The timing of Russia’s latest political spasms couldn’t be more fitting. It was exactly 20 years ago this week that the Soviet Union itself collapsed, a 70-year-old empire that evaporated in the weeks between Dec. 8, 1991 — when Russia, Ukraine and Belarus declared their independence — and Christmas Day, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from the Soviet presidency, declared the office extinct and signed the government’s death warrant. The events were so traumatic for many Russians of the old regime that, years later, Putin was moved to call the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
If you’re bewildered by the new twists in Russia’s famously contorted history, give thanks for George F. Kennan, who has been resurrected in a timely and authoritative biography by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. “George F. Kennan: An American Life” is out just in time to guide us through a Russia once again in the throes of political transformation.
Kennan almost singlehandedly invented the serious study of Russia by America’s diplomats, and through his three stints in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, he sent reporting home that was prescient and insightful even for today’s audience. Consider this observation he made to his boss, the U.S. ambassador to Latvia, in 1932. At the time, the United States hadn’t even recognized the Soviet Union, Kennan was several years short of 30 and he hadn’t yet traveled inside Russia. But he was already immersed in its history, language and literature, and he foresaw the Soviet Union’s internal decay — at a time when others perceived a new superpower emerging to become one of the new strongmen of Europe.
“From the most morally unified country in the world,” Kennan wrote, “Russia can become over-night the worst moral chaos.”
Based in Moscow a few years later, Kennan saw the historical contradictions that undermined the foundation of the Soviet regime — while at the same time giving it a veneer of power. Russians were “used to extreme cold and extreme heat, prolonged sloth and sudden feats of energy, exaggerated cruelty and exaggerated kindness, ostentatious wealth and dismal squalor, violent xenophobia and uncontrollable yearning for contact with the foreign world, vast power and the most abject slavery, simultaneous love and hate for the same objects.” Looking for an insight into the forces competing for political supremacy in Russia today, you could do far worse than Kennan’s observations.
The quote comes from the draft of a 12,000-word essay Gaddis unearthed and which Kennan wrote for Ambassador Averell Harriman in the summer of 1944. Much of Kennan’s genius about Russia is contained in it, from the notion that the Soviet Union, despite its enormous losses in World War II of some 20 million of its people, would rise as “a single force greater than any other that will be left on the European continent when this war is over” to the cultural factors that would eventually prove the communist state’s undoing. “The strength of the Kremlin lies largely in the fact that it knows how to wait,” Kennan wrote. “But the strength of the Russian people lies in the fact that they know how to wait longer.”