Cover Image: Into Siberia

Into Siberia

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

Into Siberia is the nonfiction account of George Kennan’s 1885 journey through Siberia to witness and report on its exile system. At the time, the US and Russia enjoyed warm diplomatic relations. Kennan had become a Russian “expert” and enthusiast during his 2 years of service as a Western Union explorer in the 1860s so was deemed the perfect person to report on the program.
The book gives us Kennan’s background and a full description of his first time in Siberia working for Western Union, which sought to lay a telegraph line across the Bering Sea through Siberia to western Russia and Europe.
The story is well researched. I had been unaware of the strong diplomatic ties between our country and Russia, despite the fact that Russia “was the last European country to deny its citizens any voice in government.” While relations were starting to fray because of political repression put in place by Alexander III, Kennan’s expose was the final nail in the coffin. He had gone to Siberia fully expecting to “rebut the critics who claimed that the Siberian exile system was inhumane.” His rationale was that the Russian system was humane because it allowed families to join the exiles in Siberia.
Kennan’s eyes were quickly opened to the atrocities of the prisons - the overcrowding, lack of beds, the smell, vermin. The prisoners had to wear chains even when marching thousands of miles or working in the mines. He and George Frost, who sketched what they saw, were also damaged by their travels. Kennan suffered depression and physical ailments, while Frost had a nervous breakdown. Upon his return, Kennan wrote a series of articles for Century magazine, which were then consolidated into a 1,000 page book. He also went on the lecture tour for 9 years.
The book provides a good mix of Kennan’s personal experiences with the facts of Russia’s political reasons for and economic reliance on the system.
At times, especially in the beginning, the book is a little too dry for my taste. But it definitely taught me a lot about the plight of the Siberian exiles.
My thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of this book.

Was this review helpful?

I don't know what is harder to believe. That someone would voluntarily go spend months in Siberia or that the same person thought the Russian prisons in the area wouldn't be that bad. George Kennan was that man and, to his credit, he realized he was wildly naive.

Gregory Wallance tells the story of Kennan's two trips to Siberia in his immensely entertaining Into Siberia. I knew nothing of Kennan before this book. Wallance does an amazing job of explaining Keenan and why he ended up in one of the most desolate places on Earth multiple times. Sure, I still think he was a little nuts, but I definitely enjoyed reading about his adventures. The book is on the shorter end for a history book, but it is part of the strength of the narrative. Wallance does not bury the important parts of Kennan's life and travels in needless detail. Specifically, Wallance's ability to convey the horrors of Keenan's journey in minimal page count is a feat in and of itself. Nothing lingers too long and Wallance might even convince me to read Keenan's Siberia and the Exile System.

Wait, Keenan's book is over 1,000 pages. Just read this instead. You'll love it.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and St. Martin's Press.)

Was this review helpful?

My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher St. Martin's Press for an advance copy of this memoir/travel adventure about journalist who taste for exploration, and even more importantly the truth, changed policy and even relations between the United States and Russia before the start of the Twentieth Century.

Siberia is one of those places that people know, but really don't know. It's cold. It's barren. Maybe some will talk about gulags and exile. Maybe some have seen the movies that are set there, or even spy novels. Covering more area than the United States, but with less people than in the Tri-State area, Siberia is vast, can be freezing cold, very hot, dangerous and beautiful. Also Siberia has a rich history in being the last place that many Russian citizens, revolutionaries, assassins-in-training, their families and other innocents, were sent, to work in farms, or just to die. Near the end of the nineteenth century one reporter, with the backing of a financially secure magazine traveled to Russia to study this system of exile. One that he was sure was a good system, until he saw at close hand. Into Siberia: George Kennan's Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia by lawyer and writer Gregory Wallance is a history of the travels of George Kennan and artist George Frost through Russia, what they found and how Kennan changed America's policy with Russia.

