George F. Kennan Proves Russian Sisson Documents Are Fakes

The Sisson documents, a compilation of Russian reports, letters, and memoranda allegedly demonstrating that Bolshevik leaders at the time of the Russian Revolution were paid agents of the German government, were found to be fakes by noted scholar George F. Kennan. The papers, purchased in 1918 by Edgar Sisson, a special representative of the U.S. Committee on Public Information in Petrograd, were first declared genuine by a prominent historian and a language professor but determined to be fakes by another historian, and foreign policy expert, in 1956.

Summary of Event

The Sisson documents, which some claimed proved that communist leader Lenin, Vladimir Illich Vladimir Ilich Lenin and the Bolsheviks were financed by the Germans, can be divided into two groups. The first group contained papers in Russian that U.S. diplomat Edgar Sisson purchased in Petrograd, Russia, in February, 1918. Fifty-four of the papers were published that fall by Sisson’s employer, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information Committee on Public Information (CPI), in the pamphlet The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy. [kw]Kennan Proves Russian Sisson Documents Are Fakes, George F. (June, 1956)
[kw]Sisson Documents Are Fakes, George F. Kennan Proves Russian (June, 1956)
Kennan, George F.
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Kennan, George F.
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[g]Russia;June, 1956: George F. Kennan Proves Russian Sisson Documents Are Fakes[01010]
[c]Espionage;June, 1956: George F. Kennan Proves Russian Sisson Documents Are Fakes[01010]
[c]Forgery;June, 1956: George F. Kennan Proves Russian Sisson Documents Are Fakes[01010]
[c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;June, 1956: George F. Kennan Proves Russian Sisson Documents Are Fakes[01010]
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[c]Military;June, 1956: George F. Kennan Proves Russian Sisson Documents Are Fakes[01010]
Petrovich Semenov, Evgeni
Ossendowski, Anton Martynovich
Jameson, J. Franklin
Harper, Samuel N.

George F. Kennan in his office in 1960 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The fifty-four documents published in the main body of the pamphlet included eighteen communications from the German Great General Staff, fifteen documents from the counterespionage bureau at Russian army field headquarters, eight documents from a “central division” of the General Staff, and thirteen miscellaneous documents from various German offices. All these documents were written in Russian and spanned the period October 27, 1917, to March 9, 1918. Readers were apparently meant to infer that these papers originated in Petrograd. The second group of documents, included as appendix I of the pamphlet, consisted of eight German government circulars from 1914-1916 and six letters from 1917, supposedly written by individuals in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Germany. Appendix II included only the transcripts of several telegrams between Petrograd and Brest-Litovsk.

Sisson’s source for these papers was the Petrograd journalist Evgeni Petrovich Semenov, who brought to David R. Francis, the American ambassador, one of the communications between Petrograd and Brest-Litovsk included in appendix II of the pamphlet. Petrovich Semenov soon gave Francis photographs of two or three other documents, also supposedly dating to a time before the Bolshevik Revolution. Sisson accepted this bait and purchased from Petrovich Semenov additional documents, fourteen purporting to be originals, dated after the revolution and showing the Bolshevik hierarchy accepting orders from secret offices maintained in Russia by the German military.

Impressed by this material, Sisson returned to Washington, D.C., in May and found little interest in his purchase. That fall, however, CPI began releasing the documents to the press, where they were generally accepted, except by the New York Evening Post. It was then that CPI chose to publish all the materials in a pamphlet after appointing two eminent scholars—J. Franklin Jameson, director of historical research at the Carnegie Institution, and Samuel N. Harper, a professor of Russian at the University of Chicago—to evaluate their authenticity. Jameson knew no Russian so the responsibility for the verdict on whether the papers were real rested upon Harper. The two scholars said, “we have no hesitation in declaring that we see no reason to doubt the genuineness or authenticity of these 53 [out of 68] documents.” Harper later lamented in his memoirs that for patriotic and political reasons he allowed himself to be used by not denouncing the papers from the start.

Most of the attention devoted to these documents has focused on the fifty-four specimens in group one. Another historian, Cold War expert Kennan, George F. George F. Kennan of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, observed in a June, 1956, journal article that they are of such “extreme historical implausibility” as to be obviously fraudulent. He noted four absurdities: First, that the German General Staff could exercise such power over the Soviet leaders in the period following the revolution and keep this power concealed for decades; second, that the German General Staff could have controlled the January, 1918, elections of communist leaders; third, that the German General Staff could have secretly maintained two fully staffed offices in Petrograd with such “fantastic security of operation”; and fourth, that the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, and those in Petrograd, could have been “an elaborate sham” to fool the public—an impossible conclusion. “Lenin,” Kennan argued, “whatever one thinks of him, was not a conspirator against the Russian Communist movement.” Keenan also noted that there is no shred of evidence in any German files of such a conspiracy.

