Born in Norwalk, Ohio, he was keenly interested in travel from an early age, but finances required him to work at the telegraph office of the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company from age 12. In 1864, he secured employment with the Russian American Telegraph Company to survey a route for a proposed overland line through Siberia and across the Bering Strait, and spent two years in the wilds of Kamchatka. Returning to Ohio through Saint Petersburg, he soon gained fame for lectures, articles, and a book about his travels.
He returned to St Petersburg in 1870 and eventually made his way to Dagestan, which had recently been subjugated by Russia. His 600-mile loop through the northern Caucasus area included stops in Samashki and Grozny. Returning in 1871, he gave popular lectures on the area, and in 1878 became an Associated Press reporter based in Washington, D.C
Initially supportive of the Russian government and its policies, a trip across Siberia (May 1885 to August 1886) interviewing exiled dissidents changed his mind, and upon his return he espoused the cause of revolution. He became the most prominent member of the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom, and befriended emigres such as Catherine Breshkovskaia, Peter Kropotkin, and Sergei Kravchinskii. The Russian government responded in 1891 by banishing him.
Kennan was one of the most prolific lecturers of the late 19th century; in 1890-91, he made 200 consecutive evening appearances (not counting Sundays), drawing crowds of up to 2,000 for each.
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