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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
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.
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 …”
The exile system, that barbaric, punitive phenomenon so characteristically Russian (though other countries had their harsh penal colonies), was instituted soon after the czarist conquest of Siberia at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At that time, however, exile was regarded less as a punishment in itself than as a convenient way of forever disposing of criminals who had already been punished. Major offenders were, of course, executed—impaled on sharp stakes, hanged, beheaded, or suspended in the air by hooks passed under two of their ribs until they eventually perished—for a variety of crimes, few of which would today be regarded as capital. Lesser criminals were hardly more fortunate. Flogged, branded with red-hot irons, mutilated by amputation of their tongues or limbs, they were then removed to Siberia.
Later, as the vast mineral and agricultural resources of Siberia began to be realized, exile became an ingenious means of forced colonization. By the eighteenth century, it was even customary to allow exiles to bring their families with them. As the severity of corporal punishments diminished—in 1753, the death penalty itself was abolished in favor of perpetual banishment to the mines and hard-labor camps of Russian Asia—the penalty of exile was extended to a large number of crimes that had formerly been dealt with in other ways. Bad conduct of almost any kind could mean expulsion—and such offenses as fortunetelling, prize fighting, vagrancy, and setting fire to property by accident, as well as the practice of such typically Western innovations as snuff-taking or driving with reins, were so punished.
The police bureaucracy of nineteenth-century Russia succeeded in making the exile system, if not more humane, at least more organized. Where once droves of exiles had wandered like starving cattle across the Siberian plain, without lodging or provision for subsistence, now étapes, or exile station houses, were erected, and pittances of food money allowed each prisoner. For the first time, reasonably accurate records were kept. During the sixty-two year period from 1823 to 1885, Kennan discovered in his researches, some 719,000 had been exiled to Siberia; by the 1880’s—a time of unusually harsh repression—an average of close to 18,000 souls were banished annually. Kennan uncovered still more startling figures. To begin with, the largest single class of exiles—sometimes as many as a third—were women and children who voluntarily accompanied their husbands or fathers (though if a prisoner’s wife chose not to go, she was free to marry again, just as if her husband were dead). Secondly, a great percentage of involuntary exiles were sent to Siberia not by the government but by their village communes—for every settlement had the right to banish troublemakers, actual or potential. Finally—and to an American, this was perhaps the most shocking fact of all—less than half of those exiled on criminal charges had been tried in court, the majority being banished by “administrative process”—that is, by the mere order of the Minister of the Interior.
Kennan and Frost’s first stop in Siberia, as well as that of every person banished from Russia, was the river town of Tiumen, 1,700 miles east of St. Petersburg. Here was situated the prison from which all exiles were forwarded to their various destinations in the interior of Russian Asia. In summer, the town itself was not an unpleasant spot, rising from plains so thickly strewn with blue forget-me-nots that they almost seemed a watery reflection of the sky. As one approached along the great Siberian highway, the birches bordering the roadside in carefully planted rows formed mile after mile of leafy arcade. Thus Kennan was ill-prepared for the rude contrast of the scenes that were about to confront him in the forwarding prison at Tiumen, the beginning of an experiment in misery that would once and for all demolish any illusions he might ever have entertained about the humane administration of the exile system.
After their arrest at Perm for merely looking at the outside of the local jail, Kennan and Frost had grave doubts whether they would be allowed so much as a single glimpse of the interior of the Tiumen prison. But much to their surprise, they were received cordially by the chief police officer of the district. Though he readily granted their request, he warned with unexpected frankness that it would not be a pleasant experience, for the prison was greatly overcrowded and sanitary conditions poor.
