How the USSR special services suspected and watched him as an American writer of a “collective farm spy”
A declassified document of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) on the Kiev stage of the journey of the American writer John Steinbeck around the USSR was published. Chekists suspected the future Nobel laureate of "collective farm espionage," writes Currently,.
The Soviet tour of John Steinbeck and Robert Capa in 1947 was probably the most significant visit of Western cultural figures in the entire history of the USSR. The American writer and photographer arrived on their own initiative. For two months they visited Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev with neighboring collective farms, Stalingrad and Georgia. Steinbeck perpetuated the trip in the Russian Diary book, and Capa's pictures became illustrations for her.
In the USSR, the Russian Diary was published only in the perestroika years. Soon, researchers got access to some of the documents of the host country. In particular, the memoirs, reports and diaries of employees of the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS) Alexei Poltoratsky and Ivan Khmarsky, who accompanied distinguished guests, were published. So the facts that before were just guesses were confirmed: Kapa and Steinbeck saw not so much the life of ordinary people as “Potemkin villages”. Therefore, in the "Russian Diary" you can find descriptions of luxurious feasts in cities and collective farms, but there is nothing about the hungry deaths of peasants and repression.
The entire trip of famous American guests was held under the vigilant control of the Ministry of State Security (with 1946, the former People's Commissar of the NKVD-NKGB became a ministry and was called that until 1953, later the state security body was renamed the KGB, - ed.) It could not be otherwise in the Soviet Union, especially at the very beginning of the Cold War. Thanks to the aforementioned Chmarsky, for example, we know that the driver, who was driving the guests across Georgia, was in fact a Chekist.
A previously unknown document about the stay of Steinbeck and Capa in Kiev and the Ukrainian collective farms was kept in the archives of the Security Service of Ukraine.
“A special message about the stay in Ukraine of the American writer Steinbeck” was signed by the Minister of State Security of the Ukrainian SSR Sergei Savchenko and addressed to the Chief of the Second Main Directorate of the USSR Ministry of State Security (Counterintelligence) Yevgeny Pitovranov. Photographer Robert Capa is not mentioned in the title. The seven-page document is dated 31-August 1947. Until recently, he had the "Top Secret".
"Provided with daily intelligence and outdoor surveillance"
The message begins with an overview of the places that Americans visited in nine days in Ukraine: the museum, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the Sofia Cathedral, a partisan exhibition, a bazaar, a bakery and two collective farms in the villages of the Kiev region. The cultural program included a trip to the theater and watching movies.
Steinbeck and Kapa visited the head of the Republican Union of Writers, playwright Alexander Korneychuk. In addition to the host and the Americans themselves, the dinner was attended by writers Vanda Vasilevskaya (Korneychuk's wife), Natan Rybak, Yury Smolich and Alexey Poltoratsky.
The fourth and fifth chapters of the Russian Diary are devoted to these places and events.
“During their stay in Kiev, Steinbeck and Kapa were provided with daily intelligence and outdoor surveillance, as well as _______,” reports the MGB.
What is behind this “also ______” is not clear. Such omissions, in which it was possible to enter the text by hand, are often found in documents of the special services. Apparently, this was done so that the typists did not hear what they were not supposed to know - later the officer who dictated them had entered the right words later. Usually, they hid the names of the party leaders who were scolded in anti-Soviet leaflets and graffiti. In the report on Steinbeck and Kapa, the omissions were never filled in, which is why there was one more secret in this story.
This is followed by short biographical notes about Americans. Steinbeck is literally devoted to a couple of lines, but in the past, Robert Kapa found some interesting nuances for the MGB. He allegedly claimed to be born in Transcarpathia. (Nowadays Budapest is usually mentioned as the birthplace of the photographer, although some sources claim that it was the town of Nagykaposh, now called Velké Kapusany, located in Slovakia, a few kilometers from the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine. Both cities at the time of Capa’s birth were in the composition of Austria-Hungary, - Ed.). Mentioned and stay photographer in Spain during the Civil War. But the fact that Robert Kapa is a pseudonym, but in reality his name is Endre Ernö Friedman, is not specified in the document.
