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‘Our dear Georgii Ivanovich’: an American journalist between Siberia and the Russian emigration

By Blog Admin, on 1 October 2014

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer, from the LSE archives.

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer.
LSE archives. Reproduced with permission

Archives in Moscow, London and Washington DC reveal the story of an American writer’s influence on the Russian revolutionary emigration, finds postgraduate Ben Phillips.

In a letter to the executive committee of the revolutionary populist group Narodnaia volia (People’s Will) in March 1882, the writer and sometime revolutionary terrorist Sergei Kravchinskii (better known by his nom de plume, Stepniak) insisted that the emigration to the West – then in its third and final stage before the events of 1917 – should conduct two distinct propagandas: one, characterised by revolutionary socialism, amongst the Russian youth, the other focused on stirring humanitarian outrage against the iniquities of Russian politics amongst the European bourgeoisie. ‘We can expect no sympathy in the name of our socialism’, he wrote. ‘We must acquaint Europe not with our political programme, but with the current state of the revolutionary struggle’ (Valk 1965, p. 345).

For years, the emigration was Janus-faced. Looking west, Russia’s political outcasts at once presented themselves as moderate liberals and democratic socialists to the European bourgeoisie, whilst introspectively debating the merits of revolutionary terrorism and engaging with theoretical questions. In this context, the story of George Kennan, with his web of contacts and personal friendships extending between the emigration and Siberia’s community of political exiles, and his writings on the Siberian exile system that were translated into Russian and disseminated illegally across Russia almost before they had appeared in English, remains one of the underexplored curiosities of revolutionary history. How did an American journalist come to transcend the audiences to which the emigration had previously spoken in two different languages and two different registers?

A distant cousin of his Cold War namesake, Kennan’s interest in Russia dated back to the 1860s, when a two-year visit to the Kamchatka peninsula provided material for Tent Life in Siberia (1877). However, it was his second visit to Russia’s eastern domains in the mid-1880s that cemented Kennan’s legacy. From 1885 to 1886, Kennan’s research on the Siberian exile system exposed him to the worst iniquities of Tsarist autocracy and brought him into contact with many political prisoners with whom he remained friends. His damning findings were serialised by Century Magazine at the end of the 1880s and early 1890s, creating a sensation across the Anglophone world. During this time, he frequented the American lecture circuit, and was recognised as his country’s preeminent Russianist. His magnum opus, Siberia and the Exile System, appeared in two volumes in 1891 and remains his best known work as well as a significant source for those working on the history of Siberian exile.

Kennan reached different audiences in different ways. Thomas M. Barrett has argued that it was through his American lectures, ‘more than anywhere else, that Kennan reached his public and became a celebrity’ (Stolberg 2005, p. 139). His oratory drew heavily on American melodramatic traditions and sensationalist representations of Siberia as a Ruritanian wilderness populated by terrifying natives and the exiled nobility of Russia’s western borderlands. Kennan’s trick was to add politics to the melodrama, along with a heavy dose of self-regarding chauvinism. Night after night, Kennan turned out the lights for magic lantern displays of political prisoners’ photographs, sang prison songs, disappeared mid-lecture only to return dressed as a Siberian convict and, on at least one occasion, reduced an audience to tears with an (unverified) anecdote of prisoners in a Petersburg forwarding prison flying the American flag to celebrate July 4th. (See Travis 1990.)Thus it is clearly true that in one sense Kennan tells us far more about American liberalism at the end of the nineteenth century than he does about Russia. One can relate the figure of the political exile in Kennan’s writings and his lectures to the role of refugees from the 1848 revolutions in the mid-Victorian consciousness: both represented mirrors on the self.

In another sense, however, Kennan was a fully fledged member of the revolutionary movement. His writings appeared in Russian on nine different occasions between 1888 and 1891. Around this time, his name figures repeatedly in the memoirs and recollections of Siberian political exiles. Vladimir Burtsev, who escaped Siberia and fled to Europe in 1888, wrote subsequently that upon arriving in Switzerland his aim had been to ‘write a history of the revolutionary movement somewhat in the style of Kennan’s’ (Burtsev 2012, p. 53). The early Soviet journal Katorga i ssylka (Hard Labour and Exile) wrote in 1929 of one exile advising another, in the aftermath of a massacre of political prisoners in Iakutsk on 22 March 1889, to ‘write of this to all corners of our motherland, the borderlands and abroad, to every Kennan’ (Katorga i ssylka 52 (1929), p. 37).  Ivan Meisner, writing from the Sakhalin penal colony later that same year, suggested that his correspondent ‘could scarcely imagine the joyous surprise that possessed us upon learning of Kennan’s agitation, of that explosion of anger that shook all educated Europe and America after the executions in Iakutsk and the horrors of Kara’ (ibid., p. 38).

Advertisement for a lecture by Volkhovskii, from the LSE archives

Advertisement for a lecture by Volkhovskii.
LSE archives. Reproduced with permission

It is hard to say whether such responses to Kennan’s work merely reflected the dissemination of his writing within Russia or were also due, in part, to his connections within Siberia’s exile community (which, as detailed in Siberia and the Exile System, were numerous and included both the writer and revolutionary Feliks Volkhovskii and the socialist revolutionary Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaia). As Volkhovskii’s case demonstrates, such relationships served to bridge the gap between the revolution’s geographically remote exilic destinations in Europe and Siberia. Born in Poltava, Volkhovskii became involved in radical politics whilst a law student at Moscow State University and was arrested several times before being exiled to Tobolsk in 1878. He was soon resettled to Tomsk, where he spent the next decade and met Kennan. His 1889 escape took him, via Vladivostok, Japan and Canada, to the United States, where Kennan supported him for the best part of a year. Writing to Stepniak in 1891, Volkhovskii affectionately referred to Kennan as ‘our dear Georgii Ivanovich, for so he loves to be called’. Casting doubt on Kennan’s motivations, Volkhovskii nonetheless acknowledged that he was essential to the emigration’s work:

As you see, he works for money, and there is no doubt that half the money raised goes to Kennan himself. There is likewise no doubt that even his lectures are the strongest propaganda we have […] As they say, my brother, to open the ‘civilised world’ to the Russian revolutionary movement we need a foreigner such as Kennan. (RGALI 1158.1.232, pp. 42-43)

That the emigration relied upon Kennan as an authority is quite clear. Stepniak wrote in August 1886 to the Fabian socialist Edward Pease that his findings, when published, would mean nothing less than ‘a new era in the conquest of European and American public opinion in support of our work’ (Zakharina 1968, p. 200). Likewise, a flyer advertising a series of lectures delivered by Volkhovskii after his arrival in Britain in June 1890 underscored that ‘when in Siberia, Mr. George Kennan met Mr. Volkhovsky and speaks of him in the highest terms’ (LSE archives COLL MISC 1028). Yet Kennan, in turn, depended heavily for his own authority upon his Russian contacts, both in Siberia and Europe. Thus his lectures regularly devoted time to recounting Volkhovskii’s life and sufferings, and reported news he obtained from the Russophone émigré press as opposed to material widely circulated in the mainstream European papers. Kennan narrowed the gap between the western emigration and Siberia. His position was, in a sense, analogous to that described by Burtsev after his escape:

As a new arrival, having only just fled Siberia, everyone asked me questions. I had a wealth of information about Siberia, from where, for the emigration, I was a rare guest. I had bought them a host of new and interesting impressions from my last illegal journey across Russia. (Burtsev 2012, pp. 41-42)

Herein lay Kennan’s significance for the revolution. For a movement that entered the fin de siècle shattered by the repressions that had followed Aleksandr II’s assassination in 1881, all but devoid of ideological coherence and plagued by factionalism and infighting, the experience of banishment – whether in the West or in Siberia – became the cornerstone of a common identity through necessity. ‘The heroes of the emigration were the revolutionaries fighting the government and working amongst the working class’, Burtsev wrote. ‘As our enemies expressed it, they were all katorzhniki [hard labour convicts], those who remained in prison and exile. To his own question – what was a Russian intellectual? – the centre-right journalist Meshcherskii replied that it was a man who had served a prison term’ (Burtsev 2012, p. 35). Yet for the western émigrés to plausibly appropriate the label for their own ends was difficult without genuine channels of communication to Siberia. Before Kennan and the arrival of such escapees as Volkhovskii, Burtsev and Leonid Shishko, these were few and far between. Most of the latter, with the notable exception of Volkhovskii, were almost entirely unwilling to write or speak of their experiences – a subject for another post –  whilst others, such as Stepniak and Petr Kropotkin, did not do so from personal observation. It was left for Kennan not only to propagandise the Siberian cause celèbré from a position of personal experience, but to make exile – whether self-imposed or judicial – synonymous with the radical cause, thereby drawing the revolution’s east and west closer together.

Ben Phillips is a PhD candidate at UCL SSEES. His research focuses on images of Siberian exile in pre-1917 émigré literature and the construction of affinities between Russians’ eastern and western experiences of banishment. He currently holds a visiting fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where he is working on George Kennan’s connections with the Russian emigration.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.