When Stalin’s Grapes Went Sour

In 1939, American author John Steinbeck published perhaps his most famous novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” The book saw near-immediate success, winning both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, and has endured the test of time — it is widely acknowledged as one of the most important books of the 20th century. And in 1940, it also became one of the most highlight-acclaimed movies of its time and an instant classic. It won two Academy Awards (Best Director and Best Supporting Actress) and was nominated for five others, including Outstanding Production (then the title for “Best Picture”). In 1989, the movie was among 25 honorees selected by the Library of Congress as initial entrants into the National Film Registry

But the book and, more importantly for our purposes, the movie, aren’t very happy ones. The story takes place during the Great Depression and centers on the Joads, a multi-generational family from Oklahoma (“Okies”) that has fallen on desperately tough times. The Joads pack everything into their car and travel west toward California, in hopes of finding good jobs and a better life. But disappointment and tragedy are all that is in their future. Both Joad grandparents die during the trip, and upon arrival at their promised land, the surviving members of the family find many people like them, all still living in poverty. There is simply not enough work for all the people who made the journey; dilapidated housing, dirt roads, and famished families are all one finds. And then it gets worse, but you get the idea. If all you know about America was the experience of the Joad family, you’d think the United States was a terrible place to be.

Which, for Josef Stalin, felt like an opportunity.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began as World War II ended, and anti-American and anti-capitalist propaganda became instantly common throughout the USSR. Similarly, Stalin’s regime censored almost all of the art created in the U.S., and that extended to movies. But censorship breeds mistrust — if your government won’t let you ever see what someone else is doing, that suggests the government is hiding the truth. But, as Cold War scholar Stephen J. Whitfield notes, “in 1948 The Grapes of Wrath was allowed to play in Soviet cinemas because of its propaganda value, which was presumably to heighten awareness of the desperate misery of the Okies under the most advanced system of capitalism on the planet.” It was a win-win — Stalin could use American cinema to simultaneously slur capitalism and stem objections to his other calls for censorship.

But it didn’t work. While the Soviet viewers definitely saw the misery of the Joad family and the others they came across during their journey, that wasn’t all they saw. Professor Whitfield continues: “Soviet audiences were apparently extracting the wrong lesson, since they could see for themselves that even the most dispossessed of America‚Äôs rural proletariat were shown driving automobiles.” The poor-as-dirt Joads had a car, something that the rank-and-file Soviet citizen could only dream of. 

Soviet leadership removed the film from the exhibition within a few weeks.

Bonus fact: The phrase “sour grapes” does not mean that someone literally has actual (but sour) grapes, but it also does not mean they have actual grapes figuratively, either. Per the Cambridge Dictionary, “if you describe someone’s behavior or opinion as sour grapes, you mean that that person is angry because they have not gotten or achieved something that they wanted.” The phrase comes from one of Aesop’s fables, titled “The Fox and the Grapes.” In the very short story (it’s probably shorter than this paragraph), a fox finds some grapes on a vine, but, jump as he might, can’t reach them. Instead of just leaving them be, he rationalizes his failure: “Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for.”

From the Archives: Grapes Balls of Fire: How to make a grape do something really cool in your microwave (but you absolutely positively should not try to do this at home).