When George Kennan set out for the Caucasus in 1870, few if any Americans had explored the highlands of Dagestan, Chechnya and the wild frontiers of imperial Russia. And with good reason. In the nineteenth century, the Caucasus and Central Asia were places of untrammeled brigandage and intermittent rebellion, marked by the rule of unpredictable kings and khans. Foreigners came at their own risk, usually in the form of British and Russian adventurer-spies (or missionaries) who sought to gain intelligence on the other's doings or to foment unrest in the service of their respective empires. Between the Black Sea and western China, a rim of lawlessness separated the czar's dominion and the Raj in India. British and Russian efforts to control this middle ground were immortalized by Rudyard Kipling as the "Great Game." But for Kennan, who was only 25 at the time of his travels, the game was entirely personal: A desk job in Ohio seemed unfathomably tedious, and scribbling fantasy itineraries from a map in a library would inevitably lead to the real thing, a "skirmish with the difficulties of Caucasian exploration."
Kennan–great-uncle of the cold war strategist George Frost Kennan and long-ago contributor to The Nation–left during a time of enormous upheaval at home. The Civil War had just ended. Reconstruction was haltingly unfolding. During the 1870s, the United States turned toward restitching North with South, and as Washington withdrew from the world, the professional caliber of its diplomatic corps fell dramatically (or so Europeans of the time believed). The German leader Otto von Bismarck noted, "A special Providence takes care of fools, drunkards, and the United States." Yet, if America as a whole was retracting into its shell, talented and daring individuals continued to force their way overseas. Kennan's journals, recently collected for the first time, attest to this. They also demonstrate the distinctly American character of his mission. He differs from his British counterparts–Sir Richard Burton and George Nathaniel Curzon, for instance–whose adventures were colored by the grandiose trappings of empire. Kennan wandered off on his own, for his own reasons. He saw himself as a vagabond, "a man who travels without any definite utilitarian aim." Unlike some of his fellow adventurers, he didn't expect "to bring about the millennium," but "to be a simple observer in the great world of God."
The world that Kennan went to observe, however, was far from simple. Much as it is now, the Caucasus of his day was marred by horrendous, internecine violence. While traveling from Dagestan into Chechnya, Kennan observed a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups, but he was overtaken by the cult of militancy and defiance common to so many of them. "Weapons are their delight," he tells us, "and all the money they can earn above what suffices to supply their daily wants is spent for splendid silver-mounted pistols & kinjals"–the ubiquitous curved knife of the Caucasus. The region had just emerged from bloody turmoil. Between 1834 and 1859, the great warlord Shamil led a rebellious Sufi brotherhood of Chechens and Dagestanis in a fierce holy war of resistance against Russian rule, forestalling the czar's hold over the region for twenty-five years. "Men fought against the Russians with the most devoted heroism, believing firmly that if they died fighting the [infidels] they would go at once to Paradise," Kennan notes. "They believed also that God had immutably fixed the date of every man's death and they went into battle with the conviction that if the predetermined day of their death had come, nothing could save them and that if it had not come, nothing could kill them. This fatalism of course made every man a hero."
These insights, among others in this slim volume–elegantly edited by Frith Maier and titled Vagabond Life–serve as a well-timed reminder that history casts a jagged shadow over the Caucasus. Shamil's rebellion may have been brought to heel, but the memory of his bloody insurgency no doubt informed Moscow's policy toward this unruly southern borderland during the 1940s, when the entire Chechen population was banished to Central Asia (ostensibly for fear they would side with the Nazis), and again, fifty years later, when dealing with Chechnya's ruinous, post-Soviet struggle for independence.