George Kennan

George Kennan books and biography

George Kennan

George Kennan - photo from 1885
George Kennan - photo from 1885

George Kennan (February 16, 1845 – 1924) was an American explorer noted for his travels in the Kamchatka and Caucasus regions of Russia. He was diplomat and historian George F. Kennan's cousin twice removed, with whom he shared his birthday.

Kennan was born in Norwalk, Ohio and was keenly interested in travel from an early age. Family finances, however, meant he began work at the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company telegraph office aged 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 book about his travels.

In 1870, he returned to St. Petersburg and travelled to Dagestan, a northern area of the Caucasus region taken over by Russia 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. In 1878, he became an Associated Press reporter based in Washington, D.C.

In May 1885, Kennan began another voyage in Russia, this time across Siberia. He had been supportive of the Tsarist Russian government and its policies, but his meetings with exiled dissidents during his travel changed his mind. On his return to America in August 1886, he began to espouse the cause of revolution. He had been particularly impressed by Catherine Breshkovskaia, 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."

Kennan devoted much of the next twenty years to promoting the cause of Russian revolution, mainly through lecturing. In addition to Catherine Breshkovskaia, he befriended other émigrés such as Peter Kropotkin and Sergei Kravchinskii. He became the most prominent member of the Society of American 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's campaigning on behalf of Russian political prisoners was later expanded to include persecuted minorities in the Russian empire, in particular the Jews and, following the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese. Kennan also assisted a little-known campaign to educate and politically motivate Russian POWs held in Japan.

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.


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Bolshevik Revolution

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." Kennan criticized Woodrow Wilson 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


According to his recent biographer, Frederick F. Travis, Kennan studied Russia little and made many mistakes (including deliberate ones) in his journalism, and yet his authority was unchallenged in the United States. Kennan presented a picture of Russia that was more a projection of characteristic American hopes, fantasies, and fears in an era of exuberant self-confidence than the product of hard-earned knowledge. His authority was based on firsthand observations, though they were largely focused on the exotic. There was blindness in the man. He was sympathetic chiefly to political prisoners, who represented a minute fraction of those in Russia's vast penal and exile system. As far as we know, he never visited any prison outside Russia for comparative purposes. He confused political exiles in East Siberia with administrative exiles in West Siberia, and at times he misled his audiences in other ways to dramatize his cause. Kennan never probed deeply into the views of Russians working within the system, whom he could have helped and learned from.

Further reading

Tent Life in Siberia: Adventures Among the Koryaks and Other Tribes in Kamchatka and Northern Asia, available freely at Project Gutenberg (1870; reprint 1986 ISBN 0-87905-254-6;)

  • Siberia and the Exile System (1891; reprint 2003 ISBN 0-89875-902-1)


  • Kennan,George, Daniel Clarke Waugh (Contributor), Frith Maier (editor) (2003). Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-98250-0.
  • Travis, Frederick F. (1990). George Kennan and the American-Russian Relationship: 1865-1924. Ohio University Press. ISBN 0-8214-0934-4.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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