Excerpts from the Book

Reprinted from Daughter of the Cold War, copyright © 2018 by Grace Kennan Warnecke

Published by University of Pittsburgh Press

Born in 1845 into a family of modest means in Norwalk, Ohio, the original George Kennan had to quit school and go to work for the telegraph company at the age of twelve. Tapping out messages to all parts of the world must have honed his curiosity about foreign travel, so when a job was advertised in 1865—surveying Siberia for a possible trans-Siberian cable for the Russian-American Telegraph Company—this nineteen- year-old telegraph clerk submitted his application and was accepted. He had never been out of Norwalk. My father used to tell me this story, impressed by the adventurous spirit that propelled this relative forward against heavy odds.

The elder George Kennan made his way to Alaska, and in August 1865 he boarded a steamer to Kamchatka. He spent two years traveling through Siberia by sleigh, by reindeer, and by skin canoe (this was before the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway) in temperatures that went down to sixty degrees below zero, and conditions very primitive. He learned to speak Russian on the way. The western part of Siberia was at that point only sparsely settled, inhabited largely by various Asiatic tribes. As a result of this trip, George Kennan wrote a two-volume book, Tent Life in Siberia: Adventures among the Koraks and Other Tribes in Kamchatka and Northern Asia. He returned to the United States and gave lectures about this trip in order to supplement his clerical income. He, like my father, had an intense curiosity about the world he was discovering and an ability to keep meticulous notes and card files. However, his Siberian exploration came to naught, as the transatlantic cable was announced at about that time, killing any prospect of a trans-Siberian cable.

George Kennan next returned to Russia in 1870 to do a pioneering trek through Dagestan and the North Caucasus, a wild, mountainous region virtually never traveled by Westerners. This trip led to more lectures and publications. He must have been a charismatic speaker, because eventually he earned some sort of world record, giving a speech every night for two hundred consecutive evenings (except Sundays) from 1890 to 1891.

In his articles, the elder Kennan was rather pro Tsar Alexander II’s policies, which led the tsar and his courtiers to assume that Kennan would be a good representative for them in the West. The tsarist government even assisted him in arrangements for a trip to survey penal colonies in Siberia and the exile system. This journey, taken from 1885 to 1887, totally changed George Kennan’s mindset. As he visited Siberian prison settlements, he was horrified and became a strong opponent of the tsarist system of exile. He built a false bottom into his suitcase and risked his life carrying out last letters to their families from prisoners who either knew they were sentenced to death or suspected they would not survive imprisonment. He became close friends with some early Russian revolutionaries and a founding member of the American Friends of Russian Freedom. He wrote a series of articles in The Century Magazine that grew into a two-volume book, Siberia and the Exile System. When I finally read this book, I understood how grueling those trips were and what unusual physical stamina he must have had.

When the book on the exile system was published, the tsarist government, at the personal direction of the tsar, refused to permit George Kennan back in to Russia. In defiance, my ancestor made one more trip to St. Petersburg, but he was immediately picked up by the police and unceremoniously expelled.

When my father talked about the original George Kennan, it was clear that he felt an almost mystical connection with his great-great-uncle. I have rarely seen my father so pleased as when he, my mother, and I visited Tolstoy’s home, Yasnaya Polyana. He was ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time, so we were accompanied by two black cars carrying KGB agents, whom my father jokingly called his “guardian angels.” Yasnaya Polyana, a small country estate, had been left almost untouched since Tolstoy walked out in November 1910 and ended up dy- ing at the nearby Astapova railroad station. Fitting in with the musty museum feeling of the house was the wizened old be- spectacled man who greeted us; appropriately, he turned out to have been one of Tolstoy’s secretaries, Valentin Bulgakov. When my father introduced himself, Bulgakov volunteered, “Oh, yes, I remember your uncle.” He rummaged in the shelves and pulled out an old guest book with crisp, slightly tan paper, and we all looked in awe at the original George Kennan’s signature. Even the guardian angels stood respectfully silent, in their black suits, a few steps behind.

The George Kennans shared a birthday, February 16; both played the guitar and loved to sail. The original George Kennan eventually married but never had any children, and I know my father felt he was his spiritual heir. My father told me that the one time he had gone to visit the older Kennans, the wife wasn’t very nice to the young relative, but her cold reception never dampened his affection for his great-great-uncle. “I feel that I was in some strange way destined to carry forward as best I could the work of my distinguished and respected namesake,” he wrote in Memoirs. Years later, when I told my father about my visa denial, he nodded his head. “Ah, you see, it’s the Kennan curse.” All my life, as my work took me back to Russia again and again, I felt this strange magnetic pull. Russia had always been and would always be intertwined with my life.

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