Kennan lists a dozen “random selections” from Sisson’s papers that conflict with historical fact. For example, the statement in document 5 that Lenin was in Kronstadt in July, 1917, is false. Identifying certain German agents in Vladivostok—as in document 9—was erroneous because those particular agents had left years earlier. Furthermore, document 19 makes no sense because an “occupationary detachment” did not exist in Siberia. Numerous technical “imperfections” also pointed to the fraudulence of the paper, as did the German army’s denial of the existence of many of the German officers named in the documents. The German pamphlet noted that the supposed German letterhead had many mistakes, and that the letters from German officers are written in perfect Russian. The dating system used was inconsistent with the Soviet system of using a double date when changing from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian. Finally, close analysis of the handwriting and the typing revealed numerous discrepancies.

Petrovich Semenov, the peddler of these papers, was a journalist who wrote for one of the anti-German and anti-Semitic Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];Russian newspapers printed by influential journalist and publisher Aleksey Suvorin. Petrovich Semenov appears to have participated in the provisional government’s attempt after the July, 1917, troubles to smear the Bolsheviks as German agents, and it was probably he who took to the Cossack region the documents that eventually made up appendix I of the pamphlet. Hoping to stimulate allied interest in these documents, Petrovich Semenov contrived on his return from Cossack country for sets of them to turn up at the allied embassies in early 1918. Petrovich Semenov later admitted that he had worked with two anti-Bolshevik groups to gather and distribute the documents. To the head of Scotland Yard he identified a journalist colleague, Anton Martynovich Ossendowski, as his source.

Ossendowski had a long and complicated biography, but he was born in Poland in 1876 and surfaced in World War I[World War 01];and Russia[Russia] Vladivostok in 1903 as an antigovernment agitator. When World War I began, Ossendowski apparently lent his pen to Russian business interests in a series of attacks on German competitors in the Russian Far East. By 1917, Ossendowski and Petrovich Semenov were conniving with the provisional government to show a connection between the Bolsheviks and the Germans. A curious sidebar to Ossendowski’s story is his prolonged campaign to defame Adolph Dattan, the German consul at Vladivostok and head of the prominent firm of Kunst and Albers. The retired Russian naval officer Panov, V. A. V. A. Panov, mentioned in document 9, was so enraged by being called a German agent that he did his own handwriting study that claimed all the signatures and marginal notes in the main body of papers (but none of those in appendix I) were written by Ossendowski. Kennan agreed, and concluded that “The evidences, direct and indirect, of Ossendowski’s leading complicity in the concoction of these documents are thus, in their entirety, powerful and persuasive.”


The release of the government pamphlet at the end of October, 1918, had only minimal impact. Kennan said that “Its effect on public opinion seems to have been largely lost in the excitement over the simultaneous ending of World War I.” In 1920 and 1921, the U.S. Department of State was thwarted in its attempt to learn more about the documents by President Woodrow Wilson, and when he left the White House the originals all disappeared. In 1952, they were discovered in a safe as President Harry S. Truman was preparing to leave office. All the documents, including the materials gathered during the Department of State’s futile attempt to study the originals, were sent to the National Archives.

Ossendowski’s lies hurt several individuals. The suspicion surrounding Dattan led to his forced exile to Tomsk, and his company was damaged by Ossendowski’s repeated smears. Panov also suffered from his name showing up in document 9, but the U.S. government ignored his pleas for access to the original. Given these facts, perhaps the greatest result of Kennan’s definitive study was the vindication of those individuals implicated by Ossendowski’s slanders. Kennan, George F.
Sisson, Edgar
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Further Reading

  • Harper, Paul V., and Ronald Thompson, eds. The Russia I Believe In: The Memoirs of Samuel N. Harper, 1902-1941. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945. Samuel N. Harper’s explanation of his reasoning about the Sisson papers’ authenticity.
  • Kennan, George F. “The Sisson Documents.” Journal of Modern History 28, no. 2 (June, 1956): 130-154. Kennan’s report on the Sisson documents. Declares them fraudulent based on his own intensive historical research and extensive knowledge.
  • Lukacs, John. George Kennan: A Study of Character. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. A laudatory biography of Kennan, written by another respected historian. Brief mention of the Sisson documents scandal, but a fascinating read nonetheless. Good background on Cold War scholarship.
  • Sisson, Edgar. One Hundred Red Days: A Personal Chronicle of the Bolshevik Revolution. 1931. New ed. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Books, 1977. Sisson’s personal account of his experience with the documents and the attending controversy.

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