The Other Side of the Iron Curtain: John Steinbeck & Robert Capa’s Trip to Russia in 1948

Unidentified Re-enactors Dressed As World War Soviet Russian Soldiers Storming Building

Steinbeck wrote of their shock as they gazed into the crumbling city of bricks with nothing left standing. In amongst the destruction, they saw movement.

In 1948, writer John Steinbeck and cameraman Robert Capa traveled to Russia to see what it was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The result was: A Russian Journal: with photographs by Robert Capa. The conclusion: the people of Russia didn’t want nuclear war any more than the American people did.

It is worth mentioning how marvelous this book is, not just in terms of its engaging stories but also because of its historical merit.

During their travels, friends Steinbeck and Capa are taken to Stalingrad. They arrived by car over a pockmarked road flanked by a train track with “lines of burned-out gondolas and freight cars.” As they crested the hill, they were presented with a view of the war-torn city.

Steinbeck describes how it was unlike any other bombed out city he had ever seen due to the rocket and shell fire. The city was surrounded by the “debris of war,” as he described it. Worn out tanks and artillery pieces, half-tracks, and vehicles littered all sides of Stalingrad – the result of a battle that was waged more than ten years previously.

Fountain “Children’s dance” in the station square after the end of the Battle of Stalingrad
Fountain “Children’s dance” in the station square after the end of the Battle of Stalingrad

Both Steinbeck and Capa were fascinated with the ruins. Over the course of their Russian journey, Capa’s photos ranged from human stories to peaceful landscapes. During their visit to Stalingrad, his focus shifted to the destruction and debris of war.

After nearly 20 years of frontline combat photography, it must have been strange for him to photograph the site of a battle where the overgrown weeds and civilian population contradicted the destruction that had once enveloped the scene.

And as many cities do, after the war had blown past, life soon migrated back into the city.

“Mill Gerhart” after the war.Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #2227 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0
“Mill Gerhart” after the war.Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #2227 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Steinbeck wrote of their shock as they gazed into the crumbling city of bricks with nothing left standing. In amongst the destruction, they saw movement. Some of the residents of Stalingrad had evidently returned to their houses, only to find that there was nothing left. Instead, they took to living in their basements and under sheets of corrugated iron.

“From behind a slightly larger pile of rubble would suddenly appear a girl, going to work in the morning, putting the last little touches to her hair with a comb.”

Stalingrad after the battle
Stalingrad after the battle

These scenes which Steinbeck described as he watched from their bedroom are somewhat heartbreaking yet enthralling; they speak of the persistence of the human spirit to continue as normal. He details the countless times he would watch housewives exit these holes in the ground, headscarf tied around their heads, heading off to market with a basket in their hands.

And there was a young girl who lived alone in one of these holes. A feral child that knew only how to live in a post-apocalyptic world. Her eyes darted around as she clutched melon rinds and potato peels to her breast, chewing on them and snarling at nobody.

“The ruins of Stalingrad”. “Red October” factory after bombing.Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #2383 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0
“The ruins of Stalingrad”. “Red October” factory after bombing.Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #2383 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0

“Somewhere in the terror of the fighting in the city, something had snapped, and she had retired to some comfort of forgetfulness.”

After a day or two, Colonel Denchenko arrived in a white tunic to give the two Americans a battlefield tour. Colonel Denchenko was a 50-year-old man with a bald head who spoke proudly of the battle that cost so many lives on both sides and saw the destruction of one of Russia’s most famous cities.

Destroyed residential block in Stalingrad after the war.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0498 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Destroyed residential block in Stalingrad after the war.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0498 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

He pointed out to Steinbeck and Capa features of interest which formed a tour that would be any modern military enthusiast’s idea of heaven. The writer and photographer followed the Colonel’s outstretched arm as he showed them from where the 21st Army had held on and where the 62nd Army had supported them.

Following the Colonel’s arcs of battle lines, they became aware of tanks and artillery lined on the hillside next to the city. It turned out to be a Moscow film crew making a documentary of the battle, ten years after the Russian victory.

Everyday life in some part of Stalingrad.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0825 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Everyday life in some part of Stalingrad.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0825 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Capa was excited to photograph the re-enactment in action and was told to return that evening to capture it. Unfortunately, they missed it. Steinbeck described the eery sounds of the artillery fire amongst the ruins of the city.

After a visit to a factory that used scrap metal from the battle debris to make tractors, the two Americans visited the offices of the architect in charge of rebuilding the city. They witnessed an ongoing argument of where the new city should be built.

Destroyed tank on the streets in Stalingrad.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0825 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Destroyed tank on the streets in Stalingrad.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0825 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

One side argued that there was too much rubble and destruction to rebuild on the same spot and so the new city must be moved up or down the river Volga. The others contested that, while the city was destroyed, much of the sewerage and electricity systems were still intact which would make it more costly to move than to stay.

Steinbeck described how there were five architectural plans for the city, each of which had in common the desire to construct “gigantic monuments.”

And the symbols and tokens were not uniquely Russian. Steinbeck and Capa witnessed representatives of the rest of the world arriving bearing gifts of old parchments, medieval shields, and ceremonial swords before signing a book addressed to the people of Stalingrad with phrases like “heroes of the world.”

First edition (publ. Viking Press)
First edition (publ. Viking Press)

A lasting impression was made on the writer and photographer as they left Stalingrad for the next stage in their Russian journey. A city brought to the ground by the savagery of war, already had a population looking to continue their lives and leave conflict behind.

Read another story from us: These War Photographers Risked Their Lives To Document The Horrors Of War

Meanwhile, the world deemed it more necessary to shroud the city in rhetoric and museum pieces than to give a helping hand to a struggling population.

“The world had pinned a fake medal on Stalingrad when what it needed was half a dozen bulldozers.”