The Forgotten George Kennan: from Cheerleader to Critic of Tsarist Russia.

Author:Maier, Frith
Position:Books - Adapted from 'Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan,' - Biography

It has been the posthumous misfortune of George Kennan (1845-1924), the American author and traveler, to share the name and even the same birthday (February 16) with his great-nephew, George Frost Kennan (born 1904), the distinguished diplomat and historian. By double misfortune, the two shared the same special association with Russia, its politics and culture, indeed the coincidence of birth helped incline the younger Kennan to take up Russian studies. As a result, few are aware that the elder and forgotten George Kennan did not simply chronicle Russian life, but became an assiduous campaigner for democracy and human rights in the tsarist realm, and that he contributed crucially to putting the issue on the American legislative agenda.

Beginning as an ardent Russophile who defended the tsars' expansionary policies, Kennan became that monarchy's severest American critic. Fresh light on how his thinking evolved can be found in his hitherto unpublished journals as the first American to visit the remote and rebellious Islamic North Caucasus, in 1870. Now that the Caucasus region is very much on Washington's policy screen, the forgotten George Kennan may deservedly be remembered afresh.

George Kennan had no royal commission or missionary appointment, nor was he seeking his fortune. He was born with the instincts of a world traveler a century before global travel for ordinary people became fashionable or practical. He simply found life on the road irresistible, and out of this passion developed a career he could hardly have anticipated. That his travels would include the Caucasus, barely pacified by Russia and virtually unknown to Americans in 1870, was equally unexpected. Well before the end of the century, Kennan had become a recognized expert on Russia, one whose views would have a significant impact on America's policy toward that country.

When Kennan was growing up in Norwalk, Ohio, adventure for most Americans beckoned west, toward the Pacific. As a boy he read travel books voraciously, fantasized about distant adventures, and agitated to be allowed to camp in the nearby woods. Financial difficulties in his family forced him to leave school at age 12 to work as a messenger in the telegraph office of the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company, where he was soon promoted to operator and manager. Desperate to escape his desk at Norwalk Station, the teenager attempted to enlist in the Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War, but was obliged to stay at his telegraph post; capable operators were needed more in the large cities of the North than in the army.

When Kennan learned in 1864 of plans to build an overland telegraph line from America to Europe across the Bering Strait and Siberia, he jumped at the chance for adventure, "offering his services as an explorer" and telling his superiors he could be ready in two hours to leave for Alaska--then still Russian America.

Instead of being sent to Alaska, Kennan ended up in Russia's easternmost outposts in Asia in the employ of the Russian American Telegraph Company. For nearly two years, he tramped the mountainous wilds of Kamchatka and the Chukotka Peninsula, which were then still inhabited mostly by Koryaks and other native peoples, and a smattering of Russian fur traders. In small parties of several men, the expedition traveled sometimes on reindeer, sometimes by skin canoe, camping out through the winters in temperatures down to 60 degrees below zero. It is difficult to imagine a harsher test for a city youth whose previous experience with wilderness had been gleaned primarily from books. The Russian-American telegraph was never completed (the success of the Atlantic Cable made it obsolete), but the explorer from Norwalk had been bitten by the travel bug.

Kennan made his way home from Kamchatka overland through St. Petersburg, where everyone spoke with excitement about Dagestan--the new "Russian Switzerland." Back in Ohio in 1868-69, he plotted how he might return to Russia, this time to the Caucasus. His interest in returning was surely fueled by the recognition he began to experience as a public lecturer and author of several articles on Siberia in Putnam's, which the publisher encouraged him to expand into a book. The result was Tent Life in Siberia: Adventures Among the Koryaks and Other Tribes in Kamchatka and Northern Asia, which he completed in St. Petersburg while...

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