“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.
The van’s final gesture was to play dead when double-parked uphill on an icy slope in Vladivostok, only minutes before Frazier was due at the airport to catch his flight back to the United States. Sergei and Volodya wrenched it back to life by rolling it backward into the oncoming, hooting traffic, and by now Frazier could calmly appreciate “the most outstanding feat of driving I have ever seen.” A Russian car journey is not just about getting there, but about what you do when you don’t.
At Veliki Ustyug, golden onion spires were reflected in the river, and Frazier took note of the astonishing number of beautiful women in post-Soviet cities. Across the Urals at Ekaterinburg, he and the resentful Sergei searched out the site of the Ipatiev House, where the tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. Near the village of Maltsevo, stumbling through bushes in dense swarms of mosquitoes, they failed to find the famous pillar on the Trakt that used to tell the despairing columns of exiles that they had entered Siberia proper and left Russia—probably forever.
At Novosibirsk, Frazier met the engaging Sergei Prigarin, professor of stochastics—the science of randomness. Prigarin and Frazier agreed, warily, that Russia itself could be understood as a stochastic system. The travelers passed on through the hellish coal and cement pollution of the Kuznetsk Basin and reached Krasnoyarsk, serene above the gigantic Yenisei River, then Irkutsk where Frazier lingered among relics of Decembrist exiles and revisited Lake Baikal. On they drove, the road sometimes a two-lane blacktop and sometimes a shapeless mess of mud and potholes, across the blank steppe between Mongolia and the “taiga” forest belt to the north, until they reached Chita, where there was a Decembrist museum and “the plenitude of beautiful women overwhelmed and swamped description.” (How, Frazier wondered, had cold war propaganda ever got away with the image of dumpy, pudding-faced babushkas? But Alex Melamid, much later, told him that the emergence of stunning women had been quite sudden, bursting into blossom only after the fall of Soviet power.)
A day or so beyond Chita, the road simply gave up. In the squalid railroad town of Chernyshevsk (“the widely strewn trash and garbage guaranteed every person an individual corona of flies”), they sat and waited for a Trans-Siberian transporter train to turn up (no timetables, no information) and, on receipt of a $200 bribe, to haul them five hundred miles to where the road began again.
By now they had crossed many of Siberia’s slow, colossal rivers—Severnaya Dvina, Ob, Irtysh, Selenga, Yenisei. Only the Amur lay ahead, between them and the Pacific. Sometimes they had stayed in houses, but more often they had camped for the night near a river. They would wash a little in the muddy water, and eat whatever Sergei could put together. One of his feasts consisted of “thick slices of freshly baked black raisin bread on top of which he put chunks of canned mackerel dripping with oil and garnished with peeled cloves of garlic cut in half,” all irrigated with canned orange juice. Frazier did not keep that one down.
On many such evenings, Sergei and Volodya would take off in the Renault and befriend lonely, hospitable ladies in the nearest village. Alone in the dark with river noises, Frazier fell prey to paranoid fantasies: perhaps they would return with a band of robbers and strip him of his satellite phone. By Chernyshevsk, a low point, they were fed up with one another; their “dirty-baby smell had worked its way into the seats of the car” and there had been a yelling match when Sergei tried—prudently, it seems to me—to stop Frazier from photographing a fully occupied prison. Matters only improved when they reached the highway again and crossed the delicious forested hills of the Maritime Province. There they at last emerged, after five weeks on the road, at the fishing village of Olga on the Pacific shore.
The date was September 11, 2001. Frazier picked up a puzzling voicemail from his wife in New Jersey, saying that she and the kids were all right. When he discovered what she meant, there was nothing he could do: all flights into the US were grounded. A band of poachers brought him a fresh salmon to show their sympathy for America, and he was moved to tears.
Until flights resumed, he stayed on at Olga. Sergei and Volodya made friends with two attractive widows; Frazier passed the time fishing and reflecting. The ancient ghosts of Siberia, he decided, might have been baffled by the cold war, but would have made perfect sense of September 11: “The flying machines, the proud towers, the slaughtered innocents, the suicidal believers, are a simple story that exists out of time.” But when he finally reached JFK, many days later, “I did squat down and touch the warm, black, grainy, pebbly asphalt with the fingers of one hand.”
Back at home, Frazier brooded on his experiences. The notion of Siberia meant two things to most people: cold and prisons. Traveling in summer and deflected from Gulag relics by Sergei, he had not encountered either of them, and he began to plan yet another expedition. Back in St. Petersburg to report on the city’s tricentenary celebrations, he overcame hesitations and looked up Sergei, who welcomed him like a “long-lost son.” Frazier found that his worries about the man had melted away: “He was just who he was, a Russian guy—bad in some ways, worse in others, and totally clever and dependable under it all.”
