Trakt Marks: On Ian Frazier's Siberia
Preparing for his trips, Frazier read travel narratives written by some of the many Americans who visited Russia around the turn of the twentieth century. Siberia was a popular destination for adventurous travelers, many of whom were trying out the newly finished Trans-Siberian railroad. Whether it was the closing of the American frontier that drew them to the Wild East, or some similarity of landscape between the American plains and the Siberian steppe, a disproportionate number of these travelers were from the Midwest. Frazier, also a Midwesterner, is "at least the seventh person from Ohio to travel in and write about Siberia." One of his heroes is another Ohioan, the explorer and writer George Kennan (a forebear of the twentieth-century Russia expert George F. Kennan). Kennan was working as a telegraph operator when Western Union sent him to survey land in Siberia for a possible network of telegraph cables that would link the United States and Western Europe. He ended up writing a much-read book about his travels across Siberia, and after another trip to Siberia in the 1880s he wrote a second book about the inhumane treatment of Russian political exiles in Siberia. Kennan's writing about the exiles was read by Tolstoy (he noted in his journal the "terrible indignation and horror" stirred by Kennan's descriptions) and Chekhov, who then decided to make his own trip to Siberia to see the prisoners.
Having read Kennan, Frazier hoped to see the beginning of "the great Siberian road," or the Sibirskii Trakt, which Kennan saw in 1885. The highway spanned 3,000 miles between Ekaterinburg, just east of the Urals, and the Amur River in the Far East. The Trakt was used for trade (it was thick with tea caravans when Kennan saw it) and also for the deportation of exiles, who typically walked, sometimes in chains, most of the way to their final Siberian destination. Kennan describes a "grief-consecrated pillar" that marked the border between western Russia and Siberia, where "exiles were allowed to stop and make a last goodbye, to press their faces to the ground and pick up a little of the earth of western Russia to bring with them."
Frazier and his guides were not able to find this pillar, but they did find long stretches of the original Trakt, which having been superseded long ago by a newer road had eroded to a pair of muddy ruts that "dwindled eastward to the horizon and forever." Though some European Russians have gone to Siberia voluntarily, for adventure or money or science, the emotional resonance of "going east" in Russian culture is overwhelmingly melancholy. Even before the exile system began in the seventeenth century, Frazier writes, the east had a dark association for European Russians: Mongol armies came from the east to conquer Muscovy. They sent Russian prisoners eastward to join the Mongol army or harems. Supplicant Russian noblemen had to cross Asia to visit the khan. Frazier speculates that perhaps "the reason that no Russian tsar (until Alexander II) ever ventured east of the Urals, and that the tsars instead used Siberia as a place to send their enemies, was that they still had a historic memory passed down from medieval Russia of those cross-continental visits to the Great Khan."
Both the czars and the Soviets found prison slave labor useful, but of course the Soviets employed it on a grand scale: 28.7 million forced laborers (by Anne Applebaum's count in Gulag: A History), a majority of them working in Siberia. Frazier is keen to see gulags and prisons, while his guides gently or sometimes very firmly discourage him—presumably because of the danger of going near still-active prisons but also, it seems, because of their discomfort with the subject. When Frazier finally gets to see an abandoned gulag barracks, on one of his later trips, the building is eerily well preserved by Arctic temperatures but unmarked by any kind of explanatory plaque—and this despite the Russians' love for historical museums. "I thought this camp, and all the others along this road, needed large historical markers in front of them, with names and dates and details; and there should be ongoing archaeology here, and areas roped off, and painstaking excavation, and well-informed docents in heated kiosks giving talks for visitors." Instead, though his guide had described it as a gulag museum, the barracks are deserted and silent.