George Kennan was born in Ohio to a family that was educated, but financially unstable forcing young George to live school at twelve to work. Kennan began work on the telegraph line, and Kennan took to it quickly. During the Civil War Kennan worked long hours transmitting and deciphering Morse messages, a job that soon drained him both mentally and emotionally. A job to wire Alaska with telegraph lines, interested him enough that soon Kennan was across the country, and feeling better. Arriving in the west, Kennan was offered a more interesting job, to travel to Siberia for the same purpose in hopes of making a telegraph system to span the world. Two years in Siberia, exploring, rescuing lost Americans taught him the language, a rough version, and a love for travel. Retuning home and finding employment in offices boring Kennan took to the lecture circuit, gaining fame for his talks, and parlaying this into journalism. An offer was made to return to Russia, and see what the exile system, moving dissidents to Siberia was about. Kennan had been a fan until his arrival in Russia. Seeing the prisons, the marches, the living quarters. The death. And Kennan's writing soon became popular in the offices of power.

A fascinating book about a man I was unfamiliar with, though the name is familiar. The Kennan of this book is the cousin of George Kennan who wrote the popular Domino theory that made the Cold War nearly a hot war. Wallance is a very good writer, who has done a tremendous amount of research and work and yet has written a very readable, and in many places exciting book. There is a lot of rescues of lost explorers, dangerous travels, midnight sled rides and meetings with people who could be foes, but become staunch allies. The book is very readable with sections on telegraph history, lots of Russian history, and a lot of detail on the places that Kennan traveled to and wrote about. A book where I kept learning new things on every page, and enjoyed the entire way through.

Recommended for exploration fans and for those interested in Russian history. A really readable and engaging account of a man who really saw much of the world, and let himself be changed by all he saw. A really good read for the holidays, or for the beach if one is getting away from the snows of winter.

Was this review helpful?

Vivid account of George Kennan’s initial voyage into Eastern Russia exploring the Russian/American telegraph wire installation, his follow up trips to Russia reporting on Siberian Exile system, and the perception changing effects his work had on the world. A harrowing, sobering but highly fascinating view into 19th century Russian history.
I love this type of real world adventure story despite the graphic and somber nature of the subject matter. The book is fairly short and could be binged in one day if you are inclined to do so. Very “atmospheric” with strong descriptions. If you’re one of those people fascinated by Russian history and particularly Siberia, this is a great installment and I fully expect this book to make it on to many of those best nonfiction books of the year lists.
Thank you to netgalley, the publisher and author for an advanced review copy of the book.

Was this review helpful?

explorers, journalist, historical-places-events, historical-research, historical-setting, history-and-culture, Russian-heritage, Russia, expedition, 1885, brutality, extreme-weather, nonfiction, arctic-conditions, Siberia, primitive-living, biography, indigenous-people, adventure, starvation, bibliography*****

Fantastic recounting of a trek across the most dangerous parts of frozen Russia. Headed up by an American with visions of telephone/telegraph poles and including a very interesting biography of the men and dangers they faced, this is truly an epic. Well done!
Includes maps and old photos as well as a relevant chronology.
I requested and received an EARC from St. Martin's Press via NetGalley. Thank you.

Was this review helpful?

Into Siberia is your next real-life adventure story, with a sobering look at the Russian penal system at its core. This non-fiction book follows the journeys of George Kennan into Siberia and Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His first trip, during the end of the Civil War and into Reconstruction, is a straight forward journey as part of a team looking to build a telegraph line through a Pacific route to reach Europe, as multiple attempts to lay cable in the Atlantic Ocean is unsuccessful. By no means an easy journey, fraught with primitive conditions, limited supplies and bitterly cold temperatures, it is one that is a mutually agreeable visit between the United States and Russia that leads Kennan to become one of the primary American champions of Russia, two countries that had a good relationship at the time. Years later, as a journalist, he undertakes another mission, one that will report on Russia's exile system of criminals of various offenses to Siberia. Initially a champion of a system that doesn't imprison or execute its people for their crimes, Kennan's journey and the things he witnesses, cause a dramatic change in his mindset and set the two countries on diverging paths that have not yet met again. Wallace doesn't shy away from writing about horrible conditions that the exiles faced, yet avoids ever getting exceptionally graphic. He, in fact, does an excellent job of conveying how brutal and harsh the conditions these people faced were while making the book engaging and easy to read. The fact that Kennan and his artist partner Frost, who were both part of the Western Union team to explore establishing telegraph lines in Siberia years before, had to take several vacations during their investigation, and were still barely hanging on to the threads of their sanity (this is disclosed early in the book) by the end should be an indicator to the reader just how taxing their experience was - and they weren't undergoing all of the suffering that the actual prisoners were. I'm always amazed and excited when I discover a history book that delves into something I know nothing about, and in cases like this book, I'm also pleasantly surprised when the author makes it an engaging and interesting read that keeps my attention and makes me want to learn more. A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Was this review helpful?

