The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

Here follow excerpts from the account of a journey from Moscow to Helsinki in September of 1945, shortly after the cessation of hostility in the European theater of the Second World War.


I had been in Leningrad three days of my life, and yet it was like coming home. I had read so much about it; and through the years spent in the Baltic states I had come to love the flat horizons of the north, the strange slanting light, the wintry bleakness of nature, and the consequent accentuation of all that is warm and rich in human relationships.

We were driven across the Kamenny Ostrov [Island] and the bridge, along the Kamenno-Ostrovski Prospekt, past the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, across the Nevski Prospekt, to the hotel. The others immediately set out again to see the exhibition of the defense of Leningrad. I went out by myself to walk around the center of town.

I walked past St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Summer-Garden. The weeds and grass were high between the paths, under the oak trees. The equestrian statue of Peter the Great, just recently freed of its wartime sandbags, reared high over the riverbank.

The river stretched out tranquilly to its bright, far horizons. The surface of the water was smooth, but if you looked at it carefully, you could see that it moved rapidly with that silent, majestic current which Pushkin noted.

Up past the Admiralty. Near the bridge the icebreaker Sibiryakov was lying at the quayside, gleaming in a coat of fresh brown paint. On the bridge men were laying new electric cables under the pavement. There was little traffic across the bridge. Occasionally a three-car train of streetcars, bursting with human beings, would groan up the incline to the center of the bridge.

The Winter Palace was being painted, but many of the windows still gaped vacantly. The surrounding streets were quiet, almost deserted. On the empty embankment, under the shadow of the palace, two children rode bicycles up and down --as impervious to the past glory as to the present ruin about them.

I walked up the Moika Embankment, behind the General Staff buildings, to the Nevski Prospekt, sat on a bench before the Kazan Cathedral, and watched the people. They looked sober, a bit tired, but still vigorous. There were swarms of them waiting for the streetcars and trolleybuses that still made up most of the traffic along the famous old street.

Alone, I made my way back to the hotel—behind the cathedral, down the gloomy Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, and again along the Moika Embankment. Here, near Mariinskaya Square, where the canal is lined with poplar trees, two of these had fallen over into the water, bending and twisting the iron fences in the process. The tops must have broken off and stuck in the mud, for many of the branches were still alive with green leaves.

This walk brought up countless associations from the past: of the picture of Pushkin and companion leaning on the embankment looking at the river; of Kropotkin exercising with his stool in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul; of Alexander I looking out of the Winter Palace during the flood of 1824; of Prince Yusupov throwing the body of Rasputin into the Moika; of the crowd moving across the square toward the Winter Palace on the night the place was stormed; of the generations of music teachers and pupils going in and out of the conservatory; of the Italian opera of one hundred years ago; of the unhealthy days of Leningrad's spring thaws, with little groups of black-clad people plodding through the slush behind the hearses to the muddy, dripping cemeteries; of the cellar apartments of the gaunt, dark inner streets, full of dampness, cabbage smell, and rats, and of the pale people who manage to live through the winters in those apartments; of the prostitutes of the Nevski Prospekt of the tsarist time; of the people cutting up fallen horses in dark, snow-blown streets during the time of the siege. This is to me one of the most poignant communities in the world: a great, sad city, where the spark of human genius has always had to penetrate the darkness, the dampness, and the cold in order to make its light felt, and has acquired, for that very reason, a strange warmth, a strange intensity, a strange beauty. I know that in this city, where I have never lived, there has nevertheless been deposited by some strange quirk of fate—a previous life, perhaps?—a portion of my own capacity to feel and to love, a portion, in other words, of my own life; and that this is something no American will ever understand and no Russian ever believe.

That evening I resumed the journey by taking the night train from Leningrad to Helsinki. When I woke in the morning, we were just pulling out of the totally mined and deserted (formerly Finnish) town of Vyborg. We moved slowly through a war-devastated and deserted country. Weeds and scrub trees were growing on the abandoned farms. The houses, doorless and windowless, were obviously sinking gradually into the new vegetation around them. When you occasionally got a glimpse into the interiors, you saw that the floors were full of rubbish and offal. And you knew that the rank new vegetation still concealed thousands of live land mines.

After an hour we reached the new Finnish border and stopped at the first Finnish station. Here everything was suddenly neat and cheerful. A new station building had been erected, simple and of wood, but with a certain distinctive modern touch. The platform was in good repair, and clean. There was a freshly painted kiosk where newspapers were on sale. Food was the only essential not in evidence. But the station was almost deserted. The sky was gray. And everything was a little sad.

Our Russian locomotive retired, leaving our sleeping car, together with two "soft" cars full of Russians bound for the new Soviet naval base at Porkkala, to wait for the Finnish train. We had long to wait. I paced up and down the platform in the wind, a slave to the Anglo-Saxon habit of exercise. The Russians stared vacantly out the windows of their car, and on their faces was written the same stoic emptiness with which Russians stare out of train windows all over their vast, melancholy Russian world.

The sidings were full of freight cars loaded with Finnish goods being shipped to Russia as reparations. Little cars, wheels, and tracks for a narrow-gauge logging railroad, bright with shiny metal and new paint, were carefully stored and lashed on big gondola cars. On others there were piles of clean-sawed lumber, neatly cut and carefully stacked. All these contributions bore the mark of orderly, conscientious Finnish workmanship. I wondered at first whether such offerings did not sometimes rouse pangs of shame among the inhabitants of the great shoddy Russian world into which they were moving. But on second thought I was inclined to doubt this very strongly.

The station platform was almost deserted. A young, lithe Finn, with a knife in his belt, gave side glances of hatred and contempt at the Russian cars as he went about his work as a switchman. Woodsmoke from the little switch engine was torn away by the wind and carried across the clearing, its odor reminiscent of the north woods at home. A Finnish railway man in uniform rode sedately up to the station building, parked his bicycle, and went inside to transact his business. A peasant cart drove up with a family in the back. The family might well be hungry, but the horse was fat and sleek, and trotted with a happy briskness no Russian horse possesses. Over the entire scene there lay the efficiency, the trimness, the quietness, and the boredom of bourgeois civilization; and these qualities smote with triple effect the senses of a traveler long removed from the impressions of a bourgeois environment.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In