Ian Frazier: Travels in Siberia
Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains,” published in 1989, was a tour de force of travel writing: a 25,000-mile jaunt from the Dakotas to Texas that stripped away the region’s seemingly bland facade. From Sitting Bull to Bonnie and Clyde to the Clutter family, whose murder was chronicled in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Frazier revisited American archetypes, and in some cases reinvented them. Later, in“On the Rez,” he drew on his 20-year friendship with Le War Lance, a beer-swilling Oglala Sioux, to describe life at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In both books, Frazier’s skillful storytelling, acute powers of observation and wry voice captured the soul of the American West.
Now Frazier has set his sights on another region of wide-open spaces and violent history: the Russian East. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he joined some Russian artists he’d met in New York on a trip to Moscow, where he became infected, he writes, with “dread Russia-love.” In particular, Frazier was enthralled by Siberia, that vast, forbidding region that stretches across eight time zones, running from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, bordered by Mongolia and China to the south and the Arctic Circle to the north. Frazier learned Russian, immersed himself in the literature and history of the territory, and embarked on more journeys across the taiga and tundra. The result is “Travels in Siberia,” an uproarious, sometimes dark yarn filled with dubious meals, broken-down vehicles, abandoned slave-labor camps and ubiquitous statues of Lenin — “On the Road” meets “The Gulag Archipelago.”
“For most people, Siberia is not the place itself but a figure of speech,” Frazier remarks at the beginning of the book: a metaphor for cold, remoteness and exile. (The Russian word Sibir derives from two Turkic words roughly translated as “marshy wilderness.”) Turning metaphor into reality, Frazier made the first of several exploratory trips via Nome, the Alaskan port a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle — and a short hop from Siberia across the Bering Strait. Arriving in Alaska during the post-Soviet Union diplomatic thaw, Frazier found a flurry of unlikely activity: intrepid Christian missionaries planning snowmobile expeditions across the frozen sea, and an eccentric entrepreneur, the sole member of the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group, dreaming of building a 72-mile-long Chunnel across the strait.
Touching down in an airport near the Siberian city of Provideniya, Frazier was instantly enraptured by the aromas of “the tea bags, the cucumber peels, the wet cement, the chilly air, the currant jam. . . . The smell of America says, ‘Come in and buy.’ The smell of Russia says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!’ ”
Eventually, the Russian scent enticed him back on a far more ambitious adventure: a trans-Siberian journey in a used Renault delivery van. Accompanied by a pair of raffish guides, Sergei and Volodya, Frazier set out from St. Petersburg and traveled east. He forded giant rivers, waded through piles of trash, overnighted in mosquito-plagued campgrounds and met scientists, poets, scuba divers, sales ladies and many, many others whom fate had tossed to the far end of the Russian frontier. The Renault broke down repeatedly, beginning on Day 1, when “the speedometer needle, which had been fluttering spasmodically, suddenly lay down on the left side of the dial and never moved again.” The two guides came to exemplify a very Russian mix of unreliability and resourcefulness, gregariousness and gloom — miraculously repairing the dying van, then disappearing to party all night with the locals.
In his many visits, Frazier experienced Siberia’s highs and lows. In Tobolsk, the former capital, where Christian knights defeated the Muslim khan in the mid-17th century and put Siberia under the control of the czars, he gazed admiringly at the kreml , a medieval walled city. Perched on a promontory at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers, it “rises skyward like the fabled crossroads of Asiatic caravan traffic that it used to be.” On the other hand, the modern industrial city of Omsk, a symbol of Siberian desolation in the post-Soviet era, is little more than “crumbling high-rise apartment buildings, tall roadside weeds, smoky traffic and blowing dust.”
As he demonstrated in “Great Plains,” Frazier is the most amiable of obsessives. From his first encounter with Russian authority — a tense face-off with a boyish-looking border guard at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow — he peels away Russia’s stolid veneer to reveal the quirkiness and humanity beneath. The staring contest ends when the guard breaks into a big smile. “It was a kid’s grin,” Frazier concludes, “suggesting that we had only been playing a game, and I was now a point down.”
Frazier has the gumption and sense of wonder shared by every great travel writer, from Bruce Chatwin to Redmond O’Hanlon, as well as the ability to make us see how the most trivial or ephemeral detail is part of the essential texture of a place: the variety of TV antennas on Siberian rooftops, the giant bison skull in the paleontology museum of Irkutsk. Frazier never fully explains the nature of his “dread Russia-love,” though he clearly sees himself as the spiritual descendant of a long line of Russophiles. These include John Reed, the author of “Ten Days That Shook the World,” the classic account of the Russian Revolution, and George Kennan — not the diplomat but the 19th-century American adventurer of the same name, who followed the Siberian Trakt, “Russia’s great trans-Asian road,” along which goods and prisoners passed for centuries.
Frazier suggests that the country’s opaqueness has given it a twisted appeal. “Russia is older, crookeder, more obscure,” he writes, experiencing a “shiver of patriotism” on a flight back to the United States, just days after 9/11. He’s also fascinated by the role Siberia has played in the Russian psyche, recounting in bloody detail the exploits of the Golden Horde, the Mongol conquerors who rode out of the Asian steppe and reduced Kiev and other cities to smoldering ruins strewn with corpses. “Russia can be thought of as an abused country,” Frazier notes. “One has to make allowances for her because she was badly mistreated in her childhood by the Mongols.” The horror of that conquest, he observes, was enough to turn the attention of the czars to the East, and led to the gradual colonization of Siberia. Most of all, this region has served as a place of exile, an end-of-the-world dumping ground for everyone from petty criminals to visionaries and would-be reformers.
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