Siberia and the Exile System by George Kennan.
Review by Nikolai Kowalchuk
Siberia and the Exile System
By George Kennan
New York: The Century Company, 1891
A review by Nikolai Kowalchuk
Published in 1891, George Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System is a journalistic account of his time in Siberia during the Tsarist regime. He details his travels through the horrifying, yet often beautiful, Siberian landscape. From the 1500s until 1905, ending after the Russian Revolution, Russia was largely ruled by a variety of autocrats, eventually shifting into Tsarist absolutism as time went on. This form of “government” had a massive impact on Russia during the time, where any dissenters could be sent away to Siberian prison camps without notice or warning, and the Tsar, Aleksandr the Second at the time of Geroge Kennan’s account, could get away with anything they wanted. During this time, due to a combination of propaganda and not really knowing the full details of what was happening in Siberia at the time, many Americans, including Kennan himself, were either in favor of or neutral to the Autocracy. Before embarking on his travels, Kennan was actually quite pro-Russia, and this was a large part of why he was let into the country, and later into Siberia, with little oversight.
Throughout the first part of his journey, Kennan is awed by the beautiful Siberian wilderness, and the picturesque towns, stating “a single vivid picture of a quant Russian hamlet which looks like an artistically contrived scene in a theatre. It is so near that you can distinguish the features of the laughing peasant girls who run down into the foreground to wave their handkerchiefs”(Kennan 17). He continues to describe this idyllic, almost saccharine image, seemingly borne from an idealized version of Russia. But for Kennan, that idealized place is real, and it’s right in front of him. That clashes with the way he views another town later in the book, saying “the Siberian peasant doesn’t take any pride in the external appearance of his premises, and gives little attention to beautifying them or keeping them in order”(Kennan 68). It’s a pretty dramatic shift in his perceptions of the place around him, as well as a dramatic shift between Siberian and Russian aesthetic ideals. There could be a ton of reasons for this shift, but I think a major one is how the peasants living in Siberia view their lor in life, and it can be applied, with broad strokes, to many of the political prisoners who live there: there’s a sense of impermanence, perhaps because they feel they belong in Russia, or perhaps because the Siberian wilderness is so vast and indomitable, they feel there’s no point in trying to outlast it. Whatever the reason, it’s the first inkling for Kennan that maybe things aren’t as idyllic as he thought, an inkling that comes to a head in chapter thirteen.
Starting out, it’s likely that Kennan believed his travels to be largely easy, and not find anything of note as he adventures through Siberia. In fact, this belief that nothing bad was going on is what made it so easy for him to enter Russia with minimal red tape. As the book continues, and Kennan comes face to face with the horrors of the exile system, as well as the humanity of said exiles, he comes to an altogether different conclusion than what the government would have wanted. As we hear from his musings on the Siberian peasant village, and a later encounter with an actual Siberian prison, Kennan is slowly becoming less and less enthused with the idea of exile, and the use of Siberia to do it. This all reaches a climax in chapter thirteen which is, funnily enough, almost exactly the midway point of the book. Kennan, after meeting with an official in a small town in Siberia, a man named Pavloski, dances around the topic of the exiles, unsure if Pavloski is a more liberal official or not. Eventually, the both of them reach an understanding that they both have the same beliefs and ideals, with Kennan stating “I was not at that time aware of the fact that Russian officials and political exiles are often in sympathy”(Pg 168) and Pavloski takes Kennan to meet a handful of exiles from the small village. This is where Kennan learns exactly how awful the Tsarist regime is treating these people, exiling them for much smaller crimes, though luckily not imprisoning them. Kennan realizes that exiling people away from their homes into Siberia is, in fact, a bad thing after meeting a handful of them. This is a turning point in the story, from a more lighthearted travelogue into a much darker look at the Exile system and its repercussions. It’s a fantastic chapter, and a really interesting look into the effect of propaganda: Kennan, a war journalist at one point, who most would assume to be more cynical and untrusting of what a government says, is easily brainwashed into believing what the Russian government tells him, believing it up until he finally meets the people who had been so dehumanized before then.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to others with interest in Siberian history. However, I’d have to recommend it with a few caveats: the amount of detail Kennan uses on prices, places, and GDP is very impressive, and helps the reader get a better handle on exactly what he’s trying to say, but it often ends up completel;y ruining the narrative, and cutting it off at odd points, which is something any future reader of the book would want to know. I would also urge anybody to purchase a different copy than I did (I got the 2012 Forgotten Books reprint), as the ink is very thin and scratchy, making it difficult to read the book for long stretches of time. The ink problems also make the pictures included in the book very difficult to understand, basically large blotches of black and white with only a handful of recognizable characteristics. Since I hate ending book reviews on a bad note, overall I think Kennan did a phenomenal job writing Siberia and the Exile System, as it’s full of interesting facts, numbers and stories. It also does a great job of keeping the audience invested. Since it’s told as a travelogue there’s a much more personal connection between the author and the reader which makes the events of Kennan’s travels stand out more.
Michael Glenny, “Leonid Krasin: The Years before 1917: An Outline,” Soviet Studies, vol. 22, no. 2 (October 1970), pp. 192–221
Kennan, George (1891). Siberia and the Exile System. New York: The Century Company