The US and the World: An Interview with George Kennan

The following interview with George Kennan took place in Princeton in June, during the days following the end of the war in Kosovo.

Richard Ullman: Are you surprised at the role that Russia has played in the bargaining over Kosovo?

George Kennan: Not really. It is, for them, largely a matter of prestige. Precisely because they now have no great military power they fear that the rest of the world will forget that they are a great people, which of course they are in many respects, and by no means only the military ones. To be able to play a useful part in the resolution of the Kosovo crisis is, for many of them, a much-needed source of reassurance about themselves; and I see no reason why we should not, on principle, welcome it. Of course, their involvement will present problems. There will be many disagreements. Compromise will be required at many points. Such is the essence of international life.

R.U.: How do you explain the chaos in Russia?

G.K.: Chaos? I am not sure that that is the best word for it. Conditions are, of course, terrible. But life goes on. We seem to have expected them to change, within a single decade, an entire great governmental, social, and economic system. Even in more favorable conditions that would have been difficult. But consider their situation. Since the Thirty Years’ War, no people, I think, have been more profoundly injured and diminished than the Russian people have been by the successive waves of violence brought to them by this past brutal century. There were: the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905; the fearful manpower losses brought about by Russia’s participation in the First World War; the cruelties and the fighting that were a part of the consolidation of Communist power in the immediate aftermath of that First World War; then, the immense manpower losses of World War II; and finally, extending over some seven decades and penetrating and in part dominating all these other disasters, there were the immense damages, social, spiritual, even genetic, inflicted upon the Russian people by the Communist regime itself. In this vast process of destruction, all the normal pillars on which any reasonably successful modern society has to rest—faith, hope, national self-confidence, balance of age groups, family structure, and a number of others—have been destroyed. The process took place over most of an entire century. It embraced three generations of Russian people. Such enormous losses and abuses are not to be put to rights in a single decade, perhaps not even in a single generation.

You may ask: Was not much of all this the fault of one or another of Russia’s own governments? Certainly it was. But it was not the fault of the great and essentially helpless mass of the common Russian people.

R.U.: One of the striking things is the absence of a feeling of common endeavor. Everyone seems to be out for himself.

G.K.: Yes, that is the way things look, but mostly…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.