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The Smell of Russia

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Carl De Keyzer/Magnum Photos
Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Siberia, 1989

When I was in my early forties, I became infected with a love of Russia.” This condition, in his case chronic and untreatable, hit Ian Frazier as hard and suddenly as pneumonic plague when he came off the plane at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, into the Russian smell:

There’s a lot of diesel fuel in it, and cucumber peels, and old tea bags, and sour milk, and a sweetness—currant jam, or mulberries crushed into the waffle tread of heavy boots—and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement.

That started it. He had been persuaded to come by the Russian painter Alex Melamid and his wife Katya. It was only a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Melamids had not been there since their exile began in the late 1970s. Katya was tense. She went to the ladies’ room at the airport and returned saying: “Why did I come back here? This place is insane.” In the ladies’ room, a woman was doing her dishes, scrubbing plates and pots beside chicken bones ranged along the edge of the sink.

On the ride from the airport to Moscow, the bacillus worked deeper into Frazier’s head:

…The whole event was a kind of epiphany…. The shoulders of the road had been mowed incompletely or not at all. In places the weeds grew six and seven feet high beside the pavement. In other places they were lower; evidently the cows roaming the roadside had grazed them down. Openings in the greenery revealed sunlit trunks of birches, spotted like Dalmatians, black on white. A woman in a babushka strolled the ditch carrying a basket of peeled woven twigs—looking for mushrooms.

He spent some time in the apartment of Katya’s best friend, understanding not a word of Russian, touring the sights of Moscow:

I was thoroughly stunned. Love, with an assist from novelty, had blindsided me. I had been overcome, lost permanently. This kind of thing happens to people in middle age, I realize.

After ten days or so, Alex and Katya took him along on a trip to visit an old schoolmate in Siberia, a Buryat poet living at Ulan-Ude, close to Lake Baikal. Here Frazier came to know the city of Omsk, walked and fished by the lake, and debated poetry. He writes: “In my adult life, no trip had ever made such a change in me. I couldn’t get over where I’d been and what I’d seen.” The infection had become more specific. It was not just Russia fever now, but lust for Siberia.

Those quotations can make Frazier sound sentimental, attracted to Russia simply because he finds it so un-American, so dilapidated and haywire, such an amusingly weird mess. But that isn’t the case. He is a sophisticated, intense writer who—Twain-like—uses a deceptive style of naiveté and comic self-deprecation to carry serious perceptions. Take the passage where he and Katya encounter the overflowing, clogged horrors of the public latrine in the airport at Omsk:

I am an American, and Americans pay attention to and care about bathrooms. The habit may show childishness and weak-mindedness, but there it is.

(Afterward, he and Katya stagger out to the parking lot and clean themselves up with detergent wipes and rubbing alcohol.) The effect of these words is not so much “Russia is insanitary” as “fastidiousness about hygiene is a frontier-fence, and Russia starts on the other side.”

Frazier is well aware of the limits of this technique. In an interview he remarked that he was opposed to displays of expertise in travel writing, but “you can deflate yourself down to the point where, in a way, it’s more narcissism.” In Travels in Siberia we get to read a lot about Frazier’s highs and lows, sulks and exultations. On the surface, he has written an irresistibly subjective, first-person book. But Frazier, cunning as he is, never allows it to become just one more squelching “quest” of self-discovery. His narrative is made to seem artless, but he is a clever, practiced writer who has everything under control. He never lets his ego upstage Siberia.

Like most good travel writers, Frazier treks between epiphanies as much as between places. On this first journey, in a shack resort near Baikal, he sees a ten-year-old girl begin to dance by the light of a television screen, to the theme music of the film V.I. Warshawski:

The smells from the kitchen, the Russian voices, the American music, all hung suspended for a moment around the dancing of the girl…. Russians can really dance.

A few years later, now in remote Chukotia across from Alaska, Chukchi women begin to dance and again “for a moment the dancing caused the whole room to come into focus….” And at the end of the book, more than ten years after watching the child at Omsk, Frazier goes to the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and remembers her. He is spellbound by a ballet:

Now I reflected that Russians might not be such fabulous dancers if their country did not include Siberia. Dance is bodies moving through space, and the Russians perhaps think of their own bodies in relation to their immense, continent-wide swath of it…. The gallantry with which these people fling themselves at their big—too big, really—country is played out in how they dance.

In the intervals between his journeys, he set himself to reading Russian literature and history, and to learning the language properly in order to replace what his severe teacher Boris called the “hooligan Russian” he had already picked up. He was doing just splendidly in his final conversation exam, discussing his next trip, when Boris wrecked him with a last, all-Russian question: “If you are so sure you will come back safely, then what is that ghost I see standing behind your chair?”

