Piqued by our upcoming transiberian trip I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the subject, and about Kolchak, the civil war, the allied intervention and more. Even Chekhov.
The story is simply told. In 1864, roundabout the time of the end of the American civil war, before there was a railroad across America, before Alaska was part of the USA, some investors decided to build a telegraph line between Russia and America.
Their reasoning was simple – undersea cables were unreliable and difficult to maintain, as had been shown by the first trans Atlantic cable, so building an overland cable would result is a link that was easier to maintain and one that would allow a direct connection to Europe via Russia. Telegraph lines were very much the internet of the nineteenth century, and like the railways there were always investors and speculators wanting to get on board with the latest technology. Much like the venture capitalists of today.
Kennan was one of the survey team on the Kamchatka part of the route.
While there was a Russian presence in Kamchatka it was little known or explored, the Russian settlements hugging the coast, just as the early west coast settlements in the US hugged the coast as sea was the most viable mode of travel between them.
Tent Life is rich in ethnographic detail, well written, and recounts his adventures surveying the line. And there are odd little facts – like the fact that Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the administrative centre of the Primorye (Vladivostok did not yet exist) was attacked by a combined British and French squadron during the Crimean war – that make the book truly engaging as well as a description of Kamchatka in the mid to late nineteenth century.
Like Beth Ellis’s An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah truly a gem of nineteenth century travel writing, and like Ellis’s book, one that deserves to be better known.
It’s available as an epub through Project Gutenberg, or as a free download for the Kindle through the Amazon store. There’s also a number of print editions available.