Listening time: under 5 minutes.  From Steinbeck’s masterful and lively account of travelling in the Soviet Union with Robert Capa. Chmarsky is their hapless interpreter who is pursued by a Kremlin gremlin, messing up many of his carefully orchestrated arrangements.  He refuses to believe in such a superstition as gremlins, though repeatedly confronted with his own subjection to one.

He has a prickly relationship with his two free-spirited foreign guests, which occasionally tumbles into ridiculous shouting matches about Communism and relativism. Their relationship with their female interpreter, Svetlana, was happier and warmer, and they even referred to her as Sweet Lana, as compared to their below-the-belt nickname for ‘Chmarsky the Chmarxist’.

This quote also delighted me for its relief at the arrival of a resourceful Greek in a moment of desperation, and for Steinbeck’s outrageous extrapolation that Greeks were the antithesis of, and bulwark against, the spread of Communism. In our age of careful non-prejudice you can’t easily get away with such sweeping generalizations, let alone of such exuberant certitude.

Photo credit: Kurious at pixabay

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Quotation: John Steinbeck - A Russian Journal


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‘And Chmarsky’s gremlin followed him to the end. The telegrams he had sent for a car to meet us had been misread and there was no car. It would be a matter of two hours’ waiting for a car to come for us. But a Greek showed up. In times of stress a Greek always shows up, anywhere in the world. This Greek could make an arrangement for a car, and he did, for a very high price, and we drove in to the Savoy Hotel.

We spoke of how the leaders of a communist or socialist regime must get very tired of the long-living quality of capitalism. Just when you have stamped it out in one place, it comes to life in another. It is like those sandworms which if cut in two go on living, each a separate individual. In Moscow the little clots and colonies of capitalism squirm to life everywhere: the black-market people, the chauffeurs who rent their employers’ cars, and the inevitable Greek who shows up with something to rent or sell. Wherever there is a Greek, there is going to be capitalism. Three hundred roubles it cost us to get into Moscow. Our Greek had a fine sense of how much the traffic could stand. I have no doubt that he made a quick estimate of our weariness, our irritation, and our finances, and he set an inexorable price of three hundred roubles, and we paid it.’


Source: John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, with photographs by Robert Capa (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999 (1948)), pp. 136-37


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