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 …

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