This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man who you think you know but you don’t. Most of us bon vivant avant garde modern peoples hear the name George Kennan and say, “Ah, yes, a wizard of Armageddon, containment policy, yes, yes, one of those Cold Warriors to whom one must attribute great success,” but this isn’t that George Kennan. This is an ancestor, a guy who, if the George we know had to claim antecedents, is the guy he’d point out because, man, was the ancestor one helluva tough guy, And fearless. And righteous. This George Kennan crossed Siberia - twice - in the late 1800s on dog sleds and death-trap coaches driven by surly Cossacks and on foot in temperatures that make Alaska look like a balmy paradise, all to see what’s to be seen. And what he saw wasn’t to his liking.

The first time George Kennan braved the ice pack was to survey a telegraph line from Alaska to St. Petersburg which is, yes, as crazy as it sounds. Young George, a master telegrapher who was driven almost to collapse handling all the telegraph traffic during the Civil War, decided he needed a break and joined this expedition. I don’t know if this is commentary on how tough the Civil War job was or how crazy George was; probably a combination of both. Anyway, George signs on, goes to Siberia, and spends the next few months trying not to die while doing his job, only to find the transatlantic cable has rendered all of his efforts for naught.

But George came away with a love of the Russian people and a fondness for the Tsar and his government. That last part may sound a bit odd in retrospect but, back then, the US and Russia were very close friends, downright allies, and George reflected the current thought. This is why we have to guard against revisionism because we cannot understand what people were thinking back then if we judge it by today’s standards. It’s only these days that we have a collective loathing for Russia and its regimes. But George Kennan is one of those persons who helped change our minds about the place. What? Why? I thought he loved Russia.

He did, until he went back to defend the Russian exile system of punishment, and had his mind changed.

During his first trip, which he immortalized in his book 'Tent Life in Siberia,' George occasionally ran across chain gangs of Russian convicts on their way to various Siberian prisons, exile towns, or mines. He concluded that this system was far more humane than what a lot of other countries did to their prisoners and, when he heard persons in the West disparage it, became incensed and returned to Russia as a journalist to write articles defending it. Then he followed some convict convoys out to the mines. And what he saw horrified him.

What you will read in this book will horrify you.

This is an extermination of political prisoners and dissidents and maybe the occasional real criminal by a combination of deprivation, exposure, and downright murder. The prison conditions are abominable, worse than anything you ever read in Dickens, things that make the Black Hole of Calcutta look positively benign, as the cruelty of the Russian government flexes against anyone it chooses in the most arbitrary of manners. Many people are sent into the system without trial, without even knowing why they were seized and transported to the ice wastelands, some of them because a village official just didn’t like them.

It didn’t take Kennan long to change his mind about this system, and the articles he wrote shocked the West and turned him into a celebrity, a crusader who drove himself to exhaustion while crossing the US giving lectures. Kennan single handedly changed the relationship between the US and Russia, turning the two against each other, something that lasts to this day for pretty much the same reasons.

There are Russian heroes in this story, most of them the dissidents that the Tsar sends into the wastelands who, despite the efforts to break them, remain dedicated to installing a democratic form of government. It’s a chicken and egg story whether the increasing violence and fanaticism of the dissidents drove the Tsar to even more repressive measures, because there is little doubt Americans would have assembled on the Lexington green at just a fraction of the provocations the Tsar initiated. Well, maybe not today’s American, but the real Americans we had a few years ago.

Read this to discover that the Russian character has changed little, while it’s very apparent the American one has changed a lot. I don’t think you’re going to find another George Kennan out there anywhere. At least, not one the budding tsarists among us will tolerate.

