George Kennan: Tent Life in Siberia

November 4, 2018

51yV8-xSDsL._AC_US218_Well, this was a find! I had heard of it before, long ago, and it’s definitely worth a read, if you’re into slightly crazy travel and exploration.

Because the first attempts at laying a transatlantic cable had been unsuccessful in the mid-19th century, it was thought that an overland cable through the US, across the Bering Strait and then across the whole of Russia might be an alternative (!). So, men were sent to survey and prepare the way… four Americans plus a few hired Russians landed in Kamchatka in the late 1860s. Today the utter cluelessness of the enterprise makes my mind boggle…

Kamchatka is a vast and incredibly isolated, actively volcanic peninsula. My edition of the Road Atlas of the Soviet Union shows hardly any roads a century after Kennan and co visited. The Siberia through which they planned to lay the cable does not even figure in the atlas… Nobody seems to refer to any maps – and it’s a great shame that the publishers didn’t include one in this edition because trying to follow Kennan’s adventures on a modern atlas verges on the impossible.

Kennan is in his early twenties, full of energy; nothing throws him. He’s a very well-educated young man who refers frequently to literature and the classics as he describes their journey, and he’s also awed by the beauty of the Kamchatka peninsula, which he describes very well, lyrically even; in spite of various incredible hardships and dangers, he remains tuned in to nature and landscape, revelling in the many appearances of the Northern Lights, and the amazingly short-lived flourishing of the Siberian spring and summer (about two months in all…).

He’s also a very humorous writer, in the Mark Twain vein, for those who are familiar with any of that man’s travelogues – although Twain has a much easier time than Kennan. He’s marvellous on Westerners’ attempts to wrestle with the Russian language and its alphabet. The easy humour and optimism of youth shines through his encounters and conversations, his relationships with his fellow Americans and his response to a foreign land.

The group gain some knowledge of the terrain and make preparations for laying some telegraph wires, only to be told, as they are relieved from the horrors of another Siberian winter by the arrival of an American supply ship, that a recent attempt at re-laying the transatlantic cable has been successful, so they are to sell off what they can, pack up and return home. Which Kennan does, without a grumble.

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