“Great Elocutionary Power and Dramatic Force”: George Kennan’s Lectures on Russia as Reported in American Newspapers, 1889-1893

This is a guest post by E. Thomas Ewing, Professor of History, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Tech political science majors Taylor Wentzel and Justin Noel.

Detail from print advertisement announcing lecture

Students at Virginia Tech recently completed a project for a course on Imperial Russian history, which benefitted not only from their easy access to hundreds of digitized newspapers on the Library’s Chronicling America website but also from a virtual tour of the personal papers of their principal subject, explorer and journalist George Kennan (1845-1924), courtesy of Manuscript Division historian Josh Levy. In March 2022, Levy met remotely with the class for the first time and described the scope and character of materials in the George Kennan Papers. One of the file boxes he showed contained scores of newspaper clippings (many apparently untouched since they were collected more than a century ago). This view of the original print sources was insightful for the students, whose encounter with historical newspapers, as with most media, typically occurs in the form of digital reproductions. Levy continued to provide guidance to the students at multiple stages of the project, and he observed the students’ final presentations, bringing his expertise as an archivist and his training as a historian to provide expert commentary on their research findings.

Newspapers, whether in analog or digital form, are accessible primary sources that illustrate contemporary perspectives on important issues, events, and people. By examining newspaper reports of Kennan’s well-known lectures on Russia’s penal colonies in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the students collaboratively developed useful skills for analyzing primary sources, discovered a variety of perspectives in the media, and gained insights into US-Russian relations in the past and present. Reviewing coverage of Kennan’s lectures also made it possible for the class to understand the distinctions between analog sources, such as those in the George Kennan Papers in the Manuscript Division, and digitized sources, including those put online as part of the Meeting of Frontiers project and Chronicling America.

Kennan was a Western Union telegraph operator, who first went to Siberia in 1865 to work as an engineer and construction superintendent on the Russian-American Telegraph but stayed to explore the Caucasus region and Kamchatka Peninsula in the early 1870s. He later returned to Russia in 1885-1886, and in early 1889 began a national lecture campaign shortly after his very popular series of essays in Century Magazine described the Russian system of penal colonies. In the decade that followed, Kennan delivered more than eight hundred public lectures, according to historian Frederick Travis. Kennan’s lectures are thus an excellent topic for a course assignment to teach students how to use a database of American historical newspapers. A search for the phrase “George Kennan” in the Chronicling America collection from the Library of Congress produces nearly two thousand results from 1889 to 1898.

Newspaper accounts of Kennan’s lectures described how the style and content of his lecture entertained audiences while also eliciting emotional responses from those attending. During Kennan’s first tour, the St. Johnsbury Caledonian (Vermont) reported on February 14, 1889, that Kennan’s “intensely thrilling” presentation “held the closest attention of the audience, often moving them to tears as he related the sad stories of injustice and barbarity on the part of the Russian government.” Kennan’s lecture tours continued intermittently over the next several years, and regularly prompted enthusiastic reporting in local and regional newspapers.

Kennan’s lecture in Portland, Oregon, in October 1889 was advertised as “a thrilling narrative of personal experience and adventure” (Portland Daily Press). The Delaware Gazette and State Journal described Kennan’s lecture in Wilmington in January 1891 in these terms: “…the most painful feature of the lecturer’s harrowing recital is that these dark deeds are also transpiring now…If Mr. Kennan’s statements be true, there are no adjectives in our lexicon to adequately describe the damnable practices of the Russian administration of to-day.” In late November 1891, according to the Helena Independent, Kennan spoke for two hours to a large audience: “In a simple narrative, without rhetorical effect, he told of the cruelties, wrongs, and sufferings of the exiles” in Siberia. Kennan is “gifted with great descriptive powers” and at times “the intensity of his recollections seemed to overcome him.” The Los Angeles Herald reported in late November 1891 that “a spell-bound audience” at the Grand Opera House listened to “a lecturer of great elocutionary power and dramatic force, who, without any stagey effects of any kind, held his hearers in a deep interest, and moved them at times to laughter, and at times to tears.” On January 18, 1893, according to the Wheeling Register, more than three hundred people in the Opera House “listened attentively for over two hours” as “a fluent, easy talker… held the closest attention of the large audience throughout.”

During many of these lectures, Kennan left the stage briefly, and “re-appeared in the full dress of a prison convict with chains and leg fetters,” with every item “worn by some exile” who wanted these items “to be exhibited in America by Mr. Kennan.” (Kennan’s costume wearing was reported in 1889 in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian, in 1891 in the Helena Independent, and in 1893 in the Wheeling Register.) Perhaps the most widely circulated photograph of Kennan illustrates this costume worn in many cities across the United States during several years of lecture tours.

Students who participated in this project reported that searching the Chronicling America newspaper database was a challenging, yet rewarding, exercise that required synthesizing large amounts of information into a concise presentation. Students commented on how this exercise allowed them to complete original research, beginning with keyword searches, identifying research questions, selecting relevant materials, interpreting documents, and contributing to a final collaborative presentation. This exercise also encouraged students to consider ways that the circulation of information in Kennan’s era differed from the present day, while also appreciating how the skill of critical thinking relates to current debates about virality, misinformation, and biases on social media platforms.

Kennan’s ability to captivate audiences with the spoken word, a change in costume, and photographs projected on a sheet is certainly a different way of engaging audiences when compared to our current media ecosystem of tweets, videos, and posts. As students noted, American newspapers offered a broad range of views about Kennan, including critical statements charging that he exaggerated the experience of penal colonies or that his statements were dangerous for US-Russian relations. The fact that newspapers provided such detailed accounts of Kennan’s lectures confirms the importance of considering firsthand accounts, thinking about both content and presentation style, and making critical judgments about the reliability of the content.

The topic of Kennan’s lectures about the Russian penal system is very appropriate for a course on Imperial Russia, which covers the two centuries from Peter the Great to the Russian revolution. Kennan’s writings and lectures addressed several key themes central to this course, including the evolution of the Russian political system, the emergence of critical intellectuals (intelligentsia) in opposition to the autocratic state, the reformist movement of the 1860s (which coincided with Kennan’s first visits to Russia), and the increasing repression of opposition in the decade that followed the assassination of Alexander II. Finally, and most immediately, students began this assignment in early March 2022, at a time when the full dimensions and terrible consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were generating global condemnation. Kennan’s stories about courageous political prisoners speaking out against a despotic state evoked comparisons with the small number of Russians who spoke out against the current war in Ukraine, providing students a timely opportunity to draw connections between a past they were studying and a present they were witnessing.

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