8. A Russian Journal, John Steinbeck

13 Mar

This is the report from a trip to the Soviet Union taken by John Steinbeck and a photographer friend of his in 1947.  The period directly after the war in the Soviet Union is fascinating, and if you don’t know much about the Ukraine, Stalingrad, Georgia or Moscow, it’s a entertaining and vivid tour. I’m familiar with most of the locales he writes about and his evocation of them is right-on. Especially the swinging-foreign-correspondent scene is fun to see, since the children of some of those people still make up the expat journo scene in Moscow today.

However, as a work of political journalism, it’s distressingly ugly and clueless.

Steinbeck makes an enormous fuss about how he’s going to be unbiased and will just “report what he sees” without opinionizing or editorializing. People in our postmodern era are more sophisticated about realizing that that’s just not possible. The frame determines the meaning…there is no meaning without a frame, and so on. So, I don’t know how much I should blame him, but the old, aw-shucks-just-here-reporting-what-I-see approach is particularly queasy-making in the context of the someplace as paranoid and complicated as the Soviet Union under Stalin. Basically, the book is John Steinbeck’s impressions of a highly orchestrated propaganda tour, and one wishes that he knew it. And he worse than doesn’t know it. He’s aware that it’s going to be said, and his whole ‘just the facts!’ kabuki is a counter-argument. He’s saying “I’m not drawing conclusions, it’s just what I saw!” But the fact is that humans are convinced by what they see, it’s a bias. He doesn’t have to say anything more than “I saw proud, happy and healthy Ukrainian collective farmers” for that to be an argument.

It’s more disturbing and less forgiveable because throughout he’s so pleased with himself for his impartiality and clever method of admitting what he doesn’t know/ just a recording angel/ stance. Also, he’s having a grand adventure, and there’s plentiful cavorting and humorous drama with him and the photographer, which, considering that he’s trustingly holding Joe Stalin’s hand the whole time—the hand of a psychopath and mass murderer of unthinkable enormity—is grotesque. I realize that Stalin’s works are clearer in hindsight than they were at the time, and maybe John Steinbeck got unlucky as an American labor activist in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it’s still difficult to read. I mean, you just know that Stalin is reading a report about him every night and he’s all gamboling around unawares, flirting with “Sweet Lana” (Svetlana) his translator. The translator, the daughter of a Soviet general and recipient of the plum assignment of keeping an eye on John Steinbeck is obviously a rising star in the security services. (In nine years that woman will be sitting in a room doing paperwork while they torture Osip Mandelstam to death next door. Sweet Lana. You knew her when…) .

And more to the point, I don’t see how any activist for the little guy and supposed reporter could have gone to a Ukrainian collective farm in 1947,  without being aware that 13 million people died of famine in the Ukraine during the collectivization process in the 30s. In context, his smugness and glee is obscene.

…. And then there are the cultural sour notes. He refers to female head of household who hosts him in the Ukrainian village as “Mamochka.” That’s the short/ familiar version of her name. They may have told him to call her that, but he has no idea that it’s…enormously polite of them to have insisted on that. The polite/respectful thing to have done in return would have been to use her full name and patronymic, at least in print. The context in which a younger person, not a relative would use “Mamochka” in a public way, is basically when you’re an aristocrat and she’s a serf. Reading it gives me the willies. He didn’t know better, but by this point I don’t like him for not knowing better. It’s so American to be all casual and palsy this way. The book is a better document of America than of anything about Russia, if you consider Soviet propaganda to be as lifeless and void as I do.

Okay. I’ll stop there. I’m glad I read it because it’s interesting as a cultural curiosity. The texture from the 40s is great, as are the photos and reports of life in the rubble of Stalingrad. And it becomes less grating when the true nature of the experience becomes apparent in Georgia and they’re just dragged, suffering the heat and stomach cramps to stultifying PR event after event, being forced to drink vodka and overeat… We’ve all been there!

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