Viewed from the outside, the prison was a large, stolid, and unremarkable building surrounded by a high, whitewashed brick wall. Originally built to house a maximum of 550 prisoners, it had been enlarged by means of detached barracks to hold another 300; on the day of Kennan’s visit, the number 1,741 was chalked up on a blackboard hanging near the main gate. His first actual sight of convicts was the desultory clusters of men idling in the courtyard, all identically clad in long, gray overcoats and visorless Scotch caps. Their legs were fettered, and the air was filled with the sound of clinking chains. Kennan and Frost were led first to a kamera, or cell, in one of the log barracks that had been built to receive the overflow from the main building:
...The room was about 35 feet in length by 25 in width and 12 feet high; its walls of hewn logs were covered with dirty whitewash; its rough plank floor was black with dried mud and hard-trodden filth: and it was lighted by three grated windows looking out into the prison yard. Down the center of the room, and occupying about half its width, ran the sleeping bench....Each longitudinal half of this low platform sloped a little, roof-wise, from the center, so that when the prisoners slept upon it in two closely packed transverse rows, their heads in the middle were a few inches higher than their feet at the edges. These sleeping-platforms are known as nari, and a Siberian prison cell contains no other furniture except a large wooden tub for excrement. The prisoners have neither pillows, blankets, nor bed clothing, and must lie on these hard plank nari with no covering but their overcoats....
This particular cell, the prison warden informed Kennan, had air space for perhaps 40 men; at the moment, it contained 160. “There was practically no ventilation whatever,” Kennan remembered, “and the air was so poisoned and foul that I could hardly force myself to breathe it.” Conditions were the same in every other kamera he visited.
The main building was, if anything, worse: a place so foul that one of the prison officials refused to accompany the Americans. Cells that varied in size from 8 by 10 feet to 10 by 15 feet held from half a dozen to thirty prisoners each. Every cubic foot of air, Kennan wrote, had apparently been respired over and over again until it did not contain an atom of oxygen; it was laden with fever germs from the uventilated hospital wards, fetid odors from diseased human lungs and unclean human bodies, and the stench rising from unemptied excrement buckets at the ends of the corridors. I breathed as little as I possibly could, but every respiration seemed to pollute me to the very soul …
Still Kennan insisted on seeing everything. He tasted greasy soup in the filthy prison kitchen and inspected the fever-ridden corridors of the hospital wards, where the stench was again overpowering and the sight of white, haggard, and hopeless faces lying on filthy gray pillows almost too much to bear. Finally Kennan and Frost could stand no more; they were conducted to a dispensary on the ground floor, where the warden offered them alcoholic stimulants and had them sprayed with a mixture of carbolic acid and water as a precaution against disease. When Kennan questioned the warden about the terrible conditions they had just witnessed, he admitted them freely. Everyone, including the government in St. Petersburg, seemed to be aware of them—and, in fact, the Tiumen prison was probably no worse than many others, if not somewhat better. But apparently, for all the urging of well-intentioned local administrators, the higher authorities were unwilling to sanction much-needed prison reforms, from lack of funds, simple inertia, or a combination of both.
So began Kennan’s year in hell, an experience that was no less shattering because he was a mere observer and not a sentenced sufferer.
Forsaking the great Siberian highway—the most direct passage eastward—Kennan and Frost turned toward the less familiar south. This route would not only take them through a picturesque part of Asia but also through districts heavily populated with exiles. They had, however, another and far more important reason for keeping away from the more traveled roads. During their stay in Tiumen, they had become aware of a faintly ominous circumstance: it appeared that the Minister of the Interior had alerted local authorities along the great highway—presumably Kennan’s route—to the imminent arrival of the American journalists. Thus, by taking an unexpected detour, Kennan hoped to avoid official surveillance and interference with his investigations.
On the morning of June 30, Kennan and Frost resumed their journey, once more traveling in the clumsy, springless tarantass. Jounced, jolted, and shaken, hardly pausing for rest, they pushed on across the muddy, gutted roads of the steppes. Over one stretch of 280 miles, they were able to catch only four hours’ sleep out of sixty; as Kennan later commented, “No one who has not experienced it can fully realize the actual physical suffering that is involved in posting night and day at high speed over bad Siberian roads.” Each town passed was indistinguishable from the next: an inevitable cluster of weather-beaten log houses scattered along one central street that was little more than a stream of dark, shallow mud. It was always with a feeling of relief that they left these dreary settlements, riding out again upon the wide, breezy steppe where the air was filled with the clean fragrance of clover and wild roses. Now and then the travelers would come upon a column of heavily guarded exiles, their leg fetters jangling as they trudged through the mud.
