In 1948, John Steinbeck and photographer Robert Capa published A Russian Journal, one of the earliest attempts to chronicle everyday Soviet life for an American audience. The book featured rhapsodic, lyrical descriptions of the Russian countryside; happy peasants toiling away on collective farms in Ukraine and the Caucasus; and measured depictions of the bleak realities facing government clerks, intellectuals, and factory workers in the cities. “One spends no moment except under the smiling, or pensive, or stern eye of Stalin,” Steinbeck wrote. “It is one of those things an American is incapable of understanding emotionally.”
Last summer, journalist Julius Strauss and photographer Thomas Dworzak retraced Steinbeck and Capa’s steps through Eastern Europe. In many ways, Russia looks very different today. But as the country has returned to some of the militaristic nationalist tendencies of the Soviet era, aspects of everyday life recall what Steinbeck and Capa saw 70 years ago. Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has erected new museums glorifying the Soviet past and staged elaborate military parades that hearken back to the days of the czars. Russian officials rant about the West’s effete worldview, its duplicity and aggression.
In a World War II memorial museum in Moscow, Dworzak and Strauss stumbled across this knockoff Lego set for sale in the gift shop. “The Battle for Berlin,” reads the packaging. It’s one of the ways Russian children are taught about the glory daysof the Soviet Union. “A new war is already underway,” Strauss says, “a struggle that pits Putin’s Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the revamped Red Army against those who believe in NATO, the European ideal, and Western liberal values.”