Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan edited by Frith Meier (#119 of 2014)

Vagabond Life: The Caucasus Journals of George Kennan
This book is five stars for the compiling, editing, and first-hand research done by the editor- Frith Maier. She should have won an award simply for that; but this book was actually just her master's thesis. It contains a ton of references, footnotes, historical background, and additional details. The journal itself is, eh, not that informative. I read a lot of travel works by Americans traveling in Eastern Europe and Central Asia during the mid-1800s which are found copyright-free on Gutenberg and other resources. The editors reference a few and I'm eager to read the one by Arthur Cunynghame as well as those of British explorers. This account is quite bland, it's simply shorthand journal entries with very few stories. The editor also includes some excerpts from Kennan's letters, speeches, and articles that are helpful. The stories that are there are interesting, however, and Kennan had a big influence on future Russian thinkers, including his distant relative George Frost Kennan, the diplomat. I'm very glad the editors took the time to piece together this for historical reference so that it would not be left to the dustbin at the Library of Congress.

Kennan is the first American known to have traveled in Daghestan, in 1870. He was already publishing a book on his time spent in Siberia, and his travels and lectures from this trip would propel him into being the first American "expert" on Russia. I lived for two years in an area just south of where Kennan traveled. I lived with actual Lezgins, and while he writes about Lezgins it's not clear he traveled far enough south to actually encounter many. Be that as it may, Kennan gives the reader exposure to several mountain cultures in the late 1800s, when Russian attempts as passification were really just beginning and the Georgian kingdom was in decline, having already capitulated its authority to the Russian state.

Meier does a good job vetting the locations Kennan scrawls in his journal, traveling there with a translator and filmmaker Chris Allingham to retrace his path. Their own journey shows up only in the foreword, afterword, and a few footnotes. Meier has published a book on his own adventures hiking around Central Asia that I'm sure is an interesting read. Kennan spent some time in Scotland before traveling on to St. Petersburg and downriver all the way to modern-day Makhachkala. He encounters a Georgian prince who was taking an account of the province and settling disputes in various villages, helping Kennan along almost as a guide. From there he traverses to Tbilisi and then makes his way to Grozni (Chechnya) before making his way back across the Black Sea to modern-day Istanbul. (The most amusing anecdote of the book, for me, came when he successfully orders a cup of Turkish coffee and throws the concoction out as if he'd been duped into buying fake coffee.)

I recommend this book if you're interested in the Caucasus, it's probably a must-read. There are very few glimpses into the old culture there recorded in English, and his account is worth checking out.

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