• Back to Encyclopedia Arctica homepage

    George Kennan

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0424                                                                                                                  

    [Jeanette Kennan Hotchkiss]


            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,

    002      |      Vol_XV-0425                                                                                                                  
    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.

    003      |      Vol_XV-0426                                                                                                                  
    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

    004      |      Vol_XV-0427                                                                                                                  
    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

    005      |      Vol_XV-0428                                                                                                                  
    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.

    006      |      Vol_XV-0429                                                                                                                  
    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.

    007      |      Vol_XV-0430                                                                                                                  
    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,

    008      |      Vol_XV-0431                                                                                                                  
    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

    , 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

    009      |      Vol_XV-0432                                                                                                                  
    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

    010      |      Vol_XV-0433                                                                                                                  
    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.


    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

    Back to top