Was this review helpful?

This is a good book that I enjoyed reading but I feel that the most value that I can add here on Goodreads is to point out that Kennan's surprisingly fun and readable 1870 book Tent Life in Siberia, which features prominently in Into Siberia, is available for free download in a variety of formats from the Gutenberg Project here:

https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12328

(I found it there nine years ago and wrote a very enthusiastic review here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/929182508.)

If you wish to go even deeper into the weeds, navigate over to the Internet Archive,
(here: https://archive.org/search?query=creator%3A%22Kennan%2C+George%2C+1845-1924%22 )
which has <i>Tent Life in Siberia</i> in both downloadable ebook AND audiobook forms, plus a seemingly exhaustive catalog of writings from Kennan's very busy life, including his 1891 book about Siberian penal colonies, journalism from the Spanish-American war in Cuba and an authorized biography of railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman, plus translations of Kennan's work into German and Russian.

As you might be able to tell, I came to this book with some previous knowledge of the subject, and found it very interesting and fun to read, even if it failed to tell me anything that I didn't know already. I think this book would be great for readers who don't know much about Kennan, Siberia, or Czarist Russia. I read it on airplanes and jet-lagged in the middle of the night in hotel rooms, and I found it distracting and informative. The writing is clear and the chapters are not too long. The story is dramatic and Kennan is both believable and heroic as a character.

A little bit of carping. A Kindle locations 3122, the author writes:

Tolstoy later wrote that Kennan was "an agreeable and sincere man, although one with partitions separating his soul from his head – partitions of which we Russians have no understanding, and I am always perplexed upon encountering them."

Generally speaking, this book is very well footnoted, but this quote is missing a citation, and I would have loved to know exactly where Tolstoy wrote this, so I might go back and see if there is any additional context or information about the sole meeting of these two interesting characters. I'd also like to know more because, although I've read a lot of thoughtful Americans explaining how Russians appear to Americans, I haven't read so much from thoughtful Russians about how Americans appear to Russians.

Although most reviewers here in Goodreads get it right, there are one or two who seem to confuse or conflate the two George Kennans, that is, the 19th-century journalist and author and the 20th-century diplomat and author. Just to be clear: they are different people and distant cousins. They met just once, when the 20th-century Kennan was six years old and the 19th-century Kennan was 65. The author keeps them separated in this book by referring to the 20th-century Kennan with his middle name, i.e., "George Frost Kennan" or "George Frost".

I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.

Was this review helpful?

Reading Into Siberia was a wonderful experience. I learned so much about the United States as well as Russia. Gregory Wallace has certainly done his research and brought to life the story of George Kennan and his great influence on America’s understanding of Russia.

The George Kennan story is so interesting. As a young man he was stuck in an insignificant job in a telegraph office and with a sense of adventure, he took a chance to become part of an exploration team in 1864 with the Russian-American Telegraph Company to do a feasibility study overland in Siberia across the Bering Strait. This starts the incredible journey of George Keenan.

The story delves deep into Kennan’s love for Russian and his ability to make friends in a country that at the time was considered friendly to the United States. After his first trip, Kennan not only learned the language, but starts to lecture, write and is considered an authority on Russia as he writes a well-received book called Tent Life in Siberia, about his experiences and his interactions with the various tribal people he encountered.

On subsequent trips he traveled to the northern Caucasus and to regions that were never explored by other Americans. He traveled to such remote regions that his observations made him an “expert.” During one of his trips, Keenan decides to study the penal systems of Russia, and meet with fellow exiles as they are marched and forced into penal colonies. The book delves into many personal accounts and heartbreaks of so many of the exiled that Keenan, who had been a great lover of Russia, decides to change his mind about the country.

I don’t want to give more away. If you are curious about Russia, before the revolution, then you must read this fascinating book.

Was this review helpful?

Russian enthusiast George Kennan traveled to Siberia in 1885 to explore the Siberian exile system. Expecting to find a humane and advanced imprisonment system, he saw the brutality, senselessness, and inhumanity of the system. After returning home to the US, he began to speak out against Russia, changing the landscape of American-Russian relations forever.

