The Man Who Got Russia Right

Foreign Policy, 23.12.2011
Susan B. Glasser
  • Washington has a long tradition of misreading Moscow. As Putin teeters, it’s worth recalling George Kennan, the best Kremlinologist America ever had

Diplomático norteamericano George F. Kennan (Archivo FP)

When mass protests broke out in Russia a few weeks ago, the breathtaking speed with which the country’s generally complacent middle class turned on Vladimir Putin seemed most remarkable of all. For a dozen years, the KGB-trained tough guy in the Kremlin had been boosted by a stage-managed image of macho realism and the backstage machinations of a corrupt and heavyhanded state, fueling his wildly misleading popularity. When his approval ratings cratered after claims of vote-rigging in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, it was as if a giant soufflé had fallen: Overnight, seemingly, Putin’s poll numbers went from nearly 70 percent approval to a bare 51 percent.

It was so serious that even Dmitry Medvedev, the puppet president whose office Putin has said he plans to retake in 2012, was warning this week that the political system has "exhausted itself" and that without real change, Russia’s rulers could find their rule "delegitimized." And that, Medvedev said, "would only mean one thing for our country: the collapse of the state."

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 strong men 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."

Gaddis captures why Kennan’s dispatches deserved to be immortalized. "Contrary to what almost everyone else assumed at the time Kennan portrayed the Soviet Union as a transitory phenomenon: It was floating along on the surface of Russian history, and currents deeper than anything Marx, Lenin, or Stalin had imagined would ultimately determine its fate." Or here is Gaddis on Kennan again: "He saw what others saw but in different colors…. He had a historian’s consciousness of the past, which gave him a visionary’s perspective on the future."

In short, Kennan was a great reporter.

* * *

But Kennan’s place in American history, and in Gaddis’s biography, is assured not for what he saw in Russia but for what he told the United States to do about it. He was, as a million Google hits will tell you, "the architect of containment," the postwar strategy for countering the Soviet Union that was at the heart of the Cold War.

The notion of "containment" as a new form of Western grand strategy — a third way to block the Soviets that involved neither capitulation nor another devastating world war — built on Kennan’s views about the internal weaknesses of Soviet power. It was a brilliant insight, and Gaddis spends much of his biography on Kennan’s decades-long struggle (he died in 2005 at age 101) against the many ways in which his idea was used to justify a long, highly militarized contest with the Soviet Union, a contest whose particulars he often violently disagreed with.

Kennan’s containment was rooted in his fight to get Washington to pay attention to Stalin’s shift at the end of World War II, from allying with the United States and Britain to competing with them for mastery over postwar Europe. But the term itself has lost that meaning; it has long since become shorthand for all that followed: the costly, reckless nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam, and the chess match in the Middle East and Latin America, all justified in the name of competing with the Soviet aggressor. Kennan was against many if not all of those and yet his name has been indelibly associated with them — in part reflecting the much cannier Washington savvy of his rivals within the U.S. government, rivals more skilled at promoting the muscular form of containment backed by American military might that they preferred. Even today, Kennan’s name is shorthand for a policy he mostly hated. Here was GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, just the other day, complaining of our current foreign policy. "We’re still trapped," he said, "in the Cold War, George Kennan mindset."

Here is where one can at least gently criticize Gaddis’s book, the sort of tome that is invariably called "magisterial" and in this case for the most part is. Gaddis subtitles his book — an authorized biography nearly 30 years in the making — "An American Life," and goes on at great length about Kennan’s critiques of the country of his birth. But Gaddis makes a far less convincing case that Kennan was anywhere near the student of the United States that he was of Russia. Indeed, some of his early writings, as Gaddis acknowledges, show Kennan as a sort of misinformed elitist (and a highly intolerant, vaguely anti-Semitic one at that) who had contempt for the democratic politics of his homeland even as the twin totalitarian behemoths were taking shape in 1930s Europe. For much of Kennan’s long life after his star-studded diplomatic career, he was writing and teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and arguing on the wrong side of U.S. political battles in a Washington he had always disdained.

Which is why I’d like to make the case here for more of Kennan the Russia hand and less of Kennan the American strategist.

It is because of Kennan’s meticulous observations, incisive prose and deep knowledge of the country and its people that 20th-century Americans were lucky enough to have him as witness to the monstrosities of Stalin’s Russia — one who didn’t merely throw up his hands in confusion, or succumb to wishful thinking or fellow-travelerism or any of the other diseases endemic to so much Western writing about the Soviet Union.

This is a relevant legacy of Kennan’s, and one that we have yet to fully absorb. Indeed, the tradition of getting Russia wrong has a distinguished Washington lineage, and one that I witnessed while covering the rise of Putin for The Washington Post in the early 2000s. In those years, Putin was reconsolidating power in the Kremlin, taking over independent media, jailing or banishing potential political opponents, shutting down elections for governor and putting into place a new security-state apparatus from such remnants of the Soviet police state as had survived the 1990s. Yet back in Washington, there were those who persisted in believing for years that Putin was not exactly as he seemed. Remember when George W. Bush looked into his "soul" in 2001? He wasn’t the only one. We encountered many, both at senior levels in the U.S. government and among the Westerners in Moscow, who were so eager to do business with a resurgent Kremlin that they were willing to rewrite the facts. The White House today faces a similar challenge as President Obama, who made a point of a "reset" in relations after the frosty U.S.-Russia standoff of the late Bush years, now leaves it to his secretary of state to lecture Putin on democracy. Will the administration read the Kremlin right this time?

Kennan knew well the perils of Washington getting Russia wrong, and this understanding makes for the high point of Gaddis’s gripping book. It was Feb. 22, 1946, and Kennan, at home in his Moscow sickbed, was getting pinged from Washington about a speech Stalin had given a few weeks earlier. The speech — given at the Bolshoi Theater and, as Gaddis writes, "meant, superfluously, to win him an election" — said nothing much new to Kennan, who saw it as so routine he at first just summarized it in a cable home to the State Department.

But like any good reporter, he responded when his bosses demanded front-page treatment for the story. In the 5,000-word masterpiece that followed, Kennan let rip with a document that summed up everything he had seen in six long winters in Russia, from the poisonous fusion of Russian nationalism with international Communism to the weaknesses of a country overextended into an empire it couldn’t fully absorb and with a people it could repress but not fully conquer.

This was Kennan’s famous "Long Telegram," and it exploded in the American policy debate like a bomb — not because Kennan had his pulse on the policy battles in D.C., but because he knew Moscow when it mattered. "It hit Washington," Harriman later recalled, "at just the right moment."

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