Steinbeck got an assignment from the New York Herald-Tribune to visit the Soviet Union, and to take, photographer, Robert Capa with him.
There were incidences of deprivation, some caused by Soviet society and authorities – can’t see something, can’t go somewhere or permission arrived too late. Other inconveniences arose by being in remote Moscow (suspicious of the West), in the Ukraine, Stalingrad or in Georgia. Note that Steinbeck had to travel to each location from Moscow. He could not go from the Ukraine to Stalingrad. There is a sense that neither Steinbeck nor Cape knew much history, sociology or psychology of Russia or of the Soviet Union. Yet, Steinbeck’s observations ring true.
It is a writer’s notebook. He strives to put together a story, an understanding of the great nation and its people. Everyone works but removed from political power with no ambition, most citizens of the Soviet state present the feel of human beings everywhere. None mentions internal politics, complains about officials (harvests are good), or fears the Secret Police. People dance and sing. In the country and in the smaller cities (Kiev was mostly in ruins in 1947) there seems no disparity in income, no flashiness of individuals, no errant ideas coming from any source. There is no free marketplace of ideas. Everything is collectively harvested and lumped like rye gathered from a field.
I believe one thing powerfully – that the only creative thing our
species has is the individual lonely mind. Two people can create
a child but I know of no other thing created by a group. The
group ungoverned by individual thinking is a horrible destructive
principal. The great change in the last 2000 years was the
Christian idea that the individual soul was very precious.
In the absence of the individual, arts in the Soviet Union were withering. Before 1917 the Russians had a thriving musical community: Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Stravinsky departed. Prokofiev returned and left, and in the mid-1930s he stayed. But great performers and conductors left as the Communist regime oppressed. Think about Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff being criticized and controlled by Stalin and his bureaucratic goons, like Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were denounced.
Among writers every city and town had an organization or union. Steinbeck is not complimentary of Simonov, playwright of The Russian Question. The American stopped interviewing after the first try. Questions were two paragraphs long, the first part being unconnected to the second. Steinbeck asked for a translation from the Russian of an answer he had given. It wasn’t close to his response.
Steinbeck wonders, “We had made contact with many Russian people, but were the questions we had wanted answered actually answered? I had made notes of conversations, and of details…But we were too close to it. We didn’t know what we had.” (Chapter 9) “[W]e had to see something every minute…We were living a life which for virtue had only been equaled once or twice in the history of the would.” (Chapter 8)
Steinbeck felt constrained. His assignment with photographs rushed into journalism was incapable of being told, except to tell of experiences and observations of the Russian people: Moscow everyone seemed afraid and could not act without multiple authorizations that something could be done or photographed. And in the country where few restraints hampered Steinbeck and Capa – yet they were among citizens, common and surviving and somewhat happy with no ambitions, no knowledge, no ideas and no dreams.
What perplexed Steinbeck was not the difference between city and country folk. It was the dreams of people – most people have dreams and imaginations. He could not observe those, work and hope for the future. Perhaps Steinbeck needed more time and exposure – he had a trip to Tchaikovsky’s home but found little inspiration there. In the Soviet Union as happens in all totalitarian states inventiveness and originality is suspected and shunned. Steinbeck likely saw these circumstances and was frustrated.