Features » Literature


Road tripping across the ideological divide

What two Russians saw in the USA in 1935/36 and two Americans experienced in the Soviet Union in 1947 - historian Karl Schlögel reviews a perfect pair of travel journals.

The opening of McDonald's on Moscow's Pushkin Square in 1990 was a sensation. The Moscovites who were used to standing in line for an entire day to buy anything from cakes and school notebooks to vodka, cars or toilet paper, were quite happy to spend hours in an unmoving queue just to be there when the Soviet Union's first fast-food restaurant opened its doors to the public.

Consumerism, it seemed, had triumphed over communism. But it was not so much the taste of hamburgers and cola that drew in the people. It was something else they wanted to see: a service culture in which the guest was not treated as a pesky visitor or even enemy, but who had to be wooed as a customer. It suddenly became clear that a business would only flourish if customers got their money's worth. Things had to happen fast, and friendliness was included in the price.

The question in these late Soviet times was whether, under the rush of the crowds and the pressures of everyday Soviet life, the staff would be able to maintain the standards they proclaimed at the outset. By now fast-food chains are everywhere, Russian ones included, the queues have disappeared, and if people don't like something in one of them, they can go to the competition across the street. The days in which people's precious lives were wasted standing in line are over, and the economy of "time is money" is here to stay. This could, of course, only have been an issue in a world where coping with the most simple day-to-day routines was so infinitely laborious and energy sapping as in the Soviet Union.

photo by Ilf and Petrov

The fascination for the practical and rational organisation of a "normal day" forms the heart of a book which was published long before the end of the Soviet Union, and has just been published in German for the first time. [The book was republished in English as "Ifa and Petrov's Road Trip" in 2006  - read the first chapter here]. It is a report of a journey through America undertaken by two of Russia's most famous and popular writers, the satirists Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, on behalf of the newspaper "Pravda". The reportage was first published in newspapers and later as a book, in huge editions in 1973, the infamous year of the Great Terror.

In other words at the same moment that hundreds of thousands of people were disappearing without a trace, being thrown into prison or killed, a book came out that was nothing less than a secret glorification of America. Naturally the two authors are still Soviet patriots when they write that however interesting it is to observe America "we would not want to live there."

Ilf and Petrov who had sharpened their view of the world on Soviet reality – set down in fabulous satires of Soviet life such as "The Little Golden Calf" and "The Twelve Chairs" - are no less precise observers as they travel through the USA. They crossed the country by car from October 1935 to February 1936 from New York via Chicago to the West Coast and back, dipping into Mexico on the way. They wanted to move beyond their fixation with the America of the skyscraper, and investigate the "single-storey America" of the normal, average American. But in the end they were overwhelmed by the whole of America, from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which was being built at the time, to Hollywood, the Grand Canyon and Chicago. The lyricism with which they attempt to do justice to the Manhattan skyline, their silence at the edge of the Grand Canyon, their description of the colour spectrum of the Arizona and Nevada deserts – for all their criticism of the darker sides of the USA, more than anything else they were overwhelmed.

They write about the homeless and blacks, referred to as negroes, who are desperately searching for work, but the most beautiful and intense passages undoubtedly deal with something else: everyday life in America, or the American Way of Life. The North American continent is infinitely wide and huge, but with the construction of highways, and the accompanying infrastructure of gas stations, hotels and motels, the Americans have overcome it and created a dense, pulsating space. The Soviet authors were less fascinated by the unimaginably vast riches and luxury of a few individuals than by average prosperity – and this in spite of the Great Depression which was in evidence everywhere.

photo by Ilf and Petrov

They dedicate more pages to the description of the practical amenities of life than to social criticism (as was pointed out by a number of Soviet newspaper readers). Fridges, vacuum cleaners, air conditioning, the development of the canning industry, but above all the car, what they are describing is the American consumer universe which would eventually take over the world. But they are also interested in a way of working and living which was almost entirely free of the hierarchies, class barriers and rituals of authority that characterised Old Europe. They are deeply impressed by the practicality, the non-ideological pragmatism, yes, the openness and hospitality which they encountered everywhere they went – even at a press conference in the White House at the end of their trip.

