A Year In Hell

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Then, in March, 1881, an event occurred which was to prove momentous in Kennan’s life. Czar Alexander II, riding back to his palace from a military parade, was all but torn to pieces by a terrorist bomb. If this brutal assassination horrified Kennan, it also posed a disquieting question. Russia, it had always seemed to him, was a perfectly happy if somewhat backward country—certainly he had encountered little overt discontent in his travels. Why, then, had revolutionary elements there resorted to a highly organized campaign of violence against the existing regime? He resolved to find the answer. His scheme—an extremely ingenious one—was to seek out the revolutionaries themselves in the mines and prisons and penal colonies of Siberia. Approaching the editors of the Century Magazine with his idea, Kennan convinced them of its enormous possibilities, and in 1884, he was offered a commission to carry it out.

George Kennan arrived in St. Petersburg in the middle of May, 1885, accompanied by an old acquaintance of his first Siberian venture, the artist George A. Frost. As the Russian summer was short and the season already advanced, the two spent only a short time in the capital of the czars. There they managed to obtain an interview with the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, to whom they candidly explained the purpose of their journey. Kennan’s earnestness, reputation as an admirer of the government, and obvious sincerity of purpose were convincing, and shortly he was presented with an open letter to the governors of the Siberian provinces, signed by the Minister of the Interior, the arch-conservative and implacable enemy of reform, Count Dimitri Tolstoy. The man directly in charge of all police operations, a hated symbol of czarist oppression, Tolstoy had managed to survive terrorist attempts on his life by bomb, pistol, and poison dagger, it was small wonder then that his letter of recommendation was time and again to save Kennan and Frost from summary arrest, confiscation of their irreplaceable notes and sketches, and expulsion from the empire.

By rail and steamer, Kennan and Frost journeyed across Russia toward the Siberian frontier, roughly 1,600 miles distant from St. Petersburg. For the most part it was a pleasant and leisurely springtime idyl, and only once did they have a foretaste of grimmer things to come. In the city of Perm (now Molotov), close to the Ural Mountains, they had their first brush with the czarist police. While pausing there for a day’s rest, they happened to stroll by the city jail, which they examined with some interest, for it was the first Russian prison they had encountered and was on the Siberian exile route. The following morning they again passed the jail, and this time were suddenly surrounded by four policemen armed with swords and revolvers. Courteously, Kennan (who spoke Russian fluently) attempted to explain their identity and destination.

“Tourists,” the officer in charge replied somewhat ominously, “are not in the habit of going to Siberia.” A moment later, he came to the point of his interrogation: the inordinate amount of attention that Kennan and Frost had devoted to the city jail. They were placed under arrest, and their passports seized. Only when Kennan presented the letter from Count Tolstoy were they released. The officer apologized with the lame excuse that the Americans had been mistaken for two notorious German criminals.

Once across the Urals (which reminded Kennan of the lovely, wooded mountains of West Virginia), they found the going rougher—and, in fact, it would be almost a year before the two men would know any sort of real comfort again. At Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), the last city in European Russia, rail communication ended—the Trans-Siberian Railroad was over a decade in the offing—and Kennan and Frost set out in a seatless, boat-shaped vehicle called a tarantass. Perched uneasily on their baggage, they bounced along the unpaved streets of the town, passed between two pillars surmounted by double-headed eagles, the official insignia of czarist Russia, and plunged into a vast, gloomy forest. They were now on the “great Siberian road.”

Two days’ journey east of Ekaterinburg, the travelers came upon a high, square pillar of stuccoed brick standing in a forest clearing: it was the boundary post of Siberia. Perhaps no other spot in the world, Kennan ruminated later, had witnessed so much human misery. “Here hundreds of thousands of exiled human beings—men, women, and children; princes, nobles, and peasants—have bidden good-by forever to friends, country, and home. Here, standing beside the square white boundary post, they have, for the last time, looked back with love and grief at their native land …” Kennan later could not help reflecting on the many touching inscriptions that covered the monument. One especially moved him, the pitiful words “ Prashchai Marya! ”—“Good-by, Mary !”

“Who the writer was,” Kennan speculated, “who Mary was, there is nothing now left to show; but it may be that to the exile who scratched this last farewell on the boundary pillar ‘Mary’ was all the world …”