In the 1860s, the Russian-American Telegraph Company set out to telegraphically connect the United States and Europe using lines running through the Bering Strait and Siberia. The failed expedition marked one of the first explorations of the vast Siberian wilderness, and George Kennan’s photographs capture the diverse subject of the Russian Empire.
George Kennan (1845-1924) was born in Norwalk, Ohio, and was keenly interested in travel from an early age. However, family finances dictated that he begin work at the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company telegraph office at age twelve.
In 1864, he secured employment with the Russian American Telegraph Company to survey a route for a proposed overland telegraph line through Siberia and across the Bering Strait. Having spent two years in the wilds of Kamchatka, he returned to Ohio via St. Petersburg and soon became well-known through his lectures, articles, and books about his travels.
He provided ethnographies, histories, and descriptions of many native peoples in Siberia, that are still important for researchers today. They include stories about the Koraks (Koryak language), Kamchatdal (Itelmens), Chookchees, Yukaghirs, Chooances, Yakoots and Gakouts.
In 1870, he returned to St. Petersburg and traveled to Dagestan, a northern area of the Caucasus region taken over by Russia only ten years previously. There he became the first American to explore its highlands, a remote Muslim region of herders, silversmiths, carpet-weavers, and other craftsmen. He traveled on through the northern Caucasus area, stopping in Samashki and Grozny, before returning once more to America in 1871.
During his life, his books and articles on Russian subjects were widely read. In an era prior to television and radio, Kennan was in constant demand as a speaker. His most popular talks focused on his adventures in Siberia, the peoples of Russia, and, later on, the evils of the Tsarist exile system.
Not only did Kennan have the respect of the American people; his knowledge of Russian and his scholarly approach to issues brought him respect from a wide variety of Russians as well. Kennan’s writings also brought him the enmity of the Russian government. When Kennan tried to return to Russia again in 1901, he was arrested and expelled as “politically untrustworthy.”
(Photo credit: Library of Congress).