A New Look at … John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal (1948)

When John Steinbeck visited the Soviet Union in 1947, he did so for the purpose of “honest reporting,” “neither critical nor favorable,” merely “set[ting] down what we saw and heard …” With him traveled Robert Capa, one of the most famous photographers of the time – a photographer usually designated a “war photographer.” Asked by the Soviet authorities why he wanted Capa to travel with him – after all, there were “lots of cameramen in the Soviet Union” – Steinbeck replied: “But you have no Capas.”

Capa took about four thousand negatives – aftermath photographs we would call them today, documenting the legacy of violence and the difficulties of recovering from it and looking forward. Not all the places the team visited were devastated by war. Kiev surely was, as was Stalingrad; Moscow less so. Georgia appeared pristine, unaffected by war.

What does a war photographer do when there is no war? In 1945, Capa had visited Berlin, facing the same question (see our blog post A war photographer in times of peace? Robert Capa in Berlin in summer 1945). The Soviet Union frustrated him. In addition to the absence of events (save for Moscow’s 800th anniversary), many things and places deemed militarily or industrially important were off limits photographically. In the famous Stalingrad Tractor Factory, for example, they “were not even allowed to take the camera out of the bus. … Here in the factory, which had been defended by its own workers, and where those same workers were still building tractors, could be found the spirit of the Russian defense. And here, in its highest and most overwhelming aspect, we found the terror of the camera. … We could not take a picture. The fear of the camera is deep and blind.”

Capa laments that “The hundred and ninety million Russians are against me. They are not holding wild meetings on street corners, do not practice spectacular free love, do not have any kind of new look, they are very righteous, moral, hard-working people, for a photographer as dull as apple pie. Also they seem to like the Russian way of living, and dislike being photographed.” Perhaps he should not have been surprised: “particularly to people who have been in warfare, who have been bombed and shelled,” Steinbeck explains, “the camera is a feared instrument, and a man with a camera is suspected and watched wherever he goes.” War and photography go hand in hand, the camera being “one of the most frightening of modern weapons” – “at the back of a bombing run is invariably a photograph.”

What, then, does a war photographer do when there is no war? According to the KGB report from Kiev, quoted in Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction, he did not take pictures of “beggars, queues, German prisoners of war, and secret sites” and of the pictures he did take, only two “[could] not be considered favorably.” Instead, he took pictures of ordinary people doing ordinary things, producing seemingly unpolitical images in addition to Steinbeck’s seemingly unpolitical text.

However, these images testify to the commonalities of being human – a profoundly political statement at a time characterized by sharp distinctions between us and them, politics based on enemy images derived from such distinctions, and brinkmanship as the guiding political principle. Showing the commonalities of being human may, to a photographer, be dull as apple pie. Yet sometimes, even apple pie can be an event; the ordinary can be extraordinary, given the circumstances.

 John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal. With photographs by Robert Capa. With an introduction by Susan Shillinglaw (London: Penguin, 1999).