Field of Science

Book Review: "Into Siberia: George Kennan's Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia", by Gregory Wallance

It may seem hard to believe now, but in 1865, by the time the Civil War ended, Russia was America's best friend in Europe. The two countries enjoyed a healthy diplomatic relationship, buoyed by trade and a mutual distrust of Great Britain; Russia was the only European nation to support the Union during the war. America sent formal condolences when Tsar Alexander was assassinated; Russia did the same when Lincoln was shot.

By 1891 it was all over. American mistrust of Russia was so pronounced that all diplomatic relations had cooled. It has never been the same since. What changed? Many factors played a role, but a significant one was the publication in 1891 of a now forgotten book by the journalist, writer and explorer George Kennan. Titled "Siberia and the Exile System", it documented in vivid detail the brutal, cruel, unsparing system of Siberia exile, inflicted by Tsarist Russia on its people for the most trivial misdemeanors.

"Into Siberia" is the vivid account by Gregory Wallance of the Ohio-born and raised George Kennan's two visits to Russia, first in the 1860s as an employee of Western Union with the mammoth goal of laying a trans-Siberian telegraph line that would connect Europe to America, and then again as a journalist formally authorized by the Tsarist regime to document the exile system in Siberia. Ironically, the Russian monarchy and government thought that Kennan's coverage of the system would invoke sympathy in the rest of the world for its need; little did they know that they were letting a fox in the henhouse.

Wallance excels at two things in particular; firstly at describing the almost unbelievably stark and brutal Russian landscape, populated by neck-deep snow, fatal temperatures well below -40 degrees and fierce indigenous tribes who had hardly had any contact with their more modern countrymen, and second at describing Kennan's epic journey into this wasteland. He is also exceedingly good at charting the stunningly inhumane treatment of prisoners and their families at the hands of the Tsar and his officials; the book opens with an unforgettable description of a pillar at the border of Siberia at which men and women cried uncontrollably, because the journey past this pillar was almost certainly one from which they would not return.

It's hard to not be thoroughly inspired by Kennan, a sickly young man who, determined to prove that he was strong of body and character, undertook the almost impossibly dangerous and exotic journey in 1865 to Siberia. His letters home remind one of other brave explorers staying cheerful in the face of danger or death - Shackleton, Cherry-Garrard, Lewis and Clark. He seems like the epitome of "what does not kill you makes you stronger", deliberately laughing in the face of the most infernal of natural and human elements, braving bears, deadly storms, an endless land without direction, fierce tribes and meagre to no supplies of essential food and clothing. He had not just genuine curiosity but genuine empathy for the savage-looking tribes he met, learning their ways and their dialects and working together with them to survive, learn, rescue trapped companions. The first book he wrote after coming back, "Tent Life in Siberia", was an unprecedented account written by a sharp-eyed journalist with a gift for evocative prose which taught Americans about Russia.

"Siberia and the Exile System" was equally vivid. From the pillar at the Siberian border to the innermost reaches of the labor camps, Kennan was given free access by the Tsar and his regime to the prisoners and their families. What Kennan saw horrified him: men with barely anything on their backs marched for hundreds of miles - Bataan death march style - in the most inclement weather, until many of them died on the way; their wives facing an impossible choice of remaining behind and starving to death or accompanying their husbands into conditions so stark that they would starve anyway or would be raped or have to sell themselves into prostitution. The bodies of children in frozen embraces with their parents were not an uncommon sight. Perhaps worst of all were the reasons why these prisoners were condemned to hell in the first place. Most prisoners were condemned to Siberia on trumped up charges based on the flimsiest criticism of the Tsarist regime. Freedom of speech, Kennan saw, was a complete joke in Russia (sounds familiar?).

Everything that we read later about the gulag system had their origin in those horrific exile camps set up by a cruel, indifferent, repressive Russian regime. When Kennan wrote his book, Americans and Russians alike were appalled, albeit for different reasons. For the first time, Americans had their eyes opened to the reality of a country which they had considered their friend. For Russians the book was shocking for the level of detail and the convincing arguments with which Kennan exposed the crudities of their so-called civilization. Reading Kennan's account 50 years later was the best education that his namesake who was the more famous Kennan - the American diplomat George Kennan of containment fame - could get. In his memoirs and writings, the younger Kennan often credits his lesser-known ancestor for grounding him in the realities of the Soviet Union.

After Kennan published "Siberia and the Exile System", Russian-American relations permanently deteriorated. After the murder of Tsar Nicholas, Lenin effectively set up the state as an outlaw state, defined in opposition to the capitalist countries. It is of course impossible to escape a feeling of deja vu reading Kennan's account. There seems to be an almost unbroken thread from Alexander through Nicholas, Lenin, Stalin and all the way to Putin in the repression exerted by Russian strongmen and their henchmen on their own people. Reading this story of a 139-year-old tragedy, one can be forgiven for feeling pessimistic about the future of Russian democracy and human rights. While the internet and new modes of communication have alerted the rest of the world to Russian leaders' excess, it is time for another hardy soul of George Kennan's gifts, resilience and unbounded concern for human welfare to again lay bare the soul of this vast, inscrutable land.

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