Kennan Institute Commemorates 25th Anniversary with Moving Tribute by Founder, Speech by James Baker

Oct 04, 1999

In remarks at a dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the institute he founded, Ambassador George F. Kennan (pictured left) invoked the Russian fable of a fly who rode all day on the nose of an ox as it worked in the fields. At the end of the day, the ox heads back into the village with the fly still perched on its nose. The fly bows to the right and to the left at the villagers and says, "We've been plowing." "That," said Kennan, "is what I have been doing with the Kennan Institute."

Kennan's speech was the emotional highlight of the benefit dinner held on Monday, October 4, at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Other highlights included remarks by the current Kennan Institute director Blair Ruble and a keynote address on U.S.-Russian relations by former secretary of state James A. Baker III.

The Kennan Institute was founded as a division of the Woodrow Wilson Center in December of 1974 through the joint initiative of Ambassador Kennan, then Wilson Center Director James Billington, and historian Frederick Starr. Named in honor of Ambassador Kennan's relative, George Kennan "the Elder," a nineteenth century explorer of Russia and Siberia, the Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge about Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Ambassador Kennan entered the foreign service in 1926 and accompanied Ambassador William Bullitt to Moscow to reopen the American Embassy in 1933. He was Ambassador to the USSR in 1952 and to Yugoslavia from 1961-63. Upon retiring from the foreign service, Ambassador Kennan held a number of academic posts and fellowships, including a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellowship in 1974-75. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989.

To the delight of the nearly 500 guests, Ambassador Kennan took the stage, saying how moved he was to be a part of the celebrations for an institute he had founded a quarter-of-a-century ago. At 95, Kennan is an American national treasure, and the eloquence of his remarks that evening proved how well he befits this status.

Introducing Kennan, Ambassador Robert Strauss, dinner Chairman and master of ceremonies, said:

George Frost Kennan brings together the world of academia and the world of public policy like no other individual this century.


He is an historian who has made history; he is a diplomat who as Henry Kissinger wrote, has authored much of the diplomatic doctrine of our area. Ambassador Kennan's career has taken him to Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Lisbon and London, but the center of his attention remained the Russian nation and its people.

It was from Moscow that he sent the "long telegram," urging the U.S. government to stand firm against Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. Its importance cannot be overstated; it shaped American foreign policy for the next forty years.

Kennan commented on the motives for establishing the Kennan Institute in 1974. Contact between Americans and Russians at the time seemed to exist solely on a political level in the framework of the Cold War. Expertise on Russia and Russian culture outside this framework was in jeopardy. Kennan felt that a national center, independent of any university and from the demands of teaching and departmental politics, was necessary to encourage scholarship on Russia. It was decided to locate this national center in Washington to take advantage of the tremendous research materials available and for its proximity to the government. The Kennan Institute was established in 1974 and, Kennan noted, fulfilled its role very much as he envisioned. The Institute also had an unexpected benefit in raising awareness of Russia in the United States. Kennan emphasized the importance of this role played by the Institute:

. . . when it comes to the relationship between great peoples, that relationship is not finished, not complete, when it only consists of the military relationship, the economic and the political. There has to be, and particularly in the case of Russia, there has to be another supplementary dimension to these relations, and that is the dimension of the meeting of people, in the work of the intellect, in the respect for scholarship and history, in the understanding of art and music, and in all the intuitive feelings that very often go to unite us, even in most difficult times, to many people in Russia.

Following the dinner, current Kennan Institute director Blair Ruble gave an overview of the goals, achievements, and history of the Institute. Ruble noted that the Institute's original three goals were:

1. to promote quality research on Russia and adjacent lands,
2. to foster a creative dialogue between American academic and government specialists, and
3. to integrate the American and international Russian studies communities.
Over the past 25 years, Ruble said, the Institute has supported the work of over 1,100 scholars, has organized over 100 major conferences and thousands of public meetings, and has fostered a conversation about Russia that is truly international: 20% of the Institute's scholars come from the region.

Ruble recognized the past directors of the Institute and the crucial roles that they had played in shaping it:

* S. Frederick Starr, the first director, who very quickly established the Institutes reputation and launched many of the core activities for which the Institute is known today;
* Tom Gleason, who succeeded in converting the new Institute into a self-sufficient enterprise and firmly entrenched the humanities at the center of the Institute;
* John Glad, who brought literature to the program, where it remains an important element of the Institute's work;
* Herb Ellison, who secured Title VIII funding to support young American scholars to conduct their research in Washington, and who launched the Institute's endowment -- the George F. Kennan Fund;
* Peter Reddaway, who guided the Institute through the turbulent era of perestroika and Gorbachev.

In his conclusion, Ruble stated: "I think the Kennan Institute has spent the last quarter century trying to present temperate and well-considered statements of the results of our work, and we'll continue to do so in the years and decades ahead, in the hope of making Russia the country and nation better understood to the world at large and to Americans in particular."

The evening concluded with a speech by former Center trustee James A. Baker III, the 61st Secretary of State. When introducing Baker, Joseph A. Cari, Jr., chair of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Board of Trustees, noted that Baker has long been associated with the Center and holds the distinction of being the only individual to serve on its Board of Trustees in the three possible categories: as an ex officio member during his tenure as Secretary of State, as the designated appointee of the President, and as a private member. He also noted that Baker received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991, and has been the recipient of many other awards for distinguished public service, including the Woodrow Wilson Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Nation's Service from Princeton University, and the George F. Kennan Award for Distinguished Public Service of the National Committee for American Foreign Policy.

"Quite bluntly," Cari concluded, "Jim Baker represents the best of what public service is in our country."

In his speech, Baker drew attention to the balance between scholarship and public affairs in the career of George Kennan and the operating philosophy of the Kennan Institute and the Wilson Center. He noted that when George Bush awarded Kennan the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989, the accompanying citation read: "Career diplomat, historian and educator, George Kennan has helped shape American foreign policy since 1933."

Commenting on the need for a more considered approach toward our Russia policy, Baker invoked the example of George Kennan:

Our country would of course be very well served if all of our foreign policy-makers approached issues with the thoughtfulness and a long-term perspective of Ambassador George Kennan, especially in our relationship with Russia.

It is important to keep our eyes trained on the challenges, and the opportunities that lie before us. We need a lot more foresight, and we need a lot less partisanship.

Or to use Russian phrasing, we need to ask what is to be done, rather than who is to blame.

Baker called for policymakers to move beyond the "who lost Russia?" debate raging in Washington and instead concentrate on the importance of our relationship with Russia: "The next few years will present great opportunities, as well as great challenges in U.S.-Russian relations. I think, my friends, that we really are at another crossroads in history, one at least as important as the end of the Soviet era."

Such an approach will require tremendous efforts on both sides, Baker acknowledged. While the results will be neither immediate nor complete, the potential benefits for success are too great to forgo and the potential threats stemming from failure are too great to ignore.

"Our efforts to help Russia meet her challenges can only have a modest impact, really, when you think about it, on a country that vast and that complex. But that impact in and of itself is well worth our time, and it's well worth our resources," Baker said.

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