A Russian Journal
Words: Ashley Watson & John Steinbeck
Photographs: Robert Capa
This summer, I hope to be on the road for two months. Riding as far East as Ukraine before heading South to explore the Balkans. As you’d expect, my plans started life as a tangle of ideas pulling in all directions. At the beginning of the year, I was given a book. Having turned a few pages I came upon a passage; within the paragraphs that followed my flickering thoughts were wired into a cohesive train. A light went on.
‘A Russian Journal’ has nothing to do with motorcycles and everything to do with motorcycle travel. I hope you don’t mind the bend in the rules - it’s a discovery I had to share.
In 1947 when the powers that be were throwing their weight, acclaimed Magnum photographer Robert Capa and author John Steinbeck, set out to explore the Soviet Union and report truth beyond the ‘Iron Curtain’. What struck me was a manifesto that Steinbeck & Capa set out early on, defining their approach to travel. There’s no substitute for the real thing. John, over to you.
“In the papers every day there were thousands of words about Russia. What Stalin was thinking about, the plans of the Russian General Staff, the disposition of troops, experiments with atomic weapons and guided missiles, all of this by people who had not been there, and whose sources were not above reproach. And it occurred to us that there were some things that nobody wrote about Russia, and they were the things that interested us most of all. What do the people wear there? What do they serve at dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? How do they make love, and how do they die? What do they talk about? Do they dance, and sing, and play? Do the children go to school? It seemed to us that it might be a good thing to find out these things, to photograph them, and to write about them. Russian politics are important, just as ours are, but there must be a great other side there, just as there is here. There must be a private life of the Russian people, and that we could not read about because no one wrote about it, and no one photographed it.”
"And it occurred to us that there were some things that nobody wrote about Russia, and they were the things that interested us most of all."
“And so we decided to try it – to do a simple reporting job backed up with photographs. We would work together. We would avoid politics and the larger issues. We would stay away from the Kremlin, from military men and from military plans. We wanted to get to the Russians people if we could.”
“Together we decided on several things: We should not go in with chips on our shoulders and we should try to be neither critical nor favourable. We would try to do honest reporting, to set down what we saw and heard without editorial comment, without drawing conclusions about things we didn’t know sufficiently, and without becoming angry at the delays of bureaucracy. We knew there would be many things we couldn’t understand, many things we wouldn’t like, many things that would make us uncomfortable. This is always true of a foreign country. But we determined that if there should be criticism, it would be criticism of the things after seeing it, not before.”
The frustrations described in these opening passages echo today. The antidote, to share knowledge learnt through first-hand experience, rings as true today as when it was written seventy-one years ago. In the account that follows, Steinbeck and Capa follow through on their objective - simple observation in pictures and words without agenda or ego. Reportage in its truest, most refreshing form. Need there be more?
To add too much would be to go against Steinbeck & Capa’s example. All that's left is to say that for those who have a passion for travel without barrier or limitation, I think that you will find space within these pages. This book has nothing to do with motorcycles, but everything to do with motorcycle travel. I hope you don’t mind the bend in the rules.
'A Russian Journal' is available to buy here.