Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
George Kennan: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

George Kennan

EA-Biography
[Jeanette Kennan Hotchkiss]

GEORGE KENNAN

George Kennan (1845-1924) was born in Norwalk, Ohio, February 16, 1845.
His parents were Thomas Kennan, graduate of Hamilton College, teacher, lawyer,
and early telegrapher, and Mary Anne (Morse) Kennan, a relative of the inven–
tor of the telegraphic alphabet. The electric telegraph played an important
part in George Kennan's life and career. His first American ancestor, on the
Kennan side, was James MacKennan who came over from Scotland about 1718. From
his forebears George inherited a strong moral sense, a scholarly mind, tenacity
of purpose, and longevity.
His schooling wasconcluded at the age of twelve when he had to go to work
in his father's Western Union office in Norwalk, but he continued his studies,
with his parents' help, preparing himself for the college he was never to attend.
Perhaps more important than his books were his Saturday excursions into the
neighboring woods, beginning often at midnight on Fridays. His father encouraged
his interest in nature and woodlore and this aspect of his education was to stand
him in good stead in later years, especially on his first Siberian expedition.
In spite of his lack of formal education, he later received honorary degrees
from Williams College (1910) and the University of Richester (1916). He was
also made honorary member of several high school classes as well as the [: ]
Wellesley College Class of 1892.
By the age of eighteen he was holding the positions of assistant chief
operator of the Western Union office and Associated Press agent in Cincinnati,

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss: Kennan

Ohio. Early in 1864, he received, over the wires, an offer of a job with the
Alaskan-Siberian expedition of the Western Union Extension. At that time the
Atlantic cable appeared to be a failure and the Russian-American Telegraph
Company was organized at New York in the summer of 1864. The Western Union
extension was planned to establish telegraphic communication between Europe
and America by way of Canada, Alaska, Bering Strait, Siberia, and Russia.
On July 1st young Kennan, with three companions of the expedition, set
sail from San Francisco on the Russian brig Olga for Petropavlovsk, a trip of
fifty-two days. Here the party divided, Mahood and Bush going south to the
mouth of the Amur River on the Chinese frontier while Kennan and Major Abaza
(chief of Asiatic exploration) set forth by horseback and canoe up the wild,
sparsely populated Kamchatka peninsula. At the town of Gizhiga, Major Abaza went
west to meet Mahood and Bush at Okhotsk while Kennan, with one helper, a young
American fur trader named Dodd, was [: ] assigned to survey the line between
Gizhiga n and Anadyrsk, a settlement not far from the Arctic Circle. The prob–
lems involved in this assignment would have offered a challenge to a seasoned
explorer. The Ohio boy and his young helper were thrown on their own resources
in a wild, trackless country, remote from civilization and inhabited by [: ]
primitive nomadic tribes, with all details of transportation and subsistence
left to their own devices. Yet, in spite of temperatures as low as 50 to 60
degrees below zero, blinding storms, and uncharted routes, Kennan and Dodd
finally arrived at Anadyrsk early in January.
Not long after their arrival there, the young men organized and successfully
carried out an expedition to rescue three Americans who had been stranded since
September near the mouth of the Anadyr River. This trip, because of the barren
character of that country, was considered by the natives themselves as very
dangerous at any time and quite impossible in January.

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss: Kennan

The rest of the first winter was spent in search of a more favorable route
for the [: ] telegraph line than the one they had already traversed, and they
found a chain of wooded rivers connecting Okhotsk Sea with the Pacific Ocean
near Bering Strait. In April they returned to Gizhiga to wait until late
summer for the arrival of boats with supplies. The second winter was occupied
with construction, the actual cutting of poles, but it did not lack arctic ad–
venture at the same time. There was still much perilous travel in very low
temperatures, experience with famine at Anadyrsk, and an expedition from [: ]
Gizhiga to Yamsk over rugged, almost impassable mountains. After January, 1867,
Kennan was made chief of the Asiatic division, directing construction.
In July 1866 the [: ] trans-atlantic cable was successfully laid but the
official news of the abandonment of the overland telegraph project did not reach
the men in Siberia until July, 1867. Kennan was ordered to sell as much as
possible of the equipment on hand and return home as best he could. He tra–
veled to St. Petersburg from Okhotsk, a distance of 5,714 miles, in eleven
weeks by sleigh drawn by horses, reindeer, and dogs.
The details of this expedition are contained in his first book Tent Life
in Siberia
(1870), a revised edition of which was published in 1910. His in–
tentions, as he wrote in the preface, were "to convey as clear and accurate an
idea as possible of the inhabitants, scenery, customs and general external features
of a new and comparatively unknown country," and he succeeded admirably in so
doing. The book has the added value which a youthful zest for adventure and a
lively sense of humor give to it and, although the young author had not had a
scientific education, his thoughtful observations were worthy of a scientist.
By the time he reached Norwalk again in April 1868, almost three years of
his life had been spent on a project which had ostensibly been a failure. It