George Kennan was an interesting explorer and humanitarian. It was exciting to read about his life and travels. I was particularly interested in reading about Siberia, as I knew very little about the exile system before picking up this book. What a horror! The author did an excellent job weaving history into a story. Overall, highly recommended.

Was this review helpful?

Very raw and real account of Siberia in the 1880s including prison camps. It's gonna be tough to read and I had to read it in chunks. Not something you can plow through in a couple of days. Very well written and researched.

Thank you Netgalley for the ARC

Was this review helpful?

an amazing mix of nature writing combined with action and history. I really appreciate the storytelling on exiles of the regime so neatly interwoven into nature writing, showing all the pains and atrocities the people had to take just for a chance to breathe a little more...

Was this review helpful?

Wonderful book on a surprising important historical figure many know nothing about. Very well written, grab me from page one and finished book in a few days. This is a fascinating time period in world history. Provides the background for Europe and America after Civil War and into 1880s and 1890s as we turn into the first half on 20th century. If you love history and individual endurance stories, love the 19 century's sense of adventure this is the book for you. Could make a wonderful movie.

Was this review helpful?

George Kennan's Epic Journey Through The Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia

This is a nonfiction account of the Siberian exile system in Czarist Russia. It has at times been a difficult read, but the fact that I knew next to nothing about this kept me coming back.

Not a pretty telling, but I knew that much going in. I am in debt to Mr. Wallance for bringing this to us. There is a mysteriousness about all things Russian and this helped me understand quite a lot.

This man did the leg work too. The conditions were grim and he was interviewing all kinds of people and it was just awful.

I fully intend to read this again. I learned quite a bit I did not know and I will be curling up with this during the cold winter months, happy I don't live in Siberia!

NetGalley/St. Martin's Press, December 05, 2023

Was this review helpful?

As someone who gravitates toward nonfiction books about adventure, exploration, geography, history, and social justice, "Into Siberia" manages to cover all of these subjects and more. It also functions as a riveting memoir of a man whose personal and political beliefs are inverted over the course of many brutal months witnessing the Siberian prison system of the late 19th century.

The first chapters begin a bit slow as we are fed the necessary exposition. But once the story got going, it was a hard book to put down. Our subject Kennan begins a tortured expedition across Russia with artist colleague George Frost to document Russia's Siberian penal system. Before this trip, Kennan downplayed the exile of Russian prisoners to Siberia but what he saw on his journeys shook him to the core. Witnessing such torment and deprivation, along with a stressful, months-long overland journey across thousands of miles, brought both Kennan and Frost to a physical and emotional breaking point.

A fascinating and thought-provoking book. If you enjoyed "The Lost City of Z" or "In the Heart of the Sea," "Into Siberia" is the book for you.

Was this review helpful?

1864: Russia and the US were on good terms. George Kennan signed up with Western Union to establish a path for the Russia-American Telegraph Expedition. He spent 3 years traveling under horrific weather conditions by equally horrendous modes of transportation; ship, boats, sleds pulled by dogs, horseback, various types of carts pulled by horses and by foot.
1885: Kennan went back to Russia as a journalist to investigate the Siberian Exile System. He spent a year traveling thousands of miles and visiting untold number of prisons, labor camps and people in exile. Once in exile whether a prisoner or family member of a prisoner, you will always live as an exile. The monstrous abuse and suffering of the exiles was so offensive, that they can’t be exaggerated.
On his return to the states he wrote a book and gave lectures with the hope that the Siberian exile system would be dissolved or improved. The relationship between Russian and the US has never been the same.
The author did extensive research and wrote this book as a story. It’s a novel I won’t forget.
Thank you St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley

Was this review helpful?

Kindle Copy for Review from Net Galley and St. Martin's Press.

I received a free, advance copy of this book and this is my unbiased and voluntary review.

I found this lack luster of a read. It was not as engaging as I thought it would be. It just seems like a boring read as I did not feel engage in the storyline. Felt rather average journey and this was not my cup of tea.

Was this review helpful?