It was in the city of Semipalatinsk, 900 miles from Tiumen, 2,600 from St. Petersburg, and close to the Mongolian border, that Kennan and Frost had their first meeting with political exiles in Siberia—and then only by a fortunate accident. Situated in flat semidesert inhabited mainly by nomadic tribes of Kirghiz and Tatars, Semipalatinsk was an ugly and dispiriting place which Russian officers called derisively “the Devil’s Sand-box.” Together with certain outlying settlements, it had become a favored dumping ground for political exiles. But exactly how, Kennan wondered, could he get in touch with these people?
The answer came from a most unexpected source—a sympathetic Russian official who, once he had divined that the Americans were not government informers, introduced them to the colony of exiles dwelling in the city. Kennan was hardly prepared for what he found: “I know I was prejudiced against them,” he admitted later, “and that I expected them to be wholly unlike the rational, cultivated men and women whom one meets in civilized society; but I cannot, by any exercise of will, bring back the unreal, fantastic conception of them that I had when I crossed the Siberian frontier …” Were these the sullen, wild-eyed fanatics of the popular imagination, filled with anarchistic schemes and ready to denounce all governmental restraint as brutal tyranny? Hardly. For the most part, they proved to be well-educated, gentle, and often highborn people—students, lawyers, doctors, anthropologists, writers, and landed proprietors—who had been exiled not for crimes against the state, but simply because they had been considered untrustworthy.
Their terms of exile varied from two to five years, and while deprived of all civil rights, they were allowed a certain amount of personal freedom, depending on the whim of the local authorities. Though their present lot was comparatively easy, some had undergone terrible suffering at the hands of the czarist police. In a conversation with Kennan, one intelligent-looking woman with a thin, worn face that must at one time have been pretty apologized for the unfeminine shortness of her hair: it had been shorn off in prison. She proceeded to relate in an uncomplaining way how she had been arrested and seen all her clothing and personal effects stolen by the police. After more than a year of solitary confinement in a Moscow jail, she had been banished, without trial, to a penal colony in a remote part of Siberia, presumably traveling much of the way on foot; later, she had been marched across the steppes in the middle of winter to her present place of confinement.
Shortly afterward, Kennan met two girls, no older than seventeen or eighteen, who had been exiled on some apparently trivial pretext. For what possible reason, he asked himself, could they be regarded as a menace to the existing social order? “As I shook hands with them and noticed their shy, embarrassed behavior, and the quick flushes of color which came to their cheeks when I spoke to them, I experienced for the first time something like a feeling of contempt for the Russian Government.”
Most of the political exiles whom Kennan met during his long journey through Siberia were victims of the reign of terror that had followed the assassination of Alexander II. As yet, he had not encountered any of the true revolutionary activists—those who had advocated and, in some cases, actually practiced violence—and it seemed doubtful that he would, for most of them had been dealt with far more harshly than the mere “untrustworthies.” If they were not dead, prison walls probably kept them well beyond the ken of the American journalists—though Kennan did not give up hope of somehow making contact with them, if it meant seeking them out in the impossibly remote penal colonies of far eastern Asia. Nevertheless, even the milder revolutionaries whom Kennan befriended gave him a fair sampling of the mood of social protest and the widespread radical sentiment that had existed in Russia for many years.
Up to this time, however, the Russian radical movement had been little more than a loosely connected assortment of clandestine groups subscribing to generally similar doctrines, semisocialistic and vaguely Utopian in nature, which they tried to spread among the common people of Russia. Differ as these groups might on the particulars of their various programs of social reform, they did agree on one thing—namely, that the existing regime was a moral and political monstrosity which must be either totally reformed or else destroyed. The majority of the radical leaders were essentially moderates who deplored violence; and even the terrorists among them viewed their campaign of murder and sabotage as a merely temporary expedient. “Every one of them,” a Semipalatinsk exile said to Kennan, speaking of the terrorists, “every one of them, I think, would lay down his arms, if the Czar would grant Russia a constitutional form of government and guarantee free speech, a free press, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and exile …”
Except for a few groups, revolution was hardly more than a vague ideal, something that rarely developed beyond the realm of abstract discussion into concrete action. But unfortunately, the beautiful dreams of the radicals foundered on the stony apathy of the Russian peasant masses, without whose support no revolution—nor for that matter, even significant and far-reaching reform of the existing system—could possibly succeed. As one disillusioned revolutionary commented, “Socialism bounced off the people like peas from a wall.”
