The armies of Napoleon and Hitler had some well-known problems in the winter cold of Russia. The Soviet government, in its own way, also ran aground because of it. Stalin and his successors built factories, mines and cities in Siberia, across a forbidding territory where previously there had been only towns and small settlements. The Soviet industrial projects in Siberia had a certain kind of economic logic when the government was arresting its own citizens and forcing them to work there, but once the gulag system was scaled back, an old truth reasserted itself: not very many people want to live in Siberia. The Soviets had to spend a lot of money enticing workers to move east of the Ural Mountains, especially to the Russian Far East, and still more money supplying them with fuel and food shipped from western Russia. The numbers never worked out, but the government kept trying anyway until the Soviet Empire fell apart, at which point Siberia was left with many surprisingly large cities in improbably cold places, scattered inconveniently across a vast territory, connected by a few poorly maintained roads and, with factories and military bases closing, fewer jobs than before.
At about this time, in the early 1990s, Ian Frazier made his first trip to Russia, including a stop in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude. "In my adult life," he writes in Travels in Siberia, "no trip had ever made such a change in me." This is saying a lot, since Frazier had already traveled a great deal, mostly in the United States and especially the American West, and written about some of his travels in Great Plains (1989). "I couldn’t get over where I’d been and what I’d seen…. I began to read all kinds of books about Russia…. I started putting notes about Siberia in folders."
In at least one sense, Siberia is Russia: in terms of land mass, it makes up 77 percent of the Russian federation. Frazier lists some of its improbable measurements (eight time zones, one-twelfth of all the land on earth, big enough to contain the United States and most of Europe), but his book is, among other things, about reckoning with the hugeness of Siberia apart from numbers and statistics. In 1999 he returned to Siberia, to the town of Chukotka, in the extreme northeast of Russia, where he and a small group of Americans spent a week at a fishermen’s village. Then he decided that what he needed to do was not simply to fly in and out of Siberia but to cross it.
Frazier rejected the more common means of trans-Siberian tourist travel, the railway, because he wanted to see more of Siberia up close than the train would allow. With two Russian guides, Sergei Lunev and Volodya Chumak, he spent five weeks and two days in the summer of 2001 driving from St. Petersburg to the Pacific Coast town of Olga, not far from Vladivostok, camping outdoors on most nights and stopping at various points of interest he had read about along the way. One thing he saw up close is the lack of a real national highway system in much of Russia—provincial roads, especially in Siberia, can be potholed and unpredictable, liable to start winding through tiny villages or stop at an unexpected dead end.
Another thing he saw was the mechanical genius possessed by some Russians. On the second day of the trip, Frazier’s van breaks down. Sergei and Volodya get it running again, but the van continues to conk out periodically all the way across Siberia. For a while Frazier is infuriated that Sergei chose such a sickly vehicle for a 9,000-mile journey, but eventually he achieves a certain tranquillity regarding the van. No matter what part of it breaks, Sergei and Volodya are able to fix it. When Frazier asks Volodya, well into their trip, "just what was the matter with this car," Volodya thinks about it and tells him that "what was wrong with the car could not be said in words," which makes Frazier think of a famous stanza by the Russian Slavophile poet Fyodor Tyutchev that begins, "Russia cannot be understood by the mind."
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Our narrator’s love for Russia is serious, but his position is comic, thrust as he is into various Russian situations that he can only negotiate imperfectly. Frazier studies Russian and bravely makes as much use of it as possible. He savors the few times he is able to make Russians laugh (intentionally!) while speaking their language. A sensible and apparently well-behaved American, he insists that the van be fitted with seat belts; he asks his guides not to drive more than fifty-five miles per hour and admits to his periodic anxiety over other matters of personal safety. He admires the beauty of Russian women but stays in his tent on nights when his guides (both married) party with women from the towns they visit. Sergei, Frazier’s chief guide, is the head of a robotics lab at the St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University who does guiding for extra money. Volodya is a building renovator. They are all roughly the same age. Sergei and Volodya seem to view Frazier’s requests as harmlessly eccentric, and they indulge some while quietly disregarding others.