Frazier did return safely, but he met many ghosts in Siberia. In that first trip to the Baikal region he had seen the grave of Mikhail Karlovich Küchelbecker, one of those heroic, brilliantly incompetent young men who tried to organize an uprising against Tsar Nicholas I in December 1825. Here began Frazier’s second infatuation, this time with the “Decembrists,” which only grew stronger as he encountered their graves and places of exile scattered across the three thousand miles between the Urals and Vladivostok. “The incomplete grandiosity of Russia” was a phrase that he couldn’t either source or get out of his head. But it seemed to him that “the Decembrists, the historical Russians I admire most, were incomplete grandiosity personified.”

There are five different Siberian journeys here, undertaken over sixteen years. The first was that almost accidental trip to Lake Baikal and the Buryat Republic. Next came a plan to cross Siberia from east to west, setting off from Alaska. This did not come off, but Frazier spent much time in the Nome Nugget Motel reading Lermontov and Pushkin, and appreciating the daft Siberian ambitions of others. Among them were buck-toothed young Englishmen heading across the Bering Strait with a contraption that jammed in the ice after only a few yards (“I understood that Monty Python’s Flying Circus had been simply a documentary”). There was large, bubbling Jim with his Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group (“This could be HUGE!”). Frazier did manage to get a helicopter ride to the island of Little Diomede (American), and stared across the icy narrows to Big Diomede (Russian). More fruitfully, he joined four Californians with cameras who had bought an expensive trip to the settlement of Provideniya, on the Chukotian coast.

The settlement was a short hop from Nome—another world. That Russian smell; the bored, beautiful women soldiers; the mountains of rusting military junk; the derelict barracks; the billows of sagging barbed wire. In Provideniya, and throughout Siberia in his travels to come, Frazier registered the monstrous wreckage dumped across the continent by the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union: the abandoned factories, the half-completed new cities, the demoralized populations descended from tsarist exiles, Stalin-era volunteers, or Gulag survivors who were now beginning to drift westward to Russia in search of better lives. His party recovered their spirits on a trip to a remote fishing camp, feasting on salmon and seal meat and listening to Chukchi fishermen recite Pushkin’s verses as they hauled in their nets.

Next came the journey that makes up the central narrative of the book. Frazier decided that he must cross Siberia by road, driving from west to east, from St. Petersburg to the Pacific. He would follow the route of the “Trakt,” the ancient road along which—before the coming of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the sealed prison-trains—countless thousands of prisoners were herded on months-long trudges into exile, forced labor, and often death.

It took a year of preparation before, in the summer of 2001, Frazier and his two hired companions were ready to set out. Sergei, the chief guide, was a muscular man in his sixties whose day job was teaching robotics at St. Petersburg Polytechnic. Volodya, his middle-aged assistant, came from Sochi, on the Black Sea; the two men had been friends since university.

The story of how Sergei and Ian Frazier did and didn’t get on is an expertly told thread running through the entire book:

I ended up spending more time at a stretch with Sergei than I ever have with anybody except my family. With nobody else except those closest to me have I ever been so deeply annoyed. Maybe he could say the same about me.

Tough and resourceful, never defeated by the sequence of improbable crises that forms the texture of Russian daily life, Sergei was moody, authoritarian, sometimes warm and generous, sometimes forbiddingly sullen. He never explained why he so much resented Frazier’s determination to see a Siberian prison, an abandoned labor camp, a monument to Stalin’s victims. But—almost until the end—he found reasons to drive past such places. It simply upset Sergei that a foreigner should want to see such things.

The fourth member of the expedition was the car. An apparently sturdy old Renault van bought in St. Petersburg, it started to malfunction as they drove out of the city—oil warning light, wipers working only spasmodically, speedometer dead, refusal to start after the first halt—and continued to mutiny almost every day for the next four thousand miles. At first, Frazier was appalled: “a red film of rage crossed my eyes”; how could Sergei have fooled him into “attempting to cross a continent in such a lemon”? But gradually, as the car broke down in Pestovo and Vologda and Novosibirsk and Ust-Manya and Tulun and Irkutsk (where it caught fire) and further locations east, he ceased to worry. He came to see that the point was not the bust but the mend, the undismayed ingenuity of Sergei and Volodya as they revived the Renault with a cannibalized wreck radiator, a tailpipe found in a ditch, a nail wedged into a carburetor.

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