The Russian leopard has not changed its spots

  • Themes: Russia

Tucker Carlson is hardly the first American traveller to Russia who has been willingly seduced by its regime.

The American writer George Kennan (1845-1924) observes Russian convicts on their way to Siberia.
The American writer George Kennan (1845-1924) observes Russian convicts on their way to Siberia. Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia, Gregory J. Wallance, St Martin’s Press, £24.99

Tucker Carlson’s visit to Russia last week was deeply illuminating – less for Vladimir Putin’s condescending lecture to the former Fox News host that trafficked in the selective history and lies used to justify his war against Ukraine, than for a telling and tragic juxtaposition that followed.

Over the past week, Carlson has posted videos of himself marvelling at everything from the grandeur of the the Moscow Metro (built by Stalin just as he began his Great Purge) to the low cost of groceries (sold in a country with a per capita income of $15,000 and soaring inflation) to the cleanliness of the streets (in a nation where 20 per cent of households lack indoor plumbing) to its supposed traditionalism (in a country where less than 10 per cent of the population regularly attends church). Meanwhile, in a Western Siberian prison some 1,200 miles from the capital, the anti-corruption campaigner and opposition figure Alexei Navalny entered his final hours – dying suddenly on Thursday, another victim of Putin’s regime.

There are corners of Russia that are not fit for video shorts on the platform formerly known as Twitter, let alone for primetime.

Carlson is hardly the first American traveller to Russia who has been willingly seduced by its regime, fascinated by the depth of the ‘Russian soul’, and captivated by it as the ‘Great Other’, at once so similar to and different from the United States. Continent-sized states and frontier societies bridging Europe and Asia, their ambitions and diametrically opposed political systems have long inspired comparison and projection from US presidents, including two who served as ministers to St Petersburg, powerful legislators, eminent historians, and writers admiring and appalled.

Perhaps the most famous among these visitors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was journalist and explorer George Kennan, whose travels in Russia are ably chronicled in Gregory J. Wallance’s Into Siberia, which was published in late 2023 and dedicated to Alexei Navalny. The distant cousin of the diplomat who famously advocated for the containment of the Soviet Union, Kennan’s arduous journeys traced thousands of miles and the moral distance from being an admirer of the tsarist regime to its fiercest critic – a telling contrast to the small but vocal number of Americans who admire Russia’s government today.

Kennan’s transformation came from personal experience. Born to a modest Ohio family in 1845, he began his career as a telegraph operator during the American Civil War who longed to prove his courage. In 1865 he volunteered to join Western Union’s Russian-American Telegraph Expedition, which sought to lay a line under the Bering Strait and across Russia as an alternative to a rival company’s transatlantic cable, which had encountered repeated technical difficulties.

His journey began in Kamchatka, where he braved -50° F temperatures, travelled overland via dogsled, and relied on his wits and the kindness of indigenous Siberians and Russians to survive. ‘I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have not failed in anything which I have undertaken,’ he noted, recalling moments when he rescued members of his party who were stranded in icy rivers and mountains. In Wallance’s telling, Kennan eventually arrived in St Petersburg ‘to behold a dazzling, snow-dusted, golden-trimmed fairy tale of a city, part architectural confection, part Potemkin village’.

Unfortunately for Western Union, its competitor successfully completed the transatlantic cable. Kennan’s trip, however, laid the foundation for a promising career as a writer, beginning with his account of his adventures in Tent Life in Siberia and a subsequent lecture tour. Russia kept calling to him, first to the Caucasus in 1870, where he encountered the Mountain Jews and traveled with Dagestani Muslim highlanders steeped in blood feuds and the honour code of adat. He had come to admire Russia deeply, defending its ambitions in Central Asia amid the Great Game with Britain, and became an authority in the United States on all matters Russian. As he noted: ‘I have received so many kind attentions from Russians when in their country that I am in duty bound to treat a Russian well wherever I may meet him.’

After several false starts, Kennan pursued a career as a journalist in Washington, DC, where he served as Supreme Court correspondent for the Associated Press. A self-made and self-taught man, he followed his instincts wherever they led in these years – to agnosticism, much to the horror of his devout Presbyterian family – and to an abiding Russophilia, which looked sceptically at the radicals who assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881 in the hope of sparking a revolution.

