In my journey to read all things Steinbeck (I'm well over half way now) I have a brief layover in Russia. Steinbeck visited Soviet Russia in 1947 accompanied by photographer Robert Capa. The fact one of America's most prized writers at the time was allowed into the Soviet Union with an acclaimed photojournalist astonishes me. This was the beginning of the so-called cold war; the United States' challenges toward Russia were growing, Russia's distrust of America was strong. So Steinbeck makes it into Russia and he does what he knows best, he gets amongst the people. He journeys from Moscow to war-torn Stalingrad; he visits the farmers and townsfolk of Ukraine and Georgia. His intention is to get to know the people and report honestly, without making conclusions, without editorial comment. He succeeds. The Russians aren't war-crazy peasants who live in constant fear of Stalin. They're simple, warmhearted, hard-working people who live in fear of another world war brought on by the divide between capitalist nations and communist nations. Of course Steinbeck's efforts only fueled the suspicion that Steinbeck himself was a socialist, a belief that had been running strong since The Grapes of Wrath was first published.
What I found most interesting about A Russian Journal was not so much what Steinbeck said, as what he didn't say. He spends considerable time talking about the food and the work-ethic of Russian people, as well as their pleasant demeanor. But he also spends a lot of time complaining about flights, talking about the beauty of the women, drinking, and seeming uncharacteristically crabby. He never addresses any personal issues in the book, rarely even mentions himself. Having gotten to know the author as well as one can an author from an earlier time, I couldn't help but feel like something was amiss. I suspected problems at home, and I ventured to guess they had something to do with Gwyn, Steinbeck's second wife and the model for Cathy Ames (East of Eden). After finishing A Russian Journal I did a little research and learned that Steinbeck was indeed in his final year of marriage with Gwyn. While I can't say for sure that marital issues may have fueled his temperament—nor can I say for sure Steinbeck was out of character—it seems the logical factor to deduce.
What does any of this have to do with the book? I think it affects the quality greatly. I could be wrong, but I got the feeling that Steinbeck didn't utilize his time in Russia very well. I get the feeling he spent more time brooding about Gwyn and partying with fellow American dignitaries that he didn't have much time in the field. This is a work that could have been immensely eye-opening, but it's rather light in the end. And perhaps none of this has to do with Steinbeck's personal life. Maybe he really was a communist sympathizer, and the lack of material has more to do with his covert training sessions and debriefing meetings. But I could be wrong.