Last summer, writer, journalist and campaigner Julius Strauss together with leading international photographer Thomas Dworzak, undertook a journey in the footsteps of John Steinbeck and Robert Capa to mark the 70th anniversary of their famous book A Russian Journal published in 1938, and also the 70th anniversary of the Magnum photography agency. Following a similar route, they visited Moscow, Ukraine and Georgia. In an exclusive evening for Pushkin House, Julius will recount his impressions of the trip, accompanied by Thomas Dworzak's photographs.
In 1947, just as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, John Steinbeck, the American writer, and Robert Capa, renowned war photographer, made a six-week journey through Stalin's Russia.The following year they published A Russian Journal a book that painted a sympathetic portrait of ordinary Soviets and gently mocked the anti-Kremlin mood in the West. Seventy years on Julius Strauss, a former Moscow correspondent, and Thomas Dworzak, the president of Magnum Photos, retrace their footsteps. Their plan was to take the pulse of modern Russia and two of the most important Soviet successor states. At first, the world they fly into in a sleek new Aeroflot jet bares little resemblance to Stalin's USSR. Moscow is now an airy moneyed city teeming with smart young people booking Uber rides on iPhones and sporting hipster haircuts.
But soon Strauss and Dworzak realise that the parallels with the early Cold War are more poignant than they imagined. Russia is in the grips of a vigorous militarism and strident nationalism and is seeking to re-establish spheres of dominance abroad. Shiny new museums glorify the Soviet past with multi-media displays and smart military parades showcase reconstituted Tsarist-era regiments. Officials rail against what they see as the West's effete liberal values and its perfidy and aggression. Meanwhile Ukraine and Georgia are struggling to fight off Moscow's unwanted advances and steer their countries westwards.
Following in Steinbeck and Capa's footsteps, Strauss and Dworzak find themselves in a patchwork of new states, hopscotching across a jagged frontline where the writ of the Kremlin and the West meet. At a Black Sea villa they drink champagne with Vladimir Putin's ideologue, in Kiev they sip coffee with a slight Chechen lady called Amina who is a sniper in the new Ukrainian army. And everywhere they find people readying themselves for a new war even as they mourn the tragedies of the last one. And then, in a development that casts a whole new light on their mission, Strauss and Dworzak chance upon the USSR's state archives relating to Steinbeck and Capa's journey 70 years before. And the extent to which Stalin's apparatchiks had manipulated the visitors becomes vividly clear.
Even as the Americans were shown tables piled high with food in Ukraine, peasants were dying of hunger nearby. One of their favourite interlocutors, a wild Georgian former cavalry officer, was a KGB agent. And as Strauss and Dworzak move from Russia to the frontlines in Ukraine to the frozen conflicts of Georgia they realise that, just as Steinbeck and Capa were fed a line in 1947, so the glitzy and outwardly confident Moscow of today also hides darker truths. Only on one thing do both pro and anti-Russian officials in the region agree. A new war is already underway. It is 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.
Julius Strauss is a former British print journalist who spent several years working in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. From 2002, he was posted to Moscow as the Daily Telegraph's bureau chief, from where he covered Putin's Russia and various Chechen crises. In 2005, Strauss relocated to Canada where he spent six months working for The Globe and Mail, covering mostly Indian affairs on northern reserves. In 2007, he was appointed to the Atwood Chair in the journalism department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Since early 2006, he has been running Grizzly Bear Ranch in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia but still takes freelance commissions.