The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph

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The two men started up the Kamchatka Peninsula on September 4 by horse, native boat, and, as the fine fall weather turned into Siberian winter, by dog sledge. Abaza had added James Dodd, an American fur trader living in Petropavlovsk, to the party because of his ability to speak Russian. Their destination was Gizhiga, at the head of the Sea of Okhotsk. Situated near the midpoint of the planned Siberian telegraph route, Gizhiga was chosen as operational headquarters. Despite promises from St. Petersburg and Washington nobody in this remote corner of the czarist empire had received word about the telegraph project. This was not surprising, since the local Russian governor at Gizhiga hadn’t had mail from St. Petersburg in eleven months. Few foreigners, or even Russians, had visited this wilderness, except in whaling ships and trading vessels that called occasionally in summer around the Sea of Okhotsk. Inland the natives existed by fishing and tending reindeer herds. The concept of a telegraph was far beyond their comprehension.

 
 

Arriving in the Kamchatkan settlement of Milkova, Kennan and his companions were amazed to find themselves treated by the natives with so much deference as to be embarrassing. The halter of Kennan’s horse was seized by an “excited native” while three others “with reverently bared heads fell in on each side, and I was led away in triumph to some unknown destination!” His companions were greeted similarly, and as Kennan wrote, “The inexpressible absurdity of our appearance … reminded me faintly of a Roman triumph. …” He continued:

The excitement increased rather than diminished as we entered the village. Our motley escort gesticulated, ran to and fro, and shouted unintelligible orders in the most frantic manner; heads appeared and disappeared with startling kaleidoscopic abruptness at the windows of the houses, and three hundred dogs contributed to the general confusion by breaking out into an infernal canine peace jubilee which fairly made the air quiver with sound. …

Kennan and his party were ushered into a large one-story log house to meet the starosta , or chief of the village, who appeared “bowing with the impressive persistency of a Chinese mandarin.”

It appears that the courier who had been sent from Petropavlovski to apprise the natives throughout the peninsula of our coming, had carried a letter from the Russian Governor giving the names and occupations of the members of our party, and that mine had been put down as “Yagor Kennan, Telegraphist and Operator .” It so happened that the Starosta of Milkova possessed the rare accomplishment of knowing how to read Russian writing, and the letter had been handed over to him to be communicated to the inhabitants of the village. He had puzzled over the unknown word “telegraphist” until his mind was in a hopeless state of bewilderment, but had not been able to give even the wildest conjecture as to its probable meaning. “ Operator ,” however, had a more familiar sound; it was not spelled exactly in the way to which he had been accustomed, but it was evidently intended for “Imperator,” the Emperor!—and with his heart throbbing with the excitement of this startling discovery and his hair standing on end from the arduous nature of his exegetical labors, he rushed furiously out to spread the news that the Czar of all the Russias was on a visit to Kamtchatka and would pass through Milkova in the course of three days! The excitement which this alarming announcement created can better be imagined than described. The all-absorbing topic of conversation was, how could Milkova best show its loyalty and admiration for the Head of the Imperial Family, the Right Arm of the Holy Greek Church, and the Mighty Monarch of seventy millions of devoted souls? …

The Major [Abaza] explained to the Starosta our real rank and occupation, but it did not seem to make any difference whatever in the cordial hospitality of our reception. We were treated to the very best which the village afforded, and stared at with a curiosity which showed that travellers through Milkova had hitherto been few and far between. …

Dark, brooding, bone-chilling Siberian winter had set in fully when the Abaza party first saw the red steeple of the Russian church at Gizhiga, after three months on the trail from Petropavlovsk. No word had been received from the American party that was to have been landed at the Anadyr River mouth. Abaza decided to send Kennan and Dodd by dog sledge to Anadyrsk, a native village situated 250 miles up the Anadyr from the ocean. Downstream from Anadyrsk no permanent habitation existed in the windswept, treeless steppes at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Wandering Chukchis with their herds of reindeer were the only human life in the huge desolate area.