Early in 2004, they set off from Vladivostok and flew to Irkutsk. Lake Baikal was still frozen, and a jeep drove them 230 miles across the ice to the railhead town of Severobaikalsk. Here, Frazier heard, hopelessly lost flamingos occasionally fall from the sky and are warmed up and fed in the town’s tropical winter garden. Here, too, they found “the last great construction project of Soviet times.” The building of the Baikal–Amur Magistral (BAM) had been started in Stalin’s time as a huge northward branch of the Trans- Siberian Railroad that would connect the permafrost cities and the slave-worked mineral wealth of the tundra to the Pacific. Four thousand bridges were built, and dozens of tunnels, but the year of the main line’s completion was the very year the Soviet Union died. The pioneer enthusiasm switched off, and the Siberians began to migrate westward. Severobaikalsk had already lost half its population.
They rode the BAM east for two days and nights, then shared a collective cab for the last three hundred miles north to Yakutsk. In this large city built on 1,300 feet of permafrost, with an average winter temperature of minus 42, Frazier saw onion domes and swish hotels and branches of Gap, Benetton, and Baskin-Robbins. He communed with geologist Petrov (“90 percent of our taiga territory today is absolutely pure…. I worrylessly take a mug, or a cup, or a glass, and I come up to any puddle, and I scoop and drink…”), and visited the museum of hairy mammoth fragments from the permafrost.
Driving up the frozen Lena River, four miles wide at Yakutsk, they finally reached Gulag country in the land of the Even people. The old highway built by convicts, heading toward the Kolyma gold mines and distant Magadan, was already returning to nature, its handmade log bridges collapsing. In the frozen moonlight, Frazier began to see among the trees the black fences and snow-laden roofs of prison camps. But it was not until several days later that the car stopped and he and Sergei walked down through the snow in daylight to explore a lager, a camp probably abandoned in the 1950s but that, in Siberian cold, had “hibernated into the present more or less unchanged. Around it, like a bubble of prehistoric air frozen inside a glacier, a familiar atmosphere of 1954 endured.”
This was one of the places known to Solzhenitsyn, to Varlam Shalamov, to millions of other men and women who did not live or did not care to write about them. Sergei went into a hut and stood in silence looking at the iron stove, the tiers of bare plank bunks, the moss plugging chinks in the log walls. Frazier, intending to show respect as a foreigner, stayed outside and peered in through the window. But the aura of absence was what struck him most:
The deserted prison camp just sat there—unexcused, un-torn-down, unexplained. During its years of operation it had been a secret, and in some sense it still was…. “No comment,” the site seemed to say.
There is another Siberian journey in the book after this one, an impulsive return to Novosibirsk in November 2009. This time Frazier went alone, moving only around the city and its satellite university town Akademgorodok. And here, perhaps because he already knew the place, Frazier began to register how rapidly Russia had been changing around him.
Aeroflot no longer allowed smoking; the stewardess “had refined her instinctive contempt for the passengers into something transcendent and soulful.” From the air, the darkness of Siberia now prickled with the burn-off flares of oil and gas. The Victory Theater had become a multiplex, and Novosibirsk had grown a gigantic shopping mall, the Mega-Ikea. The little daughter of Prigarin, king of stochastics, had grown into a confident young woman who loaded information onto a memory stick and had it printed out in a copy shop. He met Vanya, a much-traveled computer scientist, and suddenly realized during their conversation that “I felt normal. I had never felt just that—normal—in Russia before.” Vanya gave him a lift back to his hotel, and “in a Siberian snowstorm, we were having a conversation about real estate—for me, another feature of normality.”
A compliment to the new Russia? No, Frazier is mocking his own American assumptions. Malls, memory sticks, and clean restrooms suggest “normality” to foreigners—but then, eighty years ago, blast furnaces rising out of the steppe suggested “modernity.” Frazier knows well that new Russia is heading off into its own undemocratic hybrid of global capitalism. That means ghastly public health statistics, sullen pride in Stalin’s memory, the occasional murder of critical journalists. But it also means that Siberia’s mineral exports, energy above all, are having a huge effect on the planet. It means Russian oligarchs using Siberian wealth to shop the world bare while paying for much of its culture and sport.
Each section of Travels in Siberia is bookended with one of Frazier’s packages of history or present fact. These are often learned but always absorbing. Railroads, the Mongols, taiga geology, the story of the sable trade…. My own favorite is the saga of George Kennan, older cousin of famous George F., who began as a telegraph boy in rural Ohio and ended as one of Siberia’s most intrepid explorers and a writer whose blazing defense of Russian political exiles moved Mark Twain to say: “If dynamite is the only remedy for such conditions, then thank God for dynamite!”
Travels in Siberia is a very prolonged road movie of a book: always beautifully written, often very funny, serious, and moving in its cumulative impact. Frazier never goes omniscient, and always remembers that his lens is American. For instance, there