January 25, 2023

Never the Twain Shall Meet?

Between the US Civil War and 1888, there was a golden era of good feeling between the US and Russia. Americans largely saw Russia as an ally (its neutrality aided the North during the Civil War), albeit a backward one led by a benevolent tsar.

But that year the mood in the US began to change when Century Magazine began publishing a series of essays by George Kennan (cousin and namesake for the twentieth century diplomat who coined the notion of “containment”). Kennan’s stories, based on ten months of travel across Russia in 1885-1886, were investigations and observations of prison life in Siberia. So horrific were the stories that they inflamed public opinion against Russia (where, in 1881, the “benevolent” Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated) in a way only superseded by Kennan’s subsequent book (Siberia and the Exile System), and his national speaking tour.

“No one critic,” wrote the historian Thomas A. Bailey, “did more to rip away the veil of fancy from Russian despotism… than George Kennan. No one person did more to cause the people of the United States to turn against their presumed benefactor of yesteryear.”

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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

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