Gregory Wallance neatly packages all one would want to know about the distant, ominous region of <i>Siberia</i> into his forthcoming book. Readers will learn how Siberia’s exile system came to be, as well as get to know George Kennan, the American explorer-journalist who first cast it into the searing spotlight in the late 19th century. Wallace meticulously details Kennan’s journeys into Siberia, and one can understand how Kennan’s findings shocked the American public and forever impacted U.S.-Russia relations. <i>Into Siberia</i> is a robust, engrossing, and informative read.

My thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for providing me a digital ARC of this book.

Was this review helpful?

In the latter half of the 20th Century, diplomat George Frost Kennan rose to prominence as the architect of US containment strategy during the Cold War. A century before that, his older cousin, George Kennan, rose to prominence exposing Tsarist Russia’s system of exiling political and criminal prisoners to Siberia and the inhuman conditions under which they were forced to live.

Gregory Wallance’s “Into Siberia” is a well-written history. As much a biography of Kennan as it is a tale of 19th-century Russia and Siberia, it tells the story of an adventurous young man who began his career as a telegraph operator during the Civil War and used that experience to get himself appointed to a several-years-long expedition to build an overseas telegraph link through Siberia. Upon his return, he became a writer/lecturer on Siberia, taking the position that Russia’s exile system was benign. To support that position, he returned to Siberia to inspect the various prisons, transfer stations, mines, factories, etc. comprising the exile system. The conditions he found were so brutal and inhumane that the articles he wrote describing them changed America’s then-favorable public opinion of Russia. Those articles were later published as “Siberia and the Exile System,” a two-volume set that, along with Kennan’s extensive lecturing, would adversely affect America’s perception of Russia into the latter part of the 20th Century.

Mr. Wallance does an excellent job of telling this story. His descriptions of Mr. Kennan’s participation in the telegraph expedition give us a great sense of how hostile conditions in Siberia can be. Long, freezing, blizzard-filled winters, savage swarms of mosquitos in summer, unreliable food supplies, towering mountains, primitive roads, bone-bruising conveyances (horse-drawn sleighs and carriages), no way to call for help—these are only some of the dangers Kennan and his co-workers faced. And those dangers pale in comparison to what Kennan found on his later months-long odyssey with artist George Frost to investigate the exile system: prisoners being worked to death amidst the cruelest, most filthy, perilous, and soul-crushing conditions, all to the enrichment of the Russian government. Mr. Wallance concludes by explaining the impact of Kennan’s later writings and lectures on American public opinion of Russia and on Russia itself. (Indeed, the Russian government was so displeased with Kennan that it arrested him on a later trip and permanently barred him from re-entering the country.)

In short, “Into Siberia,” is one-part adventure tale, one-part biography, one-part lesson in 19th century Russian/Siberian history and geography, one-part civil rights story, and one-part “backgrounder” on U.S. – Russian relations. I found it to be a highly informative “must-read” for anyone interested in Russia, the Soviet Union, Siberia, and the course of US-Russian relations over the past century and a half.

My thanks to NetGalley, author Gregory Wallance, and publisher St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an electronic ARC. The preceding is my honest, independent opinion.

Was this review helpful?

Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia
Gregory J. Wallace
George Kennan, an American Diplomat, is associated with the term “containment.” He was responsible for the Cold War Policy of Containment as it was applied to Russia. Kennan became a persona non grata by Stalin within a few months of traveling to Moscow. In 1885 Kennan traveled to Siberia where he witnessed the viciousness Russia was exercising to destroy opposition. Author Gregory J. Wallace shares Kennan’s journey through Siberia and the things he witnessed. Traveling by horseback, horse drawn carriage and sleighs, Kennan survived blizzards and sandstorms. He interviewed detainees, offenders, and refugees. Through the interviews he observed the agony and fear Russia utilized to keep the people inline. Babies died of exposure as their mother’s cradled them in their arms. Convicts were shackled to wheelbarrows deep in the mines as punishment. When George Kennan returned to the United States, he wrote Siberia and the Exile System in order to spawn public fury over the treatment of the exiles. He spent years conversing the lecture circuit sharing the suffering of the exiles.
This is a difficult book to read for the cruelty was real the treatment inhuman. Author Gregory J. Wallace did a superb job in presenting the life of George Kennan.

Was this review helpful?