A Year In Hell

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Like so many men who have spent a great part of their lives championing unsuccessful causes, the elder George Kennan is all but forgotten today. This relative oblivion is as ironic as it is undeserved, for in an important way, he was one of the most influential figures of his time. For all his visionary tendencies and his obsessive sense of mission, Kennan was essentially a journalist with a muckraking bent; but it was not the evils of an individual industry that he exposed, nor the corruption of a single city, but the deep-scaled sickness of an entire nation. That nation was czarist Russia, a brutal police state which had disguised itself to the world as a benevolent autocracy and had long been accepted as such, even by Kennan himself.

For America and Russia, the years following the Civil War were with minor exceptions a kind of golden age, a period of unabashed and scarcely blemished good-fellowship. Then, in the year 1888, Century Magazine began to publish a long and highly sensational series of articles by a newspaperman whose chief reputation lay in an account of two years spent in the Siberian Arctic. They were moving; they were exciting; they were utterly inflammatory. They told of an 8,8,000-mile journey across the remote steppes and mountain ranges of Russian Asia; of overcrowded and unspeakably filthy prisons; of fettered and ill-clad convicts marching unimaginable distances; and of men and women banished forever into the wastes of the Arctic for daring to advocate reform of a system under which one’s every move and expression of opinion was closely scrutinized by the authorities, and a political offender was likely to be punished as severely as a common murderer.

Their author was a slightly built but deceptively sturdy man, with a high forehead, rather prominent eyes, and a great, luxuriant handlebar mustache. His features were handsome and intense, though one could detect in them a hint of a somewhat retiring, if not oversensitive, nature. Born in 1845 in a small town in the Western Reserve region of Ohio, George Kennan came of poor parents and had no more than a grade school education (when asked in later life what college he had attended, he would reply simply, “Russia”). He began life as a telegrapher, and his skill in this work soon brought him to the notice of his employers in the Western Union Company. In 1865, he was among those chosen to participate in one of the most remarkable—if eventually unsuccessful—ventures of the nineteenth century.

After the first attempt to lay an Atlantic cable had failed, Western Union conceived a novel plan of carrying a telegraph line to Europe via Alaska and Siberia. From 1865 to 1867, in an epic undertaking nearly 6,000 miles of wilderness were explored from Vancouver Island on the Pacific coast of North America to the Amur River on the frontier of the Chinese empire. As a member of one of the working parties, the twenty-year-old Kennan was landed on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia and left to survey the course of the line through an utterly desolate and, in many places, unmapped region of wild mountains and gray, oceanlike expanses of tundra that were inhabited only by nomadic Koryaks and a handful of hardy Russian settlers. In spite of incredibly difficult conditions—temperatures in the winter sometimes dropped to sixty below zero—Kennan and his companions completed their arduous assignment, only to learn that a second Atlantic cable had been successfully put down, and the Russian-American telegraph venture discontinued. Returning to the United States by way of European Russia, Kennan and another American crossed Siberia in the middle of winter, eventually reaching the czarist capital of St. Petersburg, 5,000 miles away.

The result of his adventures was a book, Tent Life in Siberia, which, for all the patent immaturity of its author, is still a freshly written and engrossing account, one of the small classics of nineteenth-century travel literature. It sold moderately well, and its proceeds allowed Kennan to return to Russia, this time to the Caucasus, where he spent a year. In general, these first two trips had given him an extremely favorable impression of the czarist regime: naturally conservative himself, he admired it in principle (though much preferring democracy as a form of government) and was quite skeptical of the tales of police oppression and the barbarity of the Siberian exile system that reached the West. His convictions on these matters were firm and were grounded, so he thought, on reliable information; and he repeatedly defended his position, both in articles and public debate.