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KYIV WOMEN — NOT MUSCOVITES: how John Steinbeck got to know the real Ukraine

KYIV WOMEN — NOT MUSCOVITES: how John Steinbeck got to know the real Ukraine
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Robert Capa. Viewers watching a circus show, Kyiv, 1947 / Artwork: via Photoshop


Steinbeck is an undisputed classic of American literature. He gained this status mainly through his novels «The Grapes of Wrath», «East of Eden», and «The Winter of Our Discontent». He is a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner and has been nominated for an Oscar three times. But our story is about a very different book. «Russian journal» was practically ignored in the United States and in the USSR and was allowed for publication only in 1990. But today, it is very valuable for us because it contains a unique description of Ukrainian life in the post-war years.




Steinbeck first visited the Soviet Union in 1937, at the peak of Stalin’s repressions. In 1939, his novel «The Grapes of Wrath» was published.

«People come with nets to fish potatoes out of the river, but the guards chase them away… And they stand in a daze and look at the potatoes floating by, hearing the squeal of pigs being cut and covered with lime in the ditches…»

These scenes of the Great Depression seem as if they were written off from the Ukrainian Holodomor. Soviet propaganda replicated «The Grapes of Wrath» as an expose of the horrors of capitalism. But the real reason for Steinbeck’s popularity in the USSR was something else.

In his story of poor Oklahoma farmers, American camps, police lawlessness, hunger, and hopeless life, the Soviet man recognized the reality that he had come face to face with. Steinbeck found himself in the USSR for the second time in 1947. The first thing he was shown was the capital, Moscow, and then — provincial Kyiv. However, the comparison of them was not in favor of the «golden-headed».

«Although Kyiv is very ruined, and Moscow is not, Kyiv residents are still not as deadly tired as Muscovites. They don’t slouch while walking, their shoulders are straightened, and they laugh in the streets. Maybe it is peculiar to these places because Ukrainians are different from Russians — they are a separate branch of Slavs».

Steinbeck clearly captures the mental and cultural difference between Muscovites and Kyiv residents. He notes that Ukrainian is closer to South Slavic languages than to Russian.


Роберт Капа. Квартири, зруйновані під час Другої світової війни, Київ, 1947
Robert Capa. Apartments, destroyed during the Second World War, Kyiv, 1947 /




Ukrainian women are also different from Muscovites. They are very beautiful, and they are mostly blondes with lovely, feminine shapes. They are not like the first woman Steinbeck met on Soviet soil — a thick girl loader with stainless steel teeth whose «mouth looked like a part of a car».

It didn’t get any better: it turned out that Soviet girls didn’t go to nightclubs, didn’t paint their lips and nails, dressed conservatively, and didn’t flirt with guys. About his Moscow translator, Steinbeck caustically remarked: «…she had such high moral principles that we, in general, never considered ourselves immoral, on her background began to seem very obscene».

After Muscovites, Ukrainians caused Steinbeck undisguised delight: «I looked at the women who walked down the street. They moved like dancers and carried themselves easily and beautifully… They had charm, they swayed smoothly when walking, and they smiled. Although they were not better dressed than the Moscow women, it seemed to us that they knew how to wear clothes better».

In general, the Kyiv atmosphere, despite the devastation, was more comfortable than the one in Moscow. The writer likes the parks down to the Dnipro River, theater venues, pleasure boats, dancing, nightclubs, street bands, and sandy beaches where Kyiv residents sunbathe in colorful swimsuits… But most importantly, Steinbeck noted, «people here show incredible patience in communicating with each other».


Роберт Капа. Жінки та діти слухають концерт у парку, Київ, 1947
Robert Capa. Women and children listening to a concert in the park, Kyiv, 1947 /





Steinbeck was not interested in victorious Soviet statistics. Real life is much more interesting than ideological deadness. Therefore, Steinbeck and the photographer Robert Capa, who accompanied him, decided to trust only their eyes. But this is exactly what the Soviet leadership could not allow.

An artificially organized mass famine raged in Ukraine. In 1946, 2.5 million tons of grain were forcibly taken from Ukrainians. And by March of ’47, there were already 1 million less. Hospitals were overcrowded with people diagnosed with «dystrophy», there were cases of cannibalism.

The author of «The Grapes of Wrath» was permitted to travel to write the truth about the USSR. But no one was going to show him the truth. In the «progressive» writer, the regime felt some kind of trick. One of the MGD reports said: «The philosophy of his characters — to take life as it is and maximize the simple joys of it… Steinbeck’s books have a certain morbidity, a tendency to pathology».

The Soviet authorities did everything to ensure that Steinbeck saw only the approved version of reality from above from the windows of the Kyiv Intourist. The hospitality of Ukrainians was characterized by a Rabelaisian scale, and the future Nobel laureate loved «simple pleasures» — a good drink and a snack.

In «Intourist», his diet consisted of black caviar and vodka, Ukrainian sausages, steaks with Ukrainian herbs, Georgian wines, and small pickled and large fried fish. Steinbeck was cared for by a writer’s family — Alexander Korneichuk and Wanda Vasilevskaya, who had as many as 8 Stalin prizes for two.

In the famine-stricken Ukraine, they fed Steinbeck to the slaughter: eggplant caviar, Dnipro fish in tomato sauce, stuffed eggs, starka with fine flavor, robust broth, fried chicken, pie, and coffee with liquor under expensive Cuban cigars.


Роберт Капа. Дівчинка сидить на дерев'яному паркані в колгоспі, Україна
Robert Capa. A girl sitting on a village park in a collective farm, Ukraine /




Korneychuk organized his communication with the guest according to the following scenario: «I am speaking to you as vice-president of the World Peace Council… as secretary of the Writers’ Union… as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine… as a member of the Stalin Prize Committee…»

Finally, Steinbeck couldn’t stand it any longer and asked the interpreter, «Please ask Korneichuk, as vice-president of the World Peace Council and so on, how to get to the restroom?!» Despite the amount they had drunk, Steinbeck and Capa were incredulous at the stories of their Soviet drinking companions.

The idea of their trip was initially ambiguous, so it had been coordinated in advance with the CIA. Whether the Soviet secret services knew about it or not, from their point of view, even Steinbeck’s innocent interest in Ukrainian products looked suspicious. Therefore, acquaintance with the «real» people’s life did not contain even a hint of the horrors of the Holodomor.

The writer visited two collective farms. Both were named after Taras Shevchenko and in order not to get confused, Steinbeck called them «Shevchenko-1» and «Shevchenko-2». The writer was settled in the «ordinary» Ukrainian family. Neighbors immediately brought homemade products, among which they unexpectedly found champagne.

«Ukrainian borscht is so nourishing that you could fill up on it alone», Steinbeck wrote. — Scrambled eggs with ham, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, sliced onions, and hot flat rye flatbread with honey, fruit, sausages — all put on the table at once. The host poured vodka and pepper into glasses».

Steinbeck drank to the health of his family and the prosperity of the collective farm; in a return toast, he was offered a drink to Roosevelt.


Роберт Капа. Сім'ї колгоспників за трапезою у власному будинку, 1947
Robert Capa. A family of collective farm workers at a meal in their own house, 1947 /




The next time Steinbeck was received in Kyiv in the fall of 1963 was by writer Oles Honchar. To prevent the Americans from recruiting a Ukrainian colleague, a whole pack of «socialist realists in civilian clothes» followed them. However, something subtly changed… The icy breath of the Stalinist era was replaced by a thaw.

This time, instead of black caviar and Potemkin villages, Steinbeck was fed with spiritual food — Yaroslav the Wise, the frescoes of St. Sophia of Kyiv, and a performance based on Olha Kobylianska’s story «V nedilyu rano zillia kopala» (On Sunday Morning She Gathered Herbs). Not understanding Ukrainian, Steinbeck was so shocked by the play that he later purchased the story in a bookstore.

At the Shevchenko Museum, standing in front of the poet’s posthumous mask and listening to «My Testament», Steinbeck cried like a child.

«Whoever seeks the fruits of human activity that will live forever can find them in Shevchenko», he said. Through the Soviet «Potemkin villages», Steinbeck was able to see the main thing in Ukrainians: «The people we met were very hospitable, kind and generous, and we liked them very much. They were intelligent, energetic, cheerful people with a sense of humor. In the place of ruins, they were persistently building new houses, new factories, new machinery, and new life. And they kept repeating: “Come and visit us in a couple of years, and you will see what we will achieve».


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