A Russian Journal (1948) describes Steinbeck's travel to the Soviet Union. Steinbeck previously visited Eastern Europe in 1937 but did not mention this previous trip in A Russian Journal, which focuses on what he observed in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia when traveling with the photographer Robert Capa. His aim was not to comment on the politics of the time, but rather to look at the lives of average citizens of the Soviet Union. He wanted to know what people ate and drank, what they wore, what made them culturally distinctive, what they talked and sang about, and how their children were educated (Simkins and Railsback 323-324).
Capa was one of America's most famous photographers, and his pictures provide a wonderful visual accompaniment to Steinbeck’s text. Commenting on the trip, he said, "We decided to make an old-fashioned Don Quixote and Sancho Panza quest - to ride behind the iron curtain and pit our lances and pens against the windmills of today" (Kershaw 178). Steinbeck and Capa visited Moscow (the most highbrow stop on the whole trip), but also traveled to small villages in Ukraine and Georgia, where they met "lively, friendly people" and the city of Stalingrad, which nobody wanted to leave, despite the extreme wartime destruction evident on every street (Steinbeck, 75). They met with people from different places, representing different perspectives: from small, poor farmers to the architects of the Soviet system (Steinbeck 118-120).
In the text, Steinbeck tries to examine the political views of people from the Eastern Bloc. He observes that citizens of the Soviet Union seem to be "trained” to believe that government is highly necessary. He compares this positive attitude toward the state with the skeptical perspective of Americans and Brits, who he concluded shared more libertarian values, identifying government’s influence as potentially dangerous and not always necessary. (Steinbeck 26).
Kershaw, Alex. Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa. St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Simkins, Scott and Brian Railsback. “Russian Journal, A (1948).” A John Steinbeck Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Railsback and Michael J. Meyer, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 323-325.
Steinbeck, John. A Russian Journal. Penguin Books, 1999.