Among the intelligentsia, the mood that prevailed was one of overwhelming frustration. To them (in the pathetic words of an earlier radical), life “had given desires and not the means to realize them, and so they built up Utopias without knowing how to lead people to them.” Thus they sought other outlets, and one of them was terror. (Though Russian radicals of this period were conversant with the doctrines of Marx, it remained for a later generation to exploit them: in 1885, Lenin and Stalin were still schoolboys.)
Kennan was not predisposed to condone violence, but he came to view the violence of the revolutionaries as a direct result of the iniquities of police terror—most particularly, that odious form of punishment known as “exile by administrative process.” This was the system under which a person deemed in any way obnoxious to the state, whether guilty of a crime or not, could be banished without so much as the pretense of a trial. In his notebooks, Kennan recorded instance after instance of the injustice of administrative exile and the hardship it caused. There was, for example, the case of a young and well-known magazine editor who was arrested, held incommunicado for weeks, banished for three years, and financially ruined as a result—all for merely corresponding with a Russian revolutionary who lived in Switzerland. Often there was a nightmarish, almost Kafkaesque unreason to the treatment of the administrative exiles:
… Another exile of my acquaintance, Mr. Y—, was banished merely because he was a friend of Mr. Z—, who was awaiting trial on the charge of political conspiracy. When Mr. Z—’s case came to a judicial investigation he was found to be innocent and was acquitted; but in the meantime Mr. Y—, merely for being a friend of this innocent man, had gone to Siberia by administrative process …
But the sinister irrationality of the administrative process was demonstrated even more starkly in the tale of one Egor Lazaref, whom Kennan met in a town near the borders of the Chinese empire. In the year 1874, when Lazaref was a student, he had been arrested for supposedly spreading secret revolutionary propaganda. After four years in solitary confinement, he was brought to trial with 192 other political suspects and acquitted. But the government was not done with him: as there was a faint possibility that he might be guilty on some future date, he was punished in advance with compulsory military service in Asia Minor. After all this, Lazaref quietly returned home, resumed his studies, and eventually began the practice of law. Then, one day in 1884, he was suddenly arrested again. Months passed before he was even informed of what crime he was charged with: it seemed that he was being exiled a second time for not abandoning the previous criminal activity of which he had already been found innocent!
“In the light of such facts,” Kennan wrote, after enumerating dozens of such incidents, “terrorism ceases to be an unnatural or an inexplicable phenomenon. Wrong a man in that way, deny him all redress, exile him again if he complains, gag him if he cries out, strike him in the face if he struggles, and at last he will stab and throw bombs.” The wonder of it was that exile by administrative process had not made a whole nation of terrorists.
For all the truth of this, one cannot help but feel that Kennan had perhaps been too affected by the suffering he had witnessed to be altogether objective. To be sure, police repression did drive some Russians to violence; but at the same time, many others were indeed dangerous fanatics with a pathological streak that went beyond mere idealism. Moreover—and this Kennan had to admit—far from improving conditions, the pattern of terror organized by the extremists only provoked the government to further excesses and diminished the prospect of eventual democratization. The overwhelming tragedy of the assassination of Alexander II was that his death came hours after he had signed a plan for a constitution that might have been the first step toward representative government. With his demise, the one truly great hope of the liberal and moderate elements in Russia—as well as the majority of revolutionaries—had ended.