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss: Kennan

had cost the Western Union Company about three million dollars but it had laid
for Kennan the foundation for his future career. He had obtained material for
lectures, a working knowledge of the Russian language, and an undying interest
in Russian affairs.
He gave his first lecture at Monroeville Corners, Ohio, to an audience of
four who had to be hailed back, as they started to leave, with the promise of
a "bang-up" lecture. This was the small beginning of a lifelong career as a
lecturer in England, Canada, and Japan as well as throughout the United States.
In 1870, he went again to Russia but this time to the Caucasus. He tra–
veled down the Volga and across the Caspian Sea to Petrovsk, Daghestan, and
then spent about two months in the Caucasus, learning all he could of that
part of Russia, its history, people, music, and natural phenomena. When he
returned home, he added to his Siberian talks new lectures on "The Mountains
and Mountaineers of the Caucasus."
For the next five years he held stock and the position of cashier in the
Union Bank of Medina, New York, but quit the life of a business man forever
when he went to New York City with his books and fifty dollars in his pocket.
In 1878 he was sent to Washington to report the decisions of the United States
Supreme Court for the New York Associated Press and in 1879, when President
Garfield was shot, Kennan was put in charge of all the wires from the White
House as long as the President stayed there.
He was married to Miss Emeline Rathbone Weld of Medina, New York, in
September 1879.
On May 1, 1885, Kennan signed a contract with the Century Company for
a series of articles on the exile system of the Russian Czars. Back in 1877
he had written for the New York Tribune an article entitled "A Defense of

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss: Kennan

Russia and the Emperor Nicholas and the Crimean War." The Russian government
feeling him to be kindly disposed toward its activities, gave him permission to
visit the prisons and penal colonies of Siberia. He left St. Petersburg on
May 31, 1885, and did not return to that city until March 20, 1886, after
covering Siberia from the Urals to the Amur River.
This expedition involved much emotional strain as well as physical hard–
ship. The latter consisted of extremes of temperatures, 8,000 miles of travel
over Siberian roads in springless vehicles, loss of sleep, and exposure to
vermin and fevers as he mingled with the exiles in their crowde d "etapes" and
hospitals. He was now a man of forty and did not have the resilience which
had come to his aid as a youth in the wilds of Siberia. More trying than even
the physical hardship, however, was the strain on his sympathies as he learned
firsthand of the sufferings of the exiles.
Always a conservative in politices, Kennan had set forth on thisexpedition
with the sincere belief that the mass of political exiles were wild-eyed
anarchists. He did meet a few violent revolutionists in Siberia but, in the
main, he discovered the political prisoners to be people of refinement and
culture, often young, and fired with humanitarian zeal. Such a one, for example,
was Catherine Breshkovsky, "the little Grandmother of the Revolution," who later
became one of his good friends among the revolutionists. Concern for land reform
and constitutional change, desire for the three freedoms of speech, assembly,
and press had sent many of them to Siberia. Some had had a semblance of trial,
but many had been exiled by administrative process. In cases where the revo–
lutionists had resorted to violence, he even condoned their actions, to some
extent at least. after discovering the oppression and injudstices they had under–
gone. An article in the Century , "A Visit to Count Tolstoi," revealed Kennan's
views on resistance as well as those of the Count.

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss: Kennan

Before very long, Kennan found himself carrying [: ] messages between the
exiles. In this capacity, as a sort of one-man clearing house of revolutionary
data as well as personal letters, he had to watch his step carefully to avoid
involving himself with the police or endangering the safety of the more friendly
officials and the prisoners themselves.
His subsequent articles in the Century Magazine caused a widespread sen–
sation, even though the author leaned over backward to be fair to both sides
and to be factual rather than emotional in the presentation of his findings.
Most of the articles were later incorporated in his two-volume book Siberia
and the Exile System
, published in 1891. This book not only received wide
circulation in this country but was translated into a number of foreign
languages and made a deep impression upon the entire liberal world of that day.
The late President Kalinin of the Soviet Union is known to have remarked that
the Russian translation which was illegally circulated among the Russian
oppositionists became "the Bible of the early Bolsheviks." There is irony in
the fact that Kennan never approved of the Bolshevist regime after the passing
of the Kerensky phase.
One of the outstanding features of the book is the careful documentation of
the facts recorded in it. This concern for accuracy is characteristic of the
author, who was ever [: ] thorough in his investigations. The quantity of facts
and figures, however, does not make this a dull book. It abounds in vivid
descriptions of the exiles and their wretched living conditions, the Siberian
countryside in all its variation of topography and season, and means of Siberian
travel in the year 1885. And, in spite of its tragic message, it is lightened
whenever possible by Kennan's appreciation of humor. The illustrations by
George Frost, the artist who accompanied Kennan, also made an important contri–
bution to the effectiveness and popularity of the book.

