George Kennan (explorer)
George Kennan - photo from 1885
February 16, 1845|
Norwalk, Ohio, United States
|Died||May 10, 1924|
|Occupation||journalist, war correspondent|
George Kennan (February 16, 1845 – 1924) was an American explorer noted for his travels in the Kamchatka and Caucasus regions of the Russian Empire. He was a cousin twice removed of diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, with whom he shared his birthday.
George Kennan was born in Norwalk, Ohio, and was keenly interested in travel from an early age. However, family finances dictated that he began work at the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company telegraph office at age twelve.
In 1864, he secured employment with the Russian American Telegraph Company to survey a route for a proposed overland telegraph line through Siberia and across the Bering Strait. Having spent two years in the wilds of Kamchatka, he returned to Ohio via St. Petersburg and soon became well-known through his lectures, articles and a book about his travels.
In his book, Tent Life in Siberia, Kennan provided ethnographies, histories and descriptions of many native peoples in Siberia, that are still important for researchers today. They include stories about the Koraks, Kamchatdal (Itelmens), Chookchees, Yookaghirs, Chooances, Yakoots and Gakouts. In 1870, he returned to St. Petersburg and travelled to Dagestan, in the northern Caucasus region, which had been annexed by the Russian Empire only ten years previously. There he became the first American to explore its highlands, a remote Muslim region of herders, silversmiths, carpet-weavers and other craftsmen. He travelled on through the northern Caucasus area, stopping in Samashki and Grozny, before returning once more to America in 1871. These travels and earned him a reputation as an "expert" on all matters pertaining to Russia.
Kennan subsequently (in 1878) obtained a position with the Associated Press based in Washington, D.C., and as a war correspondent travelled throughout his career to many conflict areas around the world. He also contributed articles to magazines, such as Century Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, McClure's Magazine, (a muckraker magazine) and The Outlook.
In May 1885, Kennan began another voyage in Russia, this time across Siberia from Europe. He had been very publicly supportive of the Tsarist Russian government and its policies and his trip was approved by the Russian government at the very highest levels. However, in the course of his meetings with exiled dissidents during his travel, notably Nikolai Mikhailovich Yadrintsev (1842–1894), Kennan changed his mind about the Russian imperial system. He had been particularly impressed by Catherine Breshkovsky, the populist "little grandmother of the Russian Revolution". She had bidden him farewell in the small Transbaikal village to which she was confined by saying "We may die in exile and our grand children may die in exile, but something will come of it at last." He also met a teenage Leonid Krasin during this trip.
On his return to the United States in August 1886, he became an ardent critic of the Russian autocracy and began to espouse the cause of Russian Democracy. Kennan devoted much of the next twenty years to promoting the cause of a Russian revolution, mainly through lecturing. Kennan was one of the most prolific lecturers of the late nineteenth century. He spoke before a million or so people during the 1890s, including two hundred consecutive evening appearances in 1890-91 (excepting Sundays) before crowds of as many as two thousand people. His reports on conditions in Siberia were published serially by Century Magazine, and in 1891 a two-volume Siberia and the Exile System was published. This book, with first-hand interviews, data, and drawings by the artist George Albert Frost, and an influential impact on American public opinion.
In addition to Catherine Breshkovskaia, Kennan befriended other émigrés such as Peter Kropotkin and Sergei Kravchinskii. He became the most prominent member of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom—whose membership included Mark Twain and Julia Ward Howe—and also helped found Free Russia, the first English-language journal to oppose Tsarist Russia. In 1891 the Russian government responded by banishing him from Russia.
Kennan was not completely obsessed with Russian matters: as a reporter and war correspondent, he also covered American politics, the Spanish-American War, the assassination of President William McKinley, and the Russo-Japanese War, as well as World War I and the Russian Revolution. He also wrote a fascinating book, "E. H. Harriman's Far Eastern Plans," (1917, The Country Life Press) about Harriman's efforts to secure a lease to the South Manchuria Railway from Japan, as well as "The Chicago and Alton Case: A Misunderstood Transaction," (1916, The Country Life Press), defending Harriman's purchase of the Chicago & Alton Railroad from politically motivated attacks by the ICC and Teddy Roosevelt.
Kennan was vehemently against the October Revolution, because he felt the Soviet government lacked the "knowledge, experience, or education to deal successfully with the tremendous problems that have come up for solutions since the overthrow of the Tsar." President Woodrow Wilson did read and weigh Kennan's report to him in 1918 on the haplessness of the Bolshevik government, but Kennan eventually criticized Wilson's administration for being too timid in intervening against Bolshevism.
"The Russian leopard has not changed its spots... The new Bolshevik constitution ... leaves all power just where it has been for the last five years--in the hands of a small group of self-appointed bureaucrats which the people can neither remove nor control."—Kennan's last criticism of Bolshevism written in the Medina Tribune (a small-town newspaper), July 1923.
Death and legacy
George Kennan died May 10, 1924 and is buried in Boxwood Cemetery, Medina, Orleans County, New York.
- Tent Life in Siberia: Adventures Among the Koraks and Other Tribes in Kamtchatka and Northern Asia. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1870.
- Siberia and the Exile System. New York: The Century Co., 1891. Vol. 1 | Vol. 2
- Campaigning in Cuba. New York: The Century Co., 1899.
- "The Fight for Reform in San Francisco," McClure's, Sept. 1907 & Nov. 1907.
- A Russian Comedy of Errors, With Other Stories and Sketches of Russian Life. New York: The Century Co., 1915.
- Frith Maier (ed., Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 200.3.
- Frederick F. Travis, George Kennan and the American-Russian Relationship: 1865-1924. Columbus, OH: Ohio University Press, 1990.
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