A Year In Hell

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… He had seated himself on a low wooden stool directly in front of me, had rested his elbows on his knees with his chin in his open hands, and was staring at me with a steady and at the same time expressionless gaze in which there seemed to be something unnatural and uncanny. At the first pause in the conversation he said to me abruptly, but in a strange, drawling, monotonous tone, “We—have—a—graveyard—of—our—own—here.—Would—you—like—to—see—it?”

With a start, Kennan realized that the man was insane.

Evidently, Kennan’s visits to the “free command” had not gone unnoticed by the authorities. The morning after Major Potulof’s return, he told the American quite frankly that he was taking a grave risk in communicating with the political exiles. Not long after, Captain Nikolin appeared and demanded to speak with the Major. Frost, who was drawing a crayon portrait of the Potulof children, chanced to overhear a fragment of their conversation. Nikolin, it seemed, insisted on a search of their baggage and an examination of Kennan’s papers. Potulof refused to accede to his demand. As Nikolin departed, he remarked menacingly that if the search was not made at Kara it could be made elsewhere. Kennan was understandably alarmed. He first burned a parcel of letters which the Kara exiles had entrusted to him—that at least might protect them from imprisonment. Then he erased or put into cipher any particularly incriminating names in his notebooks and prepared himself, as best he could, for a search. Fortunately, one never took place, and on the twelfth of November, Kennan and Frost left Kara forever. As they rode away, two “free command” political convicts in long gray coats recognized them, and when the Americans passed, removed their caps and solemnly bowed to the waist.

Kennan and Frost made their way back across Siberia as rapidly as the crude conveyances of the day would allow, sparing time only to visit an occasional prison or exile colony. It was a hard and nerve-racking journey. Not only did they suffer from continual exposure to sub-zero temperatures, but they lived in constant fear of search and arrest—for at all times Nikolin’s threat hung over them like the sword of Damocles. The strain of winter travel, eternal sleeplessness, and the fear of arrest had an especially adverse effect on Frost, who at times seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Once Kennan was startled out of a brief snatch of sleep when his friend crept up to him in the darkness and whispered into his ear, “They are going to murder us.” But somehow Frost held on to his sanity, and they pushed ahead; on the nineteenth of March, 1886, they returned to St. Petersburg, almost exactly ten months after the start of their hazardous journey. By some fortunate circumstance, there was no further police interference, and within days the two weary and nerve-shattered Americans were safely bound for the free soil of England.

The articles that George Kennan published in the Century and the book that grew out of them, Siberia and the Exile System, were devastating in their effect. Americans who automatically regarded their personal freedom as an inalienable right could only react to Kennan’s revelations of life in the czarist police state with horror and revulsion. That his beautifully written and highly emotional accounts revealed a talent that at times transcended mere journalism increased their impact. Uncritical and oversentimental they may frequently have been; but then, it was an oversentimental age that Kennan wrote for, and it responded predictably. “No one critic,” the historian Thomas A. Bailey has written, “did more to rip away the veil of fancy from Russian despotism … than George Kennan. No one person did more to cause the people of the United States to turn against their presumed benefactor of yesteryear.”

It was significant that Kennan’s writings reached the most influential segment of American society—lawyers, editors, preachers, and, most important of all, the leaders of government. He also spoke ceaselessly, and his lectures were inevitably moving, if not in fact sensational. Sometimes during an intermission he would retire behind the stage and then suddenly reappear, his legs shackled in fetters and clad in the gray Siberian convict’s uniform. But even without effects, Kennan’s words were stirring enough. Listening to one of his speeches, Mark Twain remarked, “If such a government cannot be overthrown otherwise than by dynamite, then, thank God for dynamite.”