An Explorer Discovers Russia
George Kennan was born in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1845 and at the age of twelve began working in the telegraph office of a railroad company near his home. When he was nineteen, he was offered an exciting job with the Russian American Telegraph Company and was given the task of surveying a route for a proposed telegraph line through Siberia and across the Bering Strait.
After two years of traveling across Russia, especially in distant places like Kamchatka where very few Americans had ever visited, he returned to the States and became well-known through his lectures, articles and a book, Tent Life in Siberia, in which he described the history and ethnographies of many native peoples who lived in this unknown land.
In 1870 he returned to Russia, a land that he had come to love, and this time traveled to the Caucasus region that had recently been annexed by the Russian tsar. He was one of the first Americans to travel to this region and meet with Muslim craftsmen and sheepherders. When he came back home, he shared stories of his travels in public lectures and became a popular, charismatic speaker. He was fascinated by the diversity of the Russian people and their vast, beautiful country and showed little interest in Russian politics at this point in his life.
In the 1870s and 1880s, very few English language translations of Russian authors were available to American readers. Kennan, having mastered the Russian language, decided to help fellow Americans overcome their ignorance of Russian literature. Ivan Turgenev was the first Russian author to be translated into English on a wide scale, although few of his works were available at this time. His powerful novel, Fathers and Sons, eventually was translated into English by Eugene Schuyler and Kennan attempted to translate a number of other Russian authors himself, but was unable to find a publisher for his translations.
Kennan’s “Radical Conversion”
Because of his love of Russia and his desire to educate Americans about this largely unknown land, Kennan became well-known by Russian officials and was given special treatment as a guest in their country. He was supportive of the Romanov tsars and believed the Russian Empire was a “civilizing presence” as it expanded across the vast Eurasian territory. He was convinced that the native peoples of Siberia, for example, would benefit from their inclusion in the Russian Empire. He engaged in arguments with critics of Russia who increasingly highlighted its repressive government and exile system, but Kennan insisted that the “evil revolutionaries” who opposed the tsar needed to be repressed. In his mind, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 proved his point. Kennan defended all things Russian.
All of this dramatically changed as a result of Kennan’s fifteen-month investigation of the Siberian exile system. The debate he carried on with critics of Russia’s exile system had piqued his interest and he decided to travel there to examine this system firsthand. His trip began in May 1885 and included a ten-month-long examination of thirty Russian prison camps in Siberia and personal interviews of over 100 exiles who were eager to tell their stories, and ended with meetings in London with notable Russian revolutionary émigrés. Kennan came to understand the enormity of the Russian exile system and its brutal treatment of both convicted criminals and people who were judged by Russian officials to be “politically untrustworthy” – a judgment made without benefit of a trial. From 1823 to 1887, a total of 772,929 exiles were sent to Siberia, including women and children. What impacted Kennan the most was the suffering of the political exiles, who he originally viewed as troublemakers, but later came to respect. In his opinion, many of these political exiles were “well bred, cultivated, reasonable, loveable human beings . . . yet a human being whom the Russian Government regards as so dangerous that it has banished him to this remotest part of Asia.” He was also amazed that many of the political exiles were “well-versed in American subjects” and discovered many Western books in their prison huts.
What further inspired Kennan was the cheerful acceptance of their tragic exiles expressed by many political prisoners. One female political prisoner said to him, “Yes, Mr. Kennan, we may die in exile, and our grand-children may die in exile, but something will come of it at last.” After listening to them and seeing the brutal living conditions in the camps, Kennan swore to publicize their suffering for the sake of freedom in Russia. As Kennan’s biographer notes, “His complete conversion to the side of the Russian political opposition would make him the most implacable non-Russian opponent of the Russian government in the English-speaking world, if not the entire world.”
Shaper of American Public Opinion
When Kennan returned to the States, he wrote a series of articles for Century magazine on “Siberia and the Exile System” that began in May 1888 and ran through the fall of 1891. In December 1891, his book of the same title was published. His articles were in the format of a chronological travelogue and, while he focused on the plight of the political exiles, he described the entire Siberian exile system in all its cruelty and the arbitrary use of power that supported the oppressive penal structures.
Between 1889 and 1898, before audiences that numbered approximately one million, Kennan delivered over eight hundred lectures. His platform presence was conversational and his talks were mesmerizing, aided by his common lecture apparel of a prisoner’s garb with chains around his ankles and latched to his waist. At one lecture before the Washington Literary Society, Mark Twain got so aroused that he rose to his feet and shouted out: “If dynamite is the only remedy for such conditions, then thank God for dynamite.” This response was a prophetic statement about the activities of the Russian opposition that increasingly decided it had no choice but to use violence against the autocratic Russian regime.
Some observers referred to Kennan’s book and lectures as “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Siberian Exile.” His writings came to symbolize non-Russian support for the revolutionary cause in Russia, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book had symbolized the abolitionist movement. Kennan, America’s most renowned expert on Russia, had a profound impact on American public opinion and convinced many that Russia, while a beautiful country, was oppressive, anachronistic, and deserved the opposition of the American government. The days of a harmonious relationship between the new American Republic and the Romanov dynasty were coming to an end.
For a biography of George Kennan, who is related to the later U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, George F. Kennan, see Frederick F. Travis’s George Kennan and the American-Russian Relationship, 1865 – 1924 (Ohio University Press, 1990).