Steinbeck in the message is described as a silent, closed-handed person - he does not ask anything, and answers questions with reluctance. Kapa, on the contrary, is extremely talkative and tries to “crawl through”, the KGB noted. At the same time, in the MGB, Steinbeck was still assigned the leading role in the tandem. The actions and statements of the "talkative" photojournalist are hardly mentioned.
Toast to Stalin
The MGB was almost certain: the writer only said that he had arrived in the USSR to look at the life of ordinary people and write about it, but in fact he was fulfilling the task of the American authorities and special services.
Steinbeck’s meeting with the US ambassador immediately after arriving in the USSR was considered one of the indisputable evidence of state security.
According to the Chekists, "US government circles" set a goal, "using Steinbeck's position as a writer and his political authority in the Soviet Union, to lead through him pro-American propaganda." With the help of Steinbeck, the United States intends to expose the USSR as the culprit of the aggravation of the international situation, they believed in the MGB.
But the writer himself explained that in the United States only a “small group of reactionaries” was truly anti-Soviet.
Steinbeck said these words in an interview with a staff member of the UACS, who concurrently turned out to be an agent of the Aleksandrovskaya MGB. In the same conversation, the writer called the USSR Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov harsh, and the Soviet ambassador to the US (and the future foreign minister) Andrei Gromyko - rude. But diplomats Ivan Maisky and Konstantin Umansky (already deceased) Steinbeck praised.
The American guest contrasted the moods of ordinary people and the authorities in the USSR: the people were peace-loving, the tip was aggressive.
In the USSR, since the pre-war times, Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath were well known. The work of the heavy share of American farmers during the Great Depression was presented as an illustration of the horrors of capitalism. Apparently, the Soviet side expected to hear something similar from a foreign guest - but he said that now farmers live in his country much better, and the state helps them.
Could not fail to attract the attention of the MGB and the words of the writer that America is obliged to help Europe, thus saving itself.
Steinbeck did not express sympathy for the well-known “progressive figures” in the West, as the Soviet Union called pro-Soviet foreigners: Elliott Roosevelt (the son of Franklin Roosevelt), John Priestley and the American Communists.
“During lunch at Korneichuk, writer Wanda Vasilevskaya offered a toast to Comrade ______, stressing that ______ and the people are one,” the document tells us. It is not difficult to understand whose name is missing - this, of course, is about Joseph Stalin. Steinbeck accepted the toast, but noted that he was drinking "and for the people."
We do not know who told the Chekists the contents of the table talk, but we can suspect at least two participants of that dinner at Korneychuk. First of all, this is Yuri Smolich - his Ukrainian researchers Oleg Mikitenko and Sergey Trymbach identify with the NKVD-MGB agent Strela, who wrote, among other things, denunciations against the director Alexander Dovzhenko. Secondly, it could have been Korneichuk himself, who is mentioned in another story with the Chekists. In 1948, he received a letter from the wife of the famous poet Vladimir Sausure Maria. A woman told him about her work at the MGB, asked for help and begged not to give her out. He did not listen and handed the letter to the special service. Maria Sosyura was sent to camps for divulging secrets.
Dynamo, Fields and Harvest
According to the MGB, Steinbeck played the role of not only a propagandist, but also a scout.
"At the same time, Steinbeck must, while in the Soviet Union, study the political mood of the people and, apparently, the agricultural potential of the USSR," the document says.
This fact was confirmed by the fact that Steinbeck was already the fourth American who came to the USSR in the post-war years and understood agricultural issues and was also interested in harvesting.
Steinbeck didn’t ask questions, as the security officers had already noted, but after returning from the first collective farm, he knew how many tractors, threshing machines, dynamos (current generators - Ed.) And wheat were in it.
The American’s desire after Kiev to go to the Volga region and to the Don with their fields, and not to the industrial Donbass looked suspicious for state security.
Robert Kapa, in contrast to his restrained companion, actively expressed his sympathy for the USSR. The MGB decided that his behavior was “obsessive and obviously hypocritical.”
The photographer actually knows Russian, but the MGB officers who watched him hide it: “Using the translator, Kapa answered questions sometimes before he could translate and clearly reacted to what was said before the translation.”