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss; Kennan

Frost [: ] became very ill toward the end of the trip and Kennan took
him to London, where he stayed with him until he was well enough to sail for
home. Then Kennan, this time with his wife for a companion, returned to
European Russia where he continued his prison investigations, delivered letters
from the exiles to their friends and families, and met and talked with as many
officials, liberals, and revolutionists as possible. He was to go to Russia once
more, in 1901 for the Outlook, [: ] but on that occasion he was expelled from
the country by police order after only three weeks. In all, he made six trips
to the Russian Empire and much of the material he collected there, manuscript,
pictorial, and printed, is now contained in the Kennan Collection at the New
York Public Library. A pamphlet, published by the library in 1921, describes
a veritable treasury of source material for students of Siberia, the Caucasus
and especially the Russian Revolution.
He never lost interest in the cause of Russian freedom. The attitude
with which he returned from Russia in August, 1886, persisted to the end of
his life and was clearly expressed in his Century article, "A Voice for the
People of Russia" — "As for me, my sympathies are with the Russia of the
[: ] people, not the Russia of the [: ] Czars, with the Russia of the provincial
assemblies, not the Russia of the secret police, with the Russia of the future,
not the Russia of the past."
He was made an honorary member of the [: ] National Polish Alliance of
America and belonged to "The Friends of Russian Freedom" from its inception.
A Kennan Testimonial Committee was organized in Philadelphia in 1890, its name
changed later to "Siberian Exile Petition Committee." His interest in the
political exiles in whose escapes he sometimes had a hand led him into a long,
hard but unavailing fight against the Russian Extradition Treaty and, in 1893,

EA-Biog Hotchkiss: Kennan

he went to England to interest Baron Hirsch in the cause of Russian freedom.
He lived to see the Revolution of 1917 but the sense of triumph with which he
and his Russian friends greeted the overthrow of the Czarist regime had been
sadly extinguished when he wrote, in 1923, "The Russian leopard has not changed
its spots. The first essentials of republican institutions are freedom of
elections, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, and these things the
new Bolshevist 'constitution' does not guarantee — nor even promise." ( National
Republican
, Washington, D.C., August 11, 1923) Many of the revolutionists he had
known were as unwelcome in the country of Lenin and Trotsky as they had been in
the Russia of the [: ] Czars.
The years from 1887 [: ] to 1898 were largely occupied with literature and
lectures. In 1898 the predominantly journalistic phase of his career began
when he signed a contract to go to Cuba as a special war cor r espondent. He went
there in a double capacity, for he was also vice president of the American Red
Cross. A book, Campaigning in Cuba (1899), incorporated many of his Outlook
articles. Another book, The Tragedy of Pelee , was the result of an expedition
to Martinique to report the eruption of Mount Pelee. Other Outlook assignments
were in connection with the Philippine question and the Russo-Japanes war. He
and Mrs. Kennan sailed for the Far East in January, 1904, visiting Hawaii, the
Philippines, Japan, Korea, and China. They spent the major part of their time
in Japan and returned home in June 1905.
Kennan was also associated with McClure's and wrote articles for other
papers as well on many varied subjects. He took considerable interest in rail–
way problems, in particular a controversy between President Theodore Roosevelt
and the railway magnate, E. H. Harriman, and in 1923 published a two-volume

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss: Kennan

biography of Harriman. A small book, The Salton Sea , preceded this. In these
later years, however, he did not completely neglect Russia in his writings, for
in 1915 he published an entertaining book of short stories and sketches, A Rus–
sian Comedy of Errors
. He said of this book in a letter to a friend "there is
no fiction in it except 'Napoleander'".
In 1888, the Kennans had visited their good friends, the Alexander Graham
Bells, at Baddeck on Cape Breton Island and had purchased a home for themselves
nearby. This Nova Scotian home became a haven from the strains of travel and
life in Washington and frequentlyKennan went there to recuperate from illnesses
brought on by his travels, such as Cuban fever contracted during the Spanish
American War and a nervous breakdown suffered in 1908. In his last years he
and his wife settled in Medina, New York, where Mrs. Kennan had lived as a girl.
Here he became vice president of the Medina Publishing Company and wrote from
time to time for the Medina Tribune under the heading "G.K.'s Column." Here,
after a three-day illness, he died on May 10, 1924.
Such a long and varied life was not all composed of work. Kennan had
many resources for recreation. Music, camping trips, sailing, and gardening
ranked high among them. In religion he had, with much spiritual travail,
abandoned the Calvinistic faith of his ancestors and his own childhood but
he had established for himself a philosophy which he never clearly defined
but which his life story proves to have been good. He had known many famous
people during the course of his long life, received outstanding honors, and
had been a member of several important [: ] societies. (He was, for instance,
a charter member and first secretary of the National Geographic Society.) He neither
over- nor under-estimated his own importance. It was a source of deep regret
to him that he had no children, for he had acquired, in Japan, a strong feeling

EA-Biog. Hotchkiss: Kennan

for the value of family continuity. He had one namesake in the Kennan family,
the grandson of a cousin, but he did not live to see George F. Kennan become,
in his turn, a recognized authority on Russian affairs.
Lecturing and journalism are careers whose fame is transitory but George
Kennan's memory will endure because of the information he amassed and left
behind for future students of Siberia and of the Russian Revolution.
Bibliography

The Kennan Family , by T. L. Kennan

Chronology of George Kennan's Life, by Mrs. George Kennan

The Kennan Collection, New York Public Library

Family Letters owned by George F. Kennan

The Writings of George Kennan, books, magazine and newspaper articles.

Jeanette Kennan Hotchkiss
HomeGeorge Kennan : Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only