Thursday, March 11, 2021

Steinbeck on Russia

I am sure someone has already written a wonderful dissertation or book (or several) about the many famous Western writers who visited the Soviet Union and wrote up their travel journals.  Benjamin, Feuchtwanger, Hughes, Gide, ee cummings, and others come to mind.  Reading a massive Steinbeck biography by Jackson Benson (perhaps I should have gone with Parsini's shorter one), I figured it was time to read Steinbeck's contribution to the genre, A Russian Journal.  Not a particular fan of Steinbeck's fiction (with the exception of East of Eden), I was skeptical that he would be able to escape his official minders or see beyond the ideological constraints of the early Cold War.  However, Steinbeck's book is really pretty good.  His strengths as a fiction writer are revealed in his approach to travel writing.  That is to say, he goes out of his way to avoid taking sides, or sermonizing.  

Steinbeck's biographer claims that both communists and capitalists often criticized his fictional depictions of worker exploitation and unrest.  One can see why.  In this book, Steinbeck tries to stick to what he can see or hear for himself.  He calmly notes what his American friends say about Russia before he goes, but doesn't give any of these anti-Russian comments a great deal of weight.  In Russia, he is careful to tell his readers what he is and is not allowed to see, and how his stay is mediated by Intourist and various prohibitions against photography, industrial reportage, etc.  He also notices many hallmarks of totalitarianism, including Stalin's pictorial omnipresence, the general culture of secrecy, and Trotsky's elimination from Soviet history, but tries to be as open-minded about the Russian people as possible.  

The best part of Steinbeck's book is that he really doesn't try to be make too many overarching claims about his Russia as a result of his relatively short stay there.   Steinbeck's relative humility is even evident in his treatment of Russian questions about America.  When they ask him about Truman, he truthfully admits his relative ignorance about the man.  And he's careful to say that he isn't really all that qualified to speak about America as whole, knowing only certain portions of the country, or certain segments of it.  Another interesting aspect of the trip is that it occurs in 1948, when Russia was just barely recovering from the German invasion and war years.  He visits Moscow, Ukraine, and Georgia, but his trip to Stalingrad is perhaps the most revealing portion of the book.  The city remains physically devastated.  In the end, Steinbeck offers readers few theoretical insights about the Soviet Union or communism.  However, he does make readers feel as if they themselves were on the tour, visiting a country recovering from war, and still in the throes of dictatorship, but still resilient.  Of course, neither Steinbeck or the reader ever visit the places in the Soviet Union, including the gulags, which might have forced him to do more sermonizing than he did. 

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