Read the World: A Russian Journal

John Steinbeck and Robert Capa wanted to see how ordinary Russians lived at the dawn of the Cold War. This is what they experienced

In 1947, the American writer John Steinbeck and his Hungarian photographer friend Robert Capa embarked on a 40-day trip to the Soviet Union. It was the year the Cold War started in earnest, and the Iron Curtain was descending.

‘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,’ writes Steinbeck in the book. So the intention of the project was for the duo to deliver an honest picture of the place, working as reporters, mindful of the fact that now, post World War II, Russia, the west’s former ally, was fast being its enemy. The parallels with today are obvious.

What A Russian Journal gives us is a very personal account of the men’s encounters with ordinary Russians. It’s thoughtful, beautifully written, illustrated by Capa’s great pictures, and very funny.

I have only been to Moscow a couple of times, so I read most of A Russian Journal from the perspective of an outsider looking in, and back more than half a century. But I have travelled in Georgia, and Steinbeck and Capa make it there at the tail end of their trip. An independent country now (though like Ukraine, with a sizeable chunk – some 20 per cent – currently occupied by their Russian neighbours), back in 1947 Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.

Steinbeck explains that wherever they went in Russia, people ‘spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and a great admiration. They spoke of Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.’ 

This is how I found it 75 years later, and as vibrant, friendly and rich in nature as the authors of A Russian Journal. What is more remarkable, though, is that Steinbeck’s account of many of the places they visited, like Tbilisi and the Stalin Museum in Gori, could have been written today. Which makes me think he and his companion are reliable, as well as entertaining, guides.

A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck, with photographs by Robert Capa, £12.99, Penguin Modern Classics

By Peter Howarth, executive editor, Secret Trips

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