By the first week of August, the brief season of passable roads and fair weather was beginning to wane, and Kennan and Frost’s ultimate destination—the convict mines of Kara where, supposedly, the worst political offenders were held—was still 2,500 miles away. Leaving their friends in the exile colonies around Semipalatinsk, they headed north toward the prosperous river town and convict way station of Tomsk, on the great Siberian highway. The roads, as usual, were unspeakable, the inns filthy and swarming with vermin, and Kennan soon found himself nearly sick from sleeplessness. In one town where the Americans remained for several days, the hotel was so infested with bedbugs that Kennan was forced to sleep on a table in the middle of his room: “Owing to the fact that I generally rolled off or capsized the table as soon as I lost consciousness, my sleep was neither prolonged nor refreshing, and … I was reduced to a state bordering on frenzy.” Finally, on August 20, they reached Tomsk. There, for the first time in almost two months, they were able to enjoy the luxury of “civilized” beds.
Kennan and Frost no longer had any difficulty in making contact with political exiles, for their friends in Semipalatinsk had supplied them with letters of introduction and a list of nearly 700 “untrustworthies” in all parts of Siberia—a virtual underground directory. Their concern now was how to avoid the suspicions of the local authorities, for a wrong step could mean summary expulsion from the empire. And so, they devised elaborate means of disguising the real purpose of their investigations:
… It seemed to me that to avoid the police, as if we were afraid of them or had something to conceal from them, would be a fatal error. Safety lay rather in a policy of extreme boldness. … We made it a rule to call in evening dress upon every official, as a means of showing him our respectful appreciation of his rank and position; we drank vodka and bitter cordial with him—if necessary, up to the limit of double vision; we made ourselves agreeable to his wife, and Mr. Frost drew portraits of his children; and, in nine cases out of ten, we thus succeeded in making ourselves “solid with the administration” before we had been in a town or village forty-eight hours …
But frequently, such subterfuges were unnecessary, for the Americans found many officials openly hostile to the exile system. As one high prison officer in Tomsk complained to Kennan, “It is disastrous to Siberia, it is ruinous to the criminal, and it causes an immense amount of misery; but what can be done? If we say anything to our superiors in St. Petersburg, they strike us in the face; and they strike hard—it hurts!” And when Kennan asked the acting governor of the province of Tomsk for permission to view the city’s forwarding prison, the official told him matter-of-factly, “I think you will find it the worst prison in Siberia.” He was right. Later, the prison surgeon related how, in one typical epidemic, there were 450 patients in the hospital, with beds for only 150:
… Three hundred men and women dangerously sick lay on the floor in rows, most of them without pillows or bedclothing; and in order to find even floor space for them, we had to put them so close together that I could not walk between them, and a patient could not cough or vomit without coughing or vomiting into his own face or into the face of the man lying beside him. The atmosphere in the wards became so terribly polluted that I fainted repeatedly upon coming into the hospital in the morning, and my assistants had to revive me by dashing water into my face. … More than 25 per cent, of the whole prison population were constantly sick, and more than 10 per cent, of the sick died …
In Tomsk, Kennan became well-acquainted with another large colony of political exiles, men and women who, like those he had met in Semipalatinsk, impressed him with their courage, intelligence, and moderation. The stories they had to tell did nothing to sweeten his opinion of the czarist regime:
… I was struck by the composure with which these exiles would sometimes talk of intolerable injustice and frightful sufferings. The men and women who had been sent to the province of Yakutsk for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to Alexander III., and who had suffered in that arctic wilderness all that human beings can suffer from hunger, cold, sickness, and bereavement, did not seem to be conscious that there was anything very extraordinary in their experience. Now and then some man whose wife had committed suicide in exile would flush a little and clinch his hands as he spoke of her; or some heart-broken woman whose baby had frozen to death in her arms on the road would sob at intervals as she tried to tell me her story; but, as a rule, both men and women referred to injustice and suffering with perfect composure, as if they were nothing more than the ordinary accidents of life …
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:
“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.
The penal colony of Kara presented a dreary sight indeed to the travel-worn Americans. Along a small mountain stream, rich gold deposits had been discovered, and the ugly refuse of open placer diggings could be seen everywhere. Entering this cheerless valley, Kennan and Frost passed through straggling congeries of barracks; low, whitewashed cabins; tin-roofed officers’ quarters with yards enclosed by wattle fences; and the inevitable weather-beaten log stockades where prisoners were housed. Since no lodginghouses existed at Kara, the travelers were obliged to stay with the camp commandant, Major Potulof—exactly what they had wished to avoid, for at his house they would be under such constant surveillance that there might be no opportunity to make contact with the political convicts, the very people whom they had come so far to seek out. Thus they could only bide their time and hope for a favorable moment to escape the ever-watchful eye of the Major.
