Travels without Charlie: Theofanis Stavrou on John Steinbeck and the Soviet Union in the ‘60’s

John Steinbeck during his 1963 Visit to the USSR

By August Hagemann

On Friday, March 8th, Miami University’s Havighurst Center hosted Dr. Theofanis Stavrou of the University of Minnesota. Rather than a purely academic lecture, Stavrou sought to situate his personal experience with John Steinbeck, especially Steinbeck’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1963, within the larger context of the 1960s, and of the role of culture in helping to maintain the relationship between the USSR and the West.

As he explained, Dr. Stavrou’s first experience with Steinbeck occurred shortly after he first came to America. Harboring an initial dream of becoming an actor, Stavrou wanted to improve his English as much as possible. With that goal in mind, a friend recommended that Stavrou read John Steinbeck. This recommendation quickly became a life-long love; Stavrou read every one of John Steinbeck’s published works, and would copy out phrases, sentences, and even whole paragraphs. Steinbeck’s popularity wasn’t limited to Dr.
Stavrou either — his fame was global, and it was for this reason that John F. Kennedy asked the writer, along with then-up-and-coming playwright Edward Albee, to travel to the Soviet Union as part of the cultural exchange program in 1963.

At this time, Stavrou was completing post-doctoral work at Leningrad State University. Since he would already be in the city, and was familiar with Steinbeck as well as American culture as a whole, Dr. Stavrou was asked to be a sort of guide and host to Steinbeck and Albee during the Leningrad portion of their trip. Steinbeck had been in the Soviet Union twice before, in 1947, and 1937, but knew little of the language. In 1947, Steinbeck had been accompanied by photographer Robert Capa, resulting in a collaborative work between the two, A Russian Journal . This was some of the first photo-reportage of
the USSR, which provided an authentic glimpse into the Soviet Union as had never been possible before. Steinbeck himself wrote that this project revealed “as we suspected, that the Russian people are people”. Steinbeck’s visit in the 60’s was to be a similar sort of cultural mission. Though no further writing about the Soviet Union would come from it, the visit, as part of the cultural exchange program, was explicitly conceived to promote better relations between the United States and the USSR. Dr. Stavrou noted that this program, of all the relationship-building initiatives from both sides of the Cold War throughout the 20th century, was the only one that was never interrupted for any reason. Launched after Stalin’s death, it made official and professionalized the private cultural visits that had been taking place quietly since almost the beginning of the Soviet Union, with an impact that still has not been assessed today. For instance, many of Gorbachev’s advisors were alumni of other the cultural or academic exchange programs; the influence this may have had on them and on the context of their political work, Dr. Stavrou said, is still insufficiently studied. With a firm belief that “good literature is the most direct path to culture”, and that Steinbeck certainly qualified as someone who produced good literature, this visit was primed to do quite a bit to help bring the two superpowers closer together.

However, the event itself is not the only consideration — Dr. Stavrou also argued that the
context of the 1960s in the Soviet Union is absolutely crucial in understanding why this visit, of Steinbeck’s three visits or the many other Western intellectuals and cultural figures who visited the Soviet Union, was particularly significant. Dr. Stavrou characterized this time period as a “period of euphoria,” one that witnessed “a revolution of feelings.” It was the height of the Cold War, and yet also a high water mark of peace initiatives and openness to the West. The jokes of this time were largely about the kinds of jokes people were allowed to make in the ‘30’s. Stavrou recalls how among his classmates,
American literature was constantly a hot topic. Far more American literature was read in the dormitories of Leningrad State University than literature from any other nation, and the American Embassy even began a program through which Stavrou and his fellow American students could get American books for free, provided that the left them in the Soviet Union when they were finished with them. For Steinbeck’s visit, countless copies of Grapes of Wrath were sold throughout the USSR (for which Steinbeck did not receive a single cent in royalties, much to his chagrin), and a theatrical adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down (from which Steinbeck also received no royalties) was staged across Russia. It was in in this context that John Steinbeck and Edward Albee traveled around the Soviet Union, speaking with as many people as they could, including Dr. Stavrou and his fellow students in a small university dorm room.

Dr. Stavrou vividly recalled one particular question asked by a fellow student: “Do you [John Steinbeck] see any important differences since the last time you visited the USSR?” On his 1947 visit, Steinbeck had talked of all the new construction projects and infrastructural advancements he noticed. This time, however, he looked around the room, and said he sensed “a spirit of restiveness in the Russian land”. According to Stavrou, the two students who were translating for Steinbeck were unable to render this sentence in Russian. For two weeks after Steinbeck’s visit, Stavrou was visited by students who had been in that dorm room, asking to borrow Stavrou’s dictionary to figure out what “restiveness” means.

Dr. Stavrou felt that this visit held important implications not only for US-USSR relations in the ‘60’s, but also for US-Russian relations today. In a time when there is more fear between the two nations than there has been since the Cold War, Dr. Stavrou said that the most important and meaningful way to improve relations and move forward will be to continuing trying to understand one another, to continue with cultural exchange and cultural discussion. Whether with or without Charlie, it’s travel that’s key to keeping the peace.

August Hagemann is a junior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

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