Though something like 70 percent of Siberians live in cities, thanks in large part to the laborers of the gulag system, "urban" doesn't seem the most salient term for the land Frazier describes: between cities the tracts of land are so vast, and the cities and towns and villages can be so complicated to get in and out of, and the summer mosquitoes and winter cold so prohibitive, that the land seems in some fundamental way untamed despite its impressively urbanized population. It turns out that it is not actually possible to drive across Siberia, at least not in a reasonable amount of time. In the town of Chernyshevsk, the road becomes so poor that it is essentially impassable. Cars and trucks have to be loaded on train cars and hauled by rail to the town of Magdagachi. Frazier and company are relatively lucky. Having waited only about thirty hours in a queue to board the train (in a town with "almost no lodgings, no bathroom facilities you would want to enter without protective gear, and almost no restaurants"), they and their van get a place in a long windowless train car that they share with three other vehicles and their passengers. The train car is sealed tight; there is almost no light or fresh air; and the vehicles, parked only inches apart, take up almost all the space in the train cars. The passengers have to sit and sleep in their cars for most of the daylong journey. This is a low point in the trip. But when they get to Magdagachi, the end is more or less in sight: the Pacific is less than a week's worth of driving and camping away.
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As you're reading the first half of Travels in Siberia, it seems that the book will end when the trans-Siberian drive ends—that this will be a story about getting from one end of Siberia to the other. But the book is bigger and more complicated. Some time after he returns from the cross-country drive, Frazier becomes troubled by the fact that he still hasn't seen most of Siberia in winter. He enlists Sergei again and they travel together from Vladivostok to Yakutsk. They drive the ice highway across frozen Lake Baikal, they have a lunch of reindeer meat and reindeer broth at a native Even village, they see a gulag camp. "At what point can you say you have traveled in Siberia enough? I had done most of what I wanted to do there. But I kept wondering and thinking about this question, and I decided that if I was thinking about it so much, probably I should go." Frazier goes back again in 2009, this time to the city of Novosibirsk. It's his first trip without a Russian guide or friends to accompany him.
It's in Novosibirsk that Frazier has the peculiar experience of feeling "normal" for the first time on any of his visits to Russia. He takes a day trip to Akademgorodok, a part of Novosibirsk built in the 1950s as a residential neighborhood for scientists at the local university. Akademgorodok was prestigious in the Soviet era because of its academic community, and it remains so today, but its fortunes have taken a particularly Western turn. A scientist who lives in Akademgorodok tells Frazier that real estate prices have shot up as newly affluent Novosibirsk residents (presumably the beneficiaries of the oil and gas boom) are drawn to the neighborhood's cachet, threatening to price out the middle-class academics. Frazier and the scientist have lunch in a stylish local restaurant with a science theme, its zinc walls decorated with "elaborate scientific formulas in Russian handwriting." The restaurant, like Akademgorodok, seems to have an air of cheerful—but not ill-gotten—prosperity, and Frazier is surprised to find himself talking about a subject as mundane as rising real estate prices. On previous trips, especially those shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, he felt both "dazzled and on my guard constantly." In 2009, enough predictability had returned to some corners of Russia that for at least one afternoon in one Siberian town, it was possible for one American to relax. That evening, after returning to his hotel in downtown Novosibirsk and taking "another solitary hike or two around the city, my feeling of normalness faded out, and I fell into a jumpy state again. I decided I kind of preferred it, overall."
But that novel feeling of normalcy, or familiarity, serves as a kind of ending for a book that does not conclude in any conventional way. Novosibirsk is the last Siberia trip Frazier writes about in the book, but it seems entirely possible that he might go back again. There is nothing that feels particularly final about this visit, nor has he apparently exhausted his interest in the place. The end of the book must necessarily be somewhat arbitrary, and Frazier does all he can to efface the idea of an ending—like Siberia itself, the book seems simply to drift off into the distance, ending with a quote from a Decembrist revolutionary who died midsentence while writing his memoirs. In his last chapter Frazier mentions many things that he still hasn't seen in Siberia, among them American oilfield workers and climate scientists, two kinds of people of great importance right now not only to Siberia but to the rest of the world. Assessing Russia in 2009, Frazier ticks off a list of contradictions. Life expectancy: terrible. Energy exports: bountiful. Freedom of speech? No. Russian oil billionaire buying the New Jersey Nets? Yes. Is Russia's power waxing or waning? Will things get better or worse for ordinary Russians? It's not at all clear. One can live long enough to finish a memoir about a decade of travel in Siberia but still be far from reaching any conclusions about Russia.