Wallance deftly weaves this story of Russian political upheaval with Kennan’s journey to Russia, which came about due to his curiosity, contrarianism, and thirst for adventure. Alexander’s assassination was followed by a far-reaching crackdown on the opposition and a wave of pogroms against Russian Jews. A number of Americans argued that the Russian Empire had revealed its barbarous side, particularly via its exile system.

Kennan took the regime’s side, publicly arguing that it had been ‘grossly misrepresented’ in its treatment of the Jews and declaring that the Siberian exile system – which he had not seen firsthand – was hardly ‘cruel or unusual punishment’ and compared favourably to the methods of other European states. He set out to test his proposition in 1885, traveling with illustrator George Frost on assignment from Century  magazine. What he discovered shocked his conscience.

To Kennan’s credit, he sought to provide a ‘careful and thorough personal investigation’. The tsar’s government smoothed his passage, but he recognised that he would have to meet prisoners and see the penal colonies, where approximately 300,000 people lived in exile. Travelling in a bone-rattling carriage along the Great Siberian Post Road, Kennan and Frost visited Tiumen prison, where hundreds of inmates were crowded into cells with a single tub for excrement before being marched thousands of miles eastward.

Kennan had assumed that the exile system, which allowed families to accompany prisoners, was more humane than the alternative. In practice, arbitrary justice swept up the guilty and innocent alike and sent them to austere Siberia. Those sentenced to hard labour extracted the region’s natural resources for the benefit of the state. Wives turned to prostitution to make ends meet. Gangs maintained internal discipline. Prisoners drank themselves into stupors to numb the pain. Guards brutally whipped escapees. The several thousand political exiles, some punished merely for possessing ‘dangerous’ books, were barred from cultural life and denied the opportunity to work.

Benefitting from sympathetic and negligent officials, Kennan and Frost continued to Omsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk, and Kara, where convicts worked in gold mines. At this point, Kennan could not deny the reality of the exile system. In the depths of the Russian winter, he worried that he and his companion would be entrapped by gendarmes – a possibility that sent Frost into a spiral of anxious paranoia in which he refused to eat for fear of being poisoned. Upon their return trip to Moscow and St Petersburg, he interviewed regime opponents, saw secret reports to the tsar documenting the exile system that had gone unanswered, and met with Leo Tolstoy, who listened sympathetically to his stories.

Kennan’s Century  articles, featuring over 100 illustrations derived from Frost’s sketches, came out to great acclaim between 1887 and 1891. Published as Siberia and the Exile System, Kennan’s words and subsequent decade of public lectures permanently altered Americans’ popular perceptions of Russia. American diplomats lamented the impact on US-Russian relations, which had been warm in the wake of the Civil War, while other critics argued that Kennan only focused on the negative rather than on Russia’s many happy people, painted violent revolutionaries in a positive light, and ignored the deplorable conditions in America’s own prisons.

‘I did not go to Russia to observe happy homes, nor to make the acquaintance of congenial, kind-hearted people… The balancing of a happy and kind-hearted family in St Petersburg against an epidemic of typhus in the exile prison at Tomsk is not an evidence of fairness and impartiality but rather the evidence of an illogical mind,’ Kennan shot back with indignation.

That he was willing to change his mind so thoroughly in light of the evidence and hard experience remains remarkable, even though he found the subject singularly depressing and difficult. The tsar initiated modest reforms in response to the bad publicity, but his government banned Kennan from returning to Russia. The journalist found himself on the outskirts of his principal subject, zealously advocating for democracy in Russia amid its wars and revolutions until he died in 1924. By then, the Soviets were on the precipice of building the ‘gulag archipelago’.

It is fitting that Wallance ends his story by pairing the words of Kennan and another noted journalist. Lincoln Steffens, the eminent muckraker, infamously marvelled after visiting Soviet Russia in 1919 that he had ‘seen the future, and it works’. Kennan, by contrast, remarked fatalistically in 1923: ‘But let no one be deceived. The Russian leopard has not changed its spots.’

With luck, Kennan will eventually be proved wrong. The alternative in the meantime is not the pristine Potemkin Disneyland of Tucker Carlson or the socialist utopia admired by Steffens, but the future as envisioned by George Orwell: a boot stamping on a human face.

It is to be hoped that the stamping will not last forever.


Will Quinn