” 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).