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A Year In Hell
An American journalist, George Kennan, was the first to reveal the full horrors of Siberian exile and the brutal, studied inhumanity of czarist “justice”
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
Nor did Russia escape the repercussions of Kennan’s work. For the czarist regime, the wrath of its former admirer must have come as a blow. Not only did it fear—and with good reason—the effects of his exposures on its relations with the United States (as well as world opinion in general), but it was also alarmed by the influx of illegal translations of Kennan’s work. For the radicals of the 1890’s, Siberia and the Exile System was an inspiring document. Just as a revolutionary movement needs a doctrinal creed that it can worship with a religious fervor, so it also needs a set of heroes whose examples of courage and selflessness its members can strive to emulate. This is exactly what Kennan supplied in the persons of the political exiles whom he so admired. Though Kennan manifested throughout his later life a lack of sympathy for the Marxists, even they were greatly affected by his work. Mikhail Kalinin, an old-line Bolshevik who served as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet under Stalin, once told Kennan’s distant relative, the distinguished diplomat and historian George Frost Kennan,∗ that Siberia and the Exile System had been a kind of “Bible” to his generation of revolutionaries. Bible it may well have been, but at the same time it was an excellent, if quite unintentional handbook of police terrorism, the fundamentals of which were, unfortunately, not forgotten by some of its readers.
For the remainder of his life, Kennan devoted his vast energies to the cause of Russian freedom: democracy would come one day, and soon, he was certain. During the Russo-Japanese War (which he viewed from the Japanese side, being now persona non grata in Russia), Kennan openly attempted to organize revolutionary cells among prisoners of war interned in Japan, and claimed—perhaps over-optimistically—to have converted 52,500 Russian soldiers into “revolutionists.” Certainly such activity, well-financed by groups in the United States, contributed little to Russian-American solidarity.
When the czarist regime was at last overthrown in 1917, Kennan rejoiced, and enthusiastically supported the Provisional government of Kerensky. But the bright promise of democracy in Russia lasted no more than a moment and, with the Bolshevik seizure of power, vanished altogether. To the old man—Kennan was now seventy-two, and had but seven more years to live—nothing could have been more disillusioning; the Russian people, after all their long, hard struggle upward into the light, had merely traded one form of tyranny for another. Had he been mistaken all along? Had the idealistic words of that earlier generation of revolutionaries deceived him? Perhaps, after all, a democratic system of government was, for Russia, an impossibility—perhaps the habit of rule by oppression was simply too deeply ingrained.
Reflecting on the bitter irony of Russia’s fate, Kennan may have thought back sadly to a brief but especially memorable incident of his great Siberian adventure. One day, while passing through a remote village on the border of Outer Mongolia, he was introduced to a frail and broken woman, much of whose adult life had been spent in the penal colony of Kara. Yet for all the misfortune of her past, and the utter desolation of her future, she did not complain. As he was about to take leave, she approached him and said quietly, “Mr. Kennan, we may die in exile, and our children may die in exile, and our children’s children may die in exile—
“But,” she added, with a flush of conviction, “something will come of it at last.”
∗ In 1958, George F. Kennan edited an abridged edition of Siberia and the Exile System , published by the University of Chicago Press.