On the sixth day of his visit, Kennan’s long-awaited opportunity finally arrived. It seemed that in the valley there was a small colony of political exiles who had finished their “term of probation” in the stockade and now lived in a supervised shantytown known as the “free command.” Exiles in other parts of Siberia had even supplied Kennan with an accurate map of this place, and a letter of introduction to one of its unwilling inhabitants, Miss Nathalie Armfeldt, a young woman who had been active in the revolutionary movement. Now, with Major Potulof absent to attend a meeting of a court of inquiry in an outlying village, Kennan left Frost to entertain Madame Potulof and hurried off to pay a visit to Miss Armfeldt. But first he spent much of the day allaying the suspicions of Captain Nikolin, who commanded the men’s and women’s political prisons, and had an unpleasant reputation for informing on his fellow officers. After innumerable cups of tea, the conversation turned upon the subject of the political prisoners at Kara.
Their condition, the Captain allowed, was better than one might imagine—in fact, better than any of them deserved. On the whole, they lived contentedly, in large, airy, and well-lighted rooms; they were not required to work in the mines; they were allowed to write and receive letters from home; they occasionally put on theatricals; and they had a library which even had some English books in it. When Kennan remarked that this indeed sounded like a pleasant place to see and describe for his American public, Nikolin hesitated. It seemed, he explained, that he did not exactly have the authority to allow outsiders a view of the prison interior. But he could at least show Kennan some of the books from the library—would he be interested in seeing the English works? A few moments later, a soldier appeared, bearing an edition of Shelley’s poems and a recent copy of Punch.
After several hours of the unsavory Nikolin’s boastful conversation, Kennan finally felt that it was safe to proceed, and late in the afternoon, he arrived at the miserable cabin where Miss Armfeldt lived. She admitted him fearfully, and the moment he stepped inside, barred the door and shuttered the windows—apparently spies lurked everywhere. After a brief and anxious conversation, she asked him to return later in the evening, at which time he might meet some of the other political exiles in the colony.
Strained, subdued, and faintly conspiratorial, this sad gathering in the dimly lit cabin was like something out of the pages of Dostoevsky. Pale-faced men and women crowded around Kennan “with intense, wondering interest, as if I were a man that had just risen from the dead”; for a moment, he had the feeling that he had somehow walked into a kind of twisted dream world. Until well into the middle of the night, Kennan listened as these most dedicated of revolutionaries spoke of the horror of life in the Kara penal colony, relating a darker side of the political convict’s existence which Captain Nikolin had somehow neglected to detail. They described to him their own experiences in the political prison, a veritable “house of the living dead” where inmates rotted their lives away and suicide and madness were commonplace.
Once, Kennan was told, there had been an attempt at a mass jail break. Carefully-made dummies were placed on the sleeping-benches, and when the officer on duty made his nightly count, they passed as men. So, over a period of weeks, eight convicts managed to escape. All were eventually recaptured. As punishment, every inmate in the men’s prison, including the sick and insane, was brutally beaten and thrown into confinement under dungeon conditions for two months; the more unmanageable among them were returned to Russia, to be confined for life in the dungeons known as the “stone bags” of St. Petersburg’s Schlusselburg castle. Occasionally, conditions grew so terrible that the convicts resorted to hunger strikes, and there were instances in which prisoners deliberately struck officers in the hope of being court-martialed and shot. (Some time after Kennan’s departure from Kara, a female political was flogged to death for a minor offense; in protest, mass suicides were attempted in both prisons. Three women and two men died by taking poison.)
For Kennan, one incident seemed to epitomize that strange evening. During the long discussion, his attention was attracted to a man of some thirty-odd years with a vacant face and large, protruding eyes:
… 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.”
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.