their government was good – “that every part of it was good.” In sharp contrast, Steinbeck believed that most Americans (as well as the British) had a deep emotional feeling that all government was somehow dangerous and that there should be as little government as possible. In addition, in American society people were convinced that government must be watched very carefully and criticized when needed to “keep it sharp and on its toes.”

On a related theme, Steinbeck noted that the role of writers in both cultures was also very different. In the Soviet Union, the writers he met described their job to be one of encouragement and celebration of the achievements of the Soviet system. In America, as well as England, Steinbeck argued that a good writer was the watch-dog of society. From Steinbeck’s point-of-view, the writer’s job “is to satirize [society’s] silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults.” For this reason, writers were not very popular in America and their standing in society was somewhere “just below acrobats and just above seals.”

Soviet writers lived in a different world that American writers, but Steinbeck highlighted the fact that the great Russian writers of the 19th century – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov – were much more like American writers who served as society’s watch-dogs. In Steinbeck’s judgment, Soviet writers who propagated the ideology of Marxism-Leninism had not yet produced a great piece of writing.

Steinbeck’s Conclusion

Steinbeck and Capa went to the Soviet Union in 1947 to meet average Russian citizens, to learn about their life, their families, and their customs. What did they discover? “We found, as we had suspected, that the Russian people are people, and, as with other people, that they 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. . . . Some bad ones there are surely, but by far the greater number are very good.”

Robert Capa died seven years after this trip, killed by a land-mine in Indochina where he was photographing the war. John Steinbeck died in 1968, having won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Neither of them saw a significant breakthrough in Russian-American relations in their lifetime.