A Window on Russia

Photo by Robert Capa, book cover credit: Penguin Books (reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000).

” The old, old thing came up, that always comes up: ´Then why does your government not control these newspapers and these men who talk war?´ And we had to explain again, as we had many times before, that we do not believe in controlling our press, that the truth usually wins, and that control simply drives bad things underground. In our country we prefer that these people talk themselves to death in public, and write themselves to death, rather than bottle them up to slip their poison secretly through the dark.

They have a great deal of misinformation about America, for they have their yellow journalists too.  They have their correspondents with little knowledge, and they have their fiery typewriter soldiers.”

 

***

 

In the aftermath of World War II,  John Steinbeck and legendary war photographer Robert Capa went to the Soviet Union on a trip of cultural exploration. That was all it was.  They endeavored to avoid politics and polemics.  And although Steinbeck was more or less a disillusioned intellectual, at the time fed up with the status quo of the world and perhaps with his own work, they went not as communist sympathizers or angst-ridden activists, rather they wanted to write about and to photograph what was left of humanity after the devastation of war.  They certainly found it–simple, yet happy villagers, destroyed landscapes and industries, austere and suspicious Muscovites, broken men and families, inquisitive Soviets–and they also found a mundane, quotidian totalitarianism still in its infancy. Capa, accustomed to more action (the invasion of Normandy, Spanish Civil War), was even bored at times.

This is a modest little book, a long report for the New York Herald Tribune, (ironically, not quite a rich as his Log from the Sea of Cortez, an excellent memoir of his collecting marine specimens in barren Baja California), and a wonderful peek into the daily lives of simple Russians.  The book seems to have been a response to the strong curiosity that Americans had about Russians and Russia, and it at once shows us what we have in common and our fundamental, eternal differences.

Steinbeck often chooses humor over generalization, and of course he demonstrates keen powers of observation that never stray into condescension or veiled contempt.

Throughout the book, Capa´s photos are placed right alongside Steinbeck´s commentary, although I wish Penguin would have included better quality shots. For more high-resolution photos by Robert Capa, explore Magnum´s wonderful collection (click here).

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The Decline of Violence

imageOf course, every generation is convinced that the world is going to hell, that it was better in the past.  More and more, I am convinced that this is little more than a dismissal of the complexities of the modern world, and I usually take the moaning about the degradation of morals, the disrespect of the youth of today…etc.,  with a grain of salt. In my opinion this is just a form of sentimentalism and nostalgia.  Also, because of the nature of our modern media, we see violence that happens everyday, in places all around the world, and we are less shocked all the time. Some of us are becoming panicked about our jadedness, and we respond in a wide variety of ways–some good for progress, most bad.

I have a feeling, from what I’ve seen and read in my adult life, though, that humanity is growing and evolving away from the widespread violence that has been taken for granted in the near and distant past.  But still, a mere feeling that something is right cannot be defended in any credible way.

I admit I began Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” with a bit of confirmation bias because of this feeling.  To look for simple reaffirmation of one’s opinions is irresponsible, but it is another thing to gather proof and information to support a position. Pinker is a scientist who has packed his book with hundreds of citations, graphs, quotes, studies, numbers and overall credibility to put forward in support to his suggestion that violence has declined, overall, in modern history.

From women’s essential part in the civilization of the American West, to daily life in Medieval Europe, from child sacrifice to animal rights, with extensive discussions on modern war and tribalism, and with themes such as rape, child abuse, riot behavior, slavery and war, Pinker shows the sum of today’s incidents of violence is a fraction of what it was in the distant past, and less than in the near past. But it is much more complex than that statement, and it would do us well to figure out those complexities.

From the Steven Pinker website:

“Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity    by Steven Pinker

New York, NY: Viking.