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Remarks of Blair A. Ruble at Memorial Service for George F. Kennan

A memorial service for Kennan Institute co-founder George F. Kennan was held at the National Cathedral on 6 April 2005. The following are the remarks made by Kennan Institute Director Blair A. Ruble at the service.

I initially met Prof. Kennan in 1977 when I had just come to the Kennan Institute for the first time. I was touched when he seemed pleased that I had returned to the Institute in 1989 to serve as its director. We always had something of a distant relationship, of course – who was I to George Kennan? Yet, there were moments when he made very clear that I was someone meaningful to him, as I had become the custodian of his living legacy to the U.S. and to Russia – the Kennan Institute.

This weighty responsibility made me a subject of special concern which meant, of course, that I would periodically receive handwritten missives chiding me for this or that failure in properly fulfilling his vision for the Institute. I always awaited the arrival of his very personal notes drafted in an increasingly feeble hand with fascination and awe.

One particular moment captures Prof. Kennan's relationship with me. We had met for lunch one day at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He seemed particularly exuberant, so I mustered all the courage that I had and said, "Like so many people I admire your books. However, there is one that I did not like."

The volume that I had in mind was entitled Democracy and the Student Left and was constructed around an article that Prof. Kennan had published in the New York Times Magazine one Sunday in January 1968 in which he scolded student radicals, together with the letters sent to the editors of the Times in response to that article, as well as Prof. Kennan's final answer to those critiques. Kennan pulled himself up in reaction to my comment and struck the most intimidating pose possible. I was saved only by the slightest glint of a twinkle in his eyes as he leaned back with his hands pressed together and admonished me by saying, "I suggest that you re-read it now that you have grown up."

I think all of us who have worked at the Kennan Institute over the years have understood that being at the Institute is something more than a job. Indeed, all of us at the Kennan Institute and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of which it is a part have been asked by one of the most influential gentleman of the twentieth century to carry his vision of the world forward into the twenty-first century. We have all been honored by the opportunity that Prof. Kennan has given us by making this request.

What I did not fully understood until recently, is that we are also a symbol of – and I would hope a careful steward of – Prof. Kennan's special relationship with Russia. That relationship stood at the core of all of his writings about the country, especially following World War II when so much was uncertain.

Few policy documents have exerted the impact on American foreign policy that George F. Kennan's "long telegram" did in February 1946. Kennan wrote his famous communication long hand over the course of a weekend. His ability to prepare such a forceful policy statement nonetheless rested on years of study of Russian history and culture as a postgraduate student at the University of Berlin during the early 1920s, and subsequently as an analyst posted in the American Embassy in Riga during the early 1930s. He went on to help open the US Embassy in Moscow later in the decade – and has published some delightful recollections of what it was like to be in Spaso House – the official residence of the American Ambassador in Moscow – at a time when half-crazed Soviet agents were still living in the attic overhead.

Kennan had been asked to set out the possible parameters of future American policy during a postwar period of deteriorating US-Soviet relations. One can only imagine the effort it took on Monday morning to have that very long telegram entered into code before being sent back to Washington. The document was so unwieldy, in fact, that Kennan found it necessary to begin with a courtly apology for "burdening the telegraphic channel."

Reading the long telegram today, it becomes clear that Professor Kennan was able to respond so compellingly to a policy assignment from his superiors because he had already devoted a lifetime to the study of the historical and cultural factors shaping Soviet behavior. More than nearly every other American of his era, he had climbed inside the Russian being.

Russians, of course, appreciate his profound understanding of their country and culture better than anyone else. Mikhail Gorbachev perhaps best captured this special relationship between Kennan and Russia when he told Prof. Kennan, "We in our country believe that a man may be the friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you."

One of the many privileges of being director of the Kennan Institute has been the experience of watching how Russians greeted Prof. Kennan's 100th birthday just a year ago. At a gathering organized by the Russian alumni of the Kennan Institute, then Duma Deputy Aleksei Arbatov noted that " no one else, felt the enduring, deep connection between internal and external Russian life," while Academician Nikolai Bolkhovitinov observed that Kennan's "deep knowledge of contemporary Russian life, Russian history, and Russia, together with his affection for Chekhov and Leo Tolstoi, went hand in hand with his hatred toward the Soviet system imposed by Joseph Stalin."

I am only now coming to understand that Kennan not only helped Americans of the past to define a way of thinking about Russia that could foresee an end of the Soviet Union; he is helping many Russians of today think about their own history in a way which can combine both pride in Russian achievement and moral censure for all that the Soviet regime represented.

Russians, more than Americans perhaps, fully grasp the depth and complexity of Prof. Kennan's relationship with their country. Just a few days ago, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States, His Excellency Yuri Ushakov, expressed the essence of the connection between Prof. Kennan and Russia when he wrote that Kennan's "long-time romance with Russia was not always unclouded but through his whole life he remained a true friend of my country and the Russian people."

It is, however, Prof. Kennan who most tellingly revealed the importance of Russia to himself. In June 1945, while traveling across the length of Russia during that brief space of time between the conclusion of the war in Europe and end of the battle for the Pacific, Kennan recorded a moment of personal revelation in his diaries. Sitting in rough-shod train compartments for days as he crossed a war-ravaged Soviet Union, Kennan asked himself: "How much more must the traveler feel who sees with his own eyes the deprivations of the Russian people and their heroism...and with it all the wistfulness, the hope, the irrepressible faith in the future." Kennan struggled with how best to understand the dignified beauty of such a "gifted, appealing people" whose lives are set against a landscape that should drive one to despair. [Sketches from a Life, pp. 108-110]

"The answer is anybody's," he answered himself. "But I, for my part, should have thought with the sights and sounds of Siberia still vivid in my mind, that in these circumstances [it] would be wisest to try neither to help nor to harm... and to leave the Russian people – encumbered neither by foreign sentimentality nor foreign antagonism – to work out their destiny in their own peculiar way."

George Kennan spent the next six decades of his life after that train ride searching for ways of being helpful to and of understanding the Russian people, which is why his relationship with Russia and Russians will always remain so resplendent, and so rare.

Thank you.

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The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more