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.
Frazier has written other books of hard-to-classify nonfiction, including Great Plains and On the Rez (2000), in which he goes to places that interest him, talks to people there, reads relevant books of history and literature and describes it all in a careful, plainspoken, arresting way. In Travels in Siberia he is perhaps even more understated than in the others; by saying relatively little but saying it just the right way, he conveys the wonder of a scene without much editorial comment—the literary equivalent of an actor holding still for a long, deadpan pause in response to someone else’s extraordinary outburst.
Frazier doesn’t spell out what makes him fall in love with Russia, but he gives a sense of the initial swoon. He recalls lying down on his host’s son’s bed the first day in Moscow, his mind already spinning with impressions from the airport, the drive into central Moscow and dinner with his hosts. He stares at a paper airplane hanging from the bedroom chandelier:
This paper airplane had sharp angles, and fins, and a strange projectile sleekness, like the elegant arrowhead-shaped MiG fighter jet. No one in America would have made such a paper airplane.
Frazier’s Russia is filled with things that you would not see in America—subtle things that don’t necessarily lend themselves to broad theories about cultural differences between the two countries but are distinctly Russian nonetheless.
On his first trip, Frazier and his friends visit the town of Barguzin, near Lake Baikal, and stop at the Barguzin museum and historical society. Barguzin was home to many distinguished political exiles in the nineteenth century, so one might imagine that the museum would be filled with various artifacts related to the exiles, or to some other periods in the town’s history. Frazier discovers that the museum, which is curated and run by a married couple, consists entirely of pictures made out of animal fur.
Vladimir, a sturdy man with blue eyes and a forward-thrusting, chestnut-colored beard, had made the pictures, mostly landscapes, which he had assembled by cutting and stitching various Siberian animals’ pelts. Some of the pelts he had obtained himself in the wild. Lizaveta [his wife] led us around the gallery from picture to picture and explained how different kinds of fur represented different landscape shades; the deep blue-gray of the fur of the Baikal seal, for example, duplicated the color of Lake Baikal in a storm.
Vladimir goes fishing with Frazier, then he and his wife have the travelers over to dinner at their house. Frazier marvels at Vladimir’s handmade fishing lures, Lizaveta’s homemade jam, their elaborate, carefully tended fruit and vegetable garden. The Soviet Union was not generally known for the craftsmanship of its goods, but its citizens nonetheless put a great deal of ingenuity and care into things they made, and they knew how to build a great deal from scratch. In fact, Frazier observes admiringly that "somehow everything built in Russia looks as if it has been made by hand. Even in the most generic industrial structures, the concrete looks hand poured, the corners as if shaped, sometimes clumsily, by individual hands." Ornament appears where you don’t expect it. In a hotel in Severobaikalsk that was originally built as a residence for railroad workers, each room has a light fixture embellished with "leaflike metalwork, scrolled tracery, and small cascades of faceted glass lusters." On the facade of a gulag prison barrack, Frazier spies "a very small swirl of scrollwork…. The embellishment was so out of place it caught the eye. I wondered what carpenter or designer had thought to put a touch of decoration on such a building."
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.