Listening time: 3 minutes.

A curious shopping list of bizarre commemorative gifts presented by foreign governments after the war, to the people who survived Stalingrad.  And as Steinbeck noted, all they really needed was the tools to clear the rubble and rebuild.

A feeling of sadness came over us, for these were the offerings of the heads of governments, a copy of a medieval sword, a copy of an ancient shield, some parchment phrases, and many high-sounding sentiments, and when we were asked to write in the book we hadn’t anything to say. The book was full of words like “heroes of the world,” “defenders of civilization.” The writing and the presents were like the gigantic, muscular, ugly, and stupid statuary that is usually put up to celebrate a very simple thing. All we could think of were the iron faces of the open-hearth men in the tractor works, and the girls who came up from holes under the ground, fixing their hair, and of the little boy who every evening went to visit his father in the common grave. And these were not silly, allegorical figures. They were the little people who had been attacked and who had defended themselves successfully.


The medieval sword and the golden shield were a little absurd in the poverty of their imagination. The world had pinned a fake medal on Stalingrad when what it needed was half a dozen bulldozers.

Perhaps we’re getting better at providing relevant gifts to people who have been attacked and are defending themselves successfully; but it’s never enough.

Source: John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999 (1948)), pp. 128-29

Image credit: OpenClipart-Vectors at pixabay

WritingRedux Podcast

Quotation - Steinbeck - Russian Journal

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