I love the heck out of some history, especially firsthand historical accounts. A YouTube channel devoted to giving these voices from the past a place on the internet did a two-part series on two Soviet journalists driving from New York to LA and back again.
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Voices of the Past is one of my favorite YouTube channels. It highlights really fascinating points of view throughout history. I love learning about, say, what China thought of the Roman Empire, or a day in the life of a mediocre Samurai. But my absolute favorite is his reading of excerpts from Ilf and Petrov’s U.S. Road Trip.
Horrified Soviet Tourist Describes California and Hollywood (1936) // Ilf and Petrov’s US Road Trip
Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov were two brilliant satirical writers in the Soviet Union, and it certainly shows in their often funny, often pointed prose. The two embarked on a 10-week, 10,000 mile trip from New York to LA to New Orleans and back up to the Big Apple in the company of an American couple, the Adams.
The two Soviets took copious amounts of photos that would be published in the USSR version of Time magazine, Ogoniok. The Russian paper Pravda published the two humorists’ observations in a five-part series. The images and stories from the road trip would later be published in a book which translate to One-Story America
Throughout their travels through Great Depression America via Ford station wagon, they couldn’t get over how abject poverty and incredible wealth live side by side. They’re rightfully horrified by the treatment of Black Americans, especially in the south, and indigenous people in the west. They note Americans can say anything they like, so long as they go to church (actually believing in God is optional) and don’t profess an interest in Communism. Still they come across workers in unions that cheer their Soviet hearts.
A lot of their criticisms might as well be from the pages of a current cultural commentator:
“America is a land that loves explicitness in all its affairs and ideals. It is better to be rich, than to be poor. So instead of wasting time on thinking of the causes of poverty and eliminating them, the American tries in every possible way to acquire a million dollars,” they wrote.
The two are amazed by the Grand Canyon, and fall in love with San Francisco, though they find Hollywood incredibly boring and downright unsettling, noting the crowds of beautiful young women with eyes sharpened by similar disappointment. They also talk about how Hollywood produces hundreds of films a year, almost all of them crap. Again, it’s creepy how much 1936 American doesn’t seem all that removed from 2023 American.
In the end (and perhaps, quite predictably in Stalin’s USSR) the two find American culture has been wrapped into a vapid, one-dimensional worship of money and wealth which makes them miss their socialist homeland. Still, their commentary is more loving lampoon than serious critique and, published a year before Stalin’s purges began, it’s amazing their account survived at all. You can still buy the entire translated book today. It’s a fascinating take on the U.S. via that most American past time, the road trip, from two men who couldn’t be more foreign.