Hospitality and comfort are the key terms of their America reportage. Ilf and Petrov were not exotic exceptions in their opinion; indeed they represent the general Soviet enthusiasm for America in the '20s and '30s in which "Bolshevik spirit and American practicality" (Stalin) would ideally converge. Engineers, technicians, artists, film and theatre people made the pilgrimage to the USA to learn from the New World. Ilf and Petrov were, however, not only interested in technical know-how, but in something they called the "democratism" of the Americans. This was astounding at a time in which the Soviet citizens were being imprisoned and killed in their thousands without any genuine suspicion as "agents" and "spies". Although they criticised the levelling effects of mass production and standardisation, the vulgarisation of taste, this seems more peripheral than anything else. And very much a product of old European intelligentia snobbery, whereas their Soviets contemporaries no doubt had very different worries.

The ideal companion to this America book is "A Russian Journal", which resulted from a journey undertaken by John Steinbeck  together with photographer Robert Capa in 1947. Steinbeck and Capa, Ilf and Petrov all inhabited the same world to an extent: the Great Depression, fascism, the Spanish Civil War, the New Deal and the emergent planned economy. Steinbeck and Capa travelled to the Soviet Union, which had been an ally in the fight against Hitler, but was already involved in the beginnings of the Cold War.

Steinbeck and Capa also came resolved to investigate and describe the everyday life of ordinary Soviet citizens, beyond Soviet propaganda and anti-propaganda. Their conclusion – utterly unspectacular – was that "the Russian people are not very different from any other people in this world." But again here, what makes this report so valuable are not the generalisations and conclusions, but the details recorded by the author of "Grapes of Wrath" and the photographer of the Spanish Civil War. The two complemented one another wonderfully, relying on irony and sarcasm when faced with the impertinences of Soviet officers, dreary banquets and uptight intelligentsia debates. The communist notion of writers as "engineers of the soul" was, of course, entirely foreign to them, abhorrent even.

It is a journey through a country which – unlike America – has been rewritten by war.  Kiev "was a beautiful city" but is now a ruined landscape. Stalingrad is a skeleton of its former self, the streets are impassable. The two Americans travel in overfilled aeroplanes and come across Studebakers and Lincolns from Lend & Lease schemes back home. Their "Russian Journal" takes them through a land of women: it was thanks to them reconstruction of their country was underway, the men having been killed in battle or left as invalids.

As the war reporters that they both were, they observe a worn-out and exhausted country a world away from normal everyday life, but they were amazed and deeply moved by the survival capacities and vitality of the people. Their "Russian Journal" has nothing of the enthusiastic reports of the "fellow travellers" of the '20s and '30s who mostly saw what they wanted to see – an alternative world to the much hated capitalism; but it is also by no means an attempted rebuttal of Soviet propaganda. They allow themselves to be enchanted by the will to survive and the hospitality of a "model worker" even though they know she is "putting on a show". They manage to retain the reporter's primary virtue: the ability to feel wonder and amazement.

The travel reports of Ilf and Petrov and Steinbeck and Capa have much in common: in their curiosity, in their efforts to be precise and fair, in their contacts to circles and milieus of similarly minded people – in America the Russians met Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, in Russia the Americans met Ilya Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov – and not least in the authors' ironic and sarcastic sensibilities which allowed them to investigate foreign worlds with sympathy and objectivity at once. Both reports are generously illustrated by photographers who use their cameras if not as weapons, then as sharp-seeing instruments. From a photographer such as Robert Capa, who created the iconic images of the Spanish Civil War, nothing less was to be expected, but that Ilf and Petrov produced photos which betray an understanding of Soviet Constructivism and approach Walker Evans in laconic realism, is nothing short of remarkable.

Of course the quality of the reproductions in both books allows no more than a faint suggestion of the photographic abilities of their authors. Both books take us back to a time when Soviet and American civilisations were both taking form. The 20th century was called both the American and the Soviet century. Now that it lies behind us, we can embark on a journey which is as insightful as it is charming.


This article was originally published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 28 January, 2012

Karl Schlögel, born 1948, received the 2009 Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding and teaches East European History at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder. He has won numerous awards for his essays and books. "Moskau Lesen" (reading Moscow) was published recently with Hanser Verlag.

Read our other features by Karl Schlögel: "The black marketeers of Bahnhof Zoo"
and "Rocking Remembrance"

Translation:lp - let's talk european