There is no evidence that the press reporter owned Russian, in open sources there. Here is what Steinbeck writes in The Russian Diary: “Kapa found himself in his element, for he speaks all languages except Russian. At the same time in every language he speaks with the accent of another language. So, in Spanish he speaks with a Hungarian accent, in French - with Spanish, in German - with French, and in English he speaks with an accent that cannot be identified. Kapa does not speak Russian, but in a month he learned a few words, which he also spoke with some accent - apparently, Uzbek. ”
The Soviet state security bodies didn’t like it when foreign guests took pictures of poor people, dilapidated buildings or queues at shops. It was believed that such "tendentious" pictures were made on the order of enemy intelligence services and would be used in anti-Soviet agitation. But of all the Ukrainian photos of Capa, only two seemed undesirable to the Soviet side. On one frame, the emaciated visitor of the museum was captured, on the second - a poorly dressed collective farm family pumping water. Some of the negatives before the departure of the guests were removed by the censors - but there were not many of them, the most important ones remained. Whether the captured images have been preserved is not known; no trace of them was found in the archives of the SBU.
The security officers did not find any interesting connections between two Americans and the residents of Ukraine. At the same time, they intercepted certain documents of “suspicious content”, which Kapa received in Kiev. The message says that copies of documents are attached, but they are not in the archive (at least in the same case).
After staying in Kiev, two Americans visited Stalingrad and Georgia (each time through Moscow). There is no doubt that they continued to be watched as closely until the moment when they left the country, departing from Kiev to Prague. What else learned about the famous guests of the MGB remains a mystery. Obviously, the main body of documents of the special services about the trip is kept in Moscow and is still not declassified.
Services for the CIA
How justified were the suspicions of the MGB? Did Steinbeck and Kapa really work for the special services of their country, or was their case one of the examples of “espionage” that escalated with the onset of the Cold War? There is no direct evidence of both the first and second versions.
American researcher Brian Kennard published a book in 2013, entitled “Steinbeck: A Citizen Spy”. The author is sure: the famous writer worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. As one of the arguments, he cites two 1952 documents of the year, which he received on request in the CIA archive.
The first is a letter from Steinbeck to the director of the special service, Walter Smith. He reports on preparations for a long (at least six months) working trip: first in the Mediterranean region, and then in different European countries. The writer notes that he would be happy to provide a useful service to Smith and his organization during his tour. As Steinbeck emphasizes, abroad he has to communicate a lot with various people. Obviously, a service means the collection of information. The letter suggests a friendly relationship between two people - the writer is pleased to learn that he has learned about improving the health status of the interlocutor.
The second document is Smith's answer. The head of the CIA wrote that he appreciates Steinbeck’s proposal. “You can really help us by opening your eyes and ears during any political events in those territories in which you will travel, and, in addition, on any other issues that seem important to you, especially those that may be overlooked in regular reports, ”he writes. Smith offers to meet in Washington before the writer's trip and to discuss cooperation in more detail. Anyone can see the original of the response letter on the CIA website, among other declassified documents of the Cold War.
There are no documents related to Steinbeck’s trip to the USSR in 1947 in the declassified array.
Kennard draws a parallel between that trip and the visit to the USSR, believing that it was from him that the collaboration of the writer and the CIA began. This hypothesis looks especially interesting if you know who the future head of the CIA, Walter Smith, worked for on 1947: he was the very US ambassador to Moscow, whom Steinbeck met after his arrival in the Soviet Union.
Back in USSR
After 16 years after that memorable journey, in the autumn of 1963, John Steinbeck, who had already received the Nobel Prize in Literature, returned to the USSR. Without Robert Capa, he died in Indochina in 1954. In Kiev, an American guest met with old acquaintances — Korneychuk and Poltoratsky. Judging by the recollections of eyewitnesses, the writer was no longer interested in the harvest on the collective farms. But the organization, which was now called the State Security Committee at the Council of Ministers of the USSR, just as last time, did not take its eyes off Steinbeck. A classic of Ukrainian literature, Oles Gonchar, later told: when an American came to visit him, the apartment was involuntarily “occupied” by “sex-souls” and “socialist realists in civilian clothes”. Unfortunately, that this time the Chekists reconnoitered it remains a mystery - references to that trip in the SBU archive could not be found.
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