A Year In Hell

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It was appalling to listen to these people, and to recognize all the while that here were many of the best minds in Russia, talents that an already backward nation could ill afford to waste. For every Dostoevsky who managed to return from exile and begin life anew, there were hundreds more whose voices were lost forever in the echoless reaches of Siberia. Small wonder that so many of the banished intelligentsia—some of whom were even deprived of books, and absolutely forbidden to communicate with the outside world—sought solace in suicide.

The most arduous stretch of the journey still lay ahead. Some 1,800 miles east of Tomsk—a distance more than half the width of the continental United States—situated in what was then one of the wildest and most remote parts of the world were the dreaded mines of Kara. Here, in that mountainous region of Siberia known as the Transbaikal, the czarist regime banished not only the worst of criminal offenders but the most persistent and articulate political troublemakers. If Kennan hoped to make contact with the hard core of the Russian revolutionary movement, he could choose no better place.

It was late in August when the two Americans set out from Tomsk, and already autumn was in the air. Rain fell incessantly; the land began to rise, breaking into sharp, wooded ridges separated by swampy ravines, and traveling day and night in the clumsy tarantass, Kennan began to feel “as if I had been beaten from head to foot with a club and left for dead.” Occasionally they would pause to inspect an étape —the foul convict way stations that were little more than small replicas of the forwarding prisons—or to watch a gray throng of exiles marching eastward toward the distant mines of the Transbaikal. For the first time in their trip, Kennan and Frost encountered large numbers of these forlorn parties. Such a group of marching exiles was supposed to average a little over 300 miles a month, at which rate the journey from Tomsk to Kara consumed about half a year.

One haunting encounter with an exile column Kennan never forgot, so profoundly did it move him. On a raw September day, while waiting at a dirty post station for a change of horses, he suddenly heard “a peculiar, low-pitched, quavering sound” approaching from the distance. “It was not singing, nor chanting, nor wailing for the dead, but a strange blending of all three.” As the sound gradually rose in intensity, Kennan and Frost went out into the street; there they saw a straggling line of shaven-headed convicts entering the village with a slow, dragging step, chains clashing and caps removed in a pitiful appeal for alms. The sound was the weird, tortured, exiles’ begging song:

Have pity on us, O our fathers! /Don’t forget the unwilling travelers, /Don’t forget the long-imprisoned. /Feed us, O our fathers—help us! …

“I had never in my life heard anything so mournful and depressing,” Kennan remembered. “It seemed to be the half-articulate expression of all the grief, the misery, and the despair that had been felt by generations of human beings in the étapes, the forwarding prisons, and the mines.”

On October 28, 1885, Kennan and Frost reached a settlement less than a hundred miles from the mines of Kara. Here the post road ended abruptly; and though the two places were connected by a navigable river, the ice forming made boat travel impossible. The only other alternative was to proceed the rest of the way by horseback. Kennan, who had just recovered from a prolonged bout of illness (stricken with a mysterious fever in a small town near the border of Outer Mongolia, he lay for two weeks on the hard plank floor of a room adjoining a bakery), had serious doubts whether his slender reserve of strength would hold out; but since he had come so far, it seemed senseless to turn back now. As the two Americans and a native guide set out for Kara, light snow began to fall, and the temperature dropped below zero; the bodies of their horses were white with frost, and icicles hung from the nostrils of the animals. The narrow trail ran in a twisting course through rugged, heavily forested mountains, sometimes zigzagging in sharp switchbacks up steep ridges, sometimes clinging to icy ledges high above the river where a single slip would have been fatal. When, after three and a half exhausting days in the saddle, they finally reached their destination, Kennan was in a state of near-collapse.