This is a book definitely worth reading, but I wouldn't put it up there with Steinbeck's best.
It has clear prose, spiced with humor, pathos and wondeThis is a book definitely worth reading, but I wouldn't put it up there with Steinbeck's best.
It has clear prose, spiced with humor, pathos and wonderful descriptions of places and people. But the book is short and much was off limits.
In itself it is amazing that Steinbeck and the famed photographer Robert Capa were even allowed into Russia in 1947, two years after the war and with the Cold War in full swing. Steinbeck was employed as a war correspondent by the New York Herald Tribune and he continued to work for them. The aim of the book was to draw a picture of ordinary Russian people; the focus was not politics.
How well does he capture "the Russian people"? That which Steinbeck tells us and which Capa shows through his photos are interesting but the visit is too brief to give a full picture. Bureaucracy and state restrictions hampered the endeavor. Neither did they plan the trip that well. They flew via Stockholm to Moscow, where no rooms awaited them. Finally, installed first at the Metropol and then later at the Savoy, they seek permission to leave Moscow, to take photos and to talk to people. Who was to sponsor them was even up for grabs. Eventually with papers and permission slips in order they make separate trips from Moscow to Kiev, to Stalingrad/Volgograd and to Georgia visiting both Tiflis/Tbilisi and Batum/Batumi. Each time returning to Moscow to bathe and to sleep, but in reality to drink and to converse with Western correspondents and Russian officials. To go to the Bolshoi. Capa was incessantly fretting over his photos; would they be allowed out? The two were only there a couple of weeks. Yes, they spent time with ordinary Russian people, but the time spent was limited and often restricted.
The book shows vividly the destruction of the Patriotic War. Gifts were given to the City of Stalingrad from foreign nations, but what were needed were artificial limbs, housing and a whole new infrastructure. Each morning in the square outside their hotel window the two saw the Russian people, mostly women, creep out from the cellars, all that remained from before. It is quite a feat to go to work in clean clothes. Women, because the men were crippled or killed. Steinbeck’s writing is sharp, vivid and moving.
Outside Kiev the two men visited collective farms. The people were generous with that which they had. There was laughing and good food and dancing and music, always music and dancing and vodka and brown bread and cucumbers and tomatoes. Not fancy but generous, singing, happy people, hopeful for the future. Curious people, always asking questions and carefully evaluating the given replies. Rarely could Steinbeck or Capa give adequate answers. Do Americans like poetry? Does the state help farmers with equipment, new techniques and advice about experimental seeds? It is the questions posed by the ordinary Russians and then their replies to the answers given that are the most telling. Yet any reader must question whom were they allowed to meet and talk with. Not just anyone!
In Georgia, what the men saw is lyrically depicted. Georgia was never destroyed by the war. Always generous people, dancing and music and food. This section reads almost as a tourist guide. I continually looked at images of places visited on internet.
I wish I had seen Capa’s photos. Only a few are to be found on the web. I listened to the audiobook reasonably well narrated by Richard Poe. He tends to dramatize, but his dramatization does fit the intent of Steinbeck’s lines. You could hear the humor. You could hear the exasperation that intermittently arose between Capa and Steinbeck. Capa would disappear into the bathtub for hours, with his stolen/”borrowed” books. Steinbeck has his own little quirks we learn of too.
I am certainly glad I read this. You have to take it for what it is and be happy for that we have been allowed to glimpse. I would recommend reading the paper version so you see the photos; they are half of the story....more