In a book that ranks with the greatest adventure stories, Gregory Wallance’s Into Siberia is a thrilling work of history about one man’s harrowing journey and the light it shone on some of history’s most heinous human rights abuses.
In the late nineteenth century, close diplomatic relations existed between the United States and Russia. All that changed when George Kennan went to Siberia in 1885 to investigate the exile system and his eyes were opened to the brutality Russia was wielding to suppress dissent.
Over ten months Kennan traveled eight thousand miles, mostly in horse-drawn carriages, sleighs or on horseback. He endured suffocating sandstorms in the summer and blizzards in the winter. His interviews with convicts and political exiles revealed how Russia ran on the fuel of inflicted pain and fear. Prisoners in the mines were chained day and night to their wheelbarrows as punishment. Babies in exile parties froze to death in their mothers’ arms. Kennan came to call the exiles’ experience in Siberia a “perfect hell of misery.”
After returning to the United States, Kennan set out to generate public outrage over the plight of the exiles, writing the renowned Siberia and the Exile System. He then went on a nine-year lecture tour to describe the suffering of the Siberian exiles, intensifying the newly emerging diplomatic conflicts between the two countries which last to this day.
To be honest, I was drawn to reading this book because of the subtitle – “George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia.” Adventure, excitement, travel, I thought. Then I read further and realized that there was a great deal more to the book than that.
George Kennan was born in Ohio in the 1840s. For much of his younger years, he was haunted by the worry that he wasn’t brave and he began to go to extreme lengths to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Not old enough to enlist when the Civil War began, he eventually became a telegrapher then joined an epic quest to build a telegraph service across the Bering Sea and through Russia (since Atlantic cables kept snapping) as a link between Europe and North America. This became his first journey through Siberia and Russia and proved to him, once and for all, that he was not a coward. He developed a love for the country and traveling through the harsh beauty of Siberia. Arriving home after the crushing news that the Pacific telegraph service was no longer needed (engineers had figured out how to lay cable across the Atlantic), he wrote about his adventures and then lectured about his years in Siberia.
Needing more adventure, he got it when he went back to Russia alone and traveled through the Caucasus Mountains. From all the descriptions, such a thing was not for the faint of heart. George thrived on it. He loved being back in Russia (he spoke Russian fluently although he was told that some of the language he had learned among the rough and ready men while investigating cable routes wasn’t suitable for polite company) and thought highly of it including what (very) little he had seen of the penal system but curiously he had little sympathy for the overworked Dagestan women nor paid much mind to the injustices going on in America.
Not having attended college, Kennan felt he needed to improve himself and used the post war craze for intellectual magazine articles as a means of doing so while he earned money through journalism. An idea was hatched for him to go back to Russia and investigate the Siberian penal system. Taking along an artist, he set out in 1885. Using his contacts and the goodwill that he’d built up through the publication of his first book about his earlier Siberian trip, he gathered letters of introduction and some supplies before he and George Frost set out.
What a journey! Holy &^#$. The bitter cold, the roads, the travel inns, the bed bugs. And then the two men traveled into (to borrow a phrase) “the heart of darkness.” Remember that Kennan had begun this trip as a friend of Russia and generally agreed with the need for a penal system given the political upheavals that were convulsing the country. What he saw exposed him to depths of human suffering of which he had no inkling. No one to whom he applied for permission to visit jails, camps, and mines said no. Nothing was prettied up though Kennan realized that word and intent of his journey had been telegraphed ahead of him. He said that the people in charge there appeared to feel that attempting to deny the horror of it was useless. One of the things that Kennan had (in theory) liked about the Russian system – that wives and children could travel into exile with their male relations rather than having the family broken up – became a reality that crushed him.
As the trip continued, both Kennan and Frost began to feel the effects. They were constantly afraid of being arrested in spite of the documents and letters they carried which added to the mental and physical exhaustion of the trip itself. Unknown to Kennan, Frost had suffered from a nervous breakdown before the trip and he slowly slipped back into another while Kennan’s physical health began to deteriorate. When they emerged back into European Russia and then London, friends barely recognized them. Kennan’s wife feared for his health.
The first hand information they carried out and to the world set off tsunamis of dismayed emotion among the American public and while the diplomatic corps had to try to smooth relations between the two countries. After writing an extensive series of articles, Kennan tirelessly lectured to packed auditoriums for years – which further damaged his health. But there were critics as well who pointed out that by speaking for those imprisoned for crimes against the state, he was sanctioning their violent actions and oh what about the similar crimes that the US was perpetrating against its own minorities and Native Americans that no one who was lauding Kennan seemed to care about. Kennan was also banished from entering Russia and later arrested when he did.
Up until the 1890s, the US and Russia had had a friendly diplomatic relationship. Kennan’s book and lectures in part dropped a bomb on this so that, even before the October Revolution (which Kennan foresaw turning into something even worse than the Czarist system), it had been cooling. Experiencing it and reporting on it brought George Kennan and George Frost to the brink, physically and emotionally. Sadly the Gulag that followed might have been worse than the Imperial penal system. Gregory Wallance covers all this expertly and distills Kennan’s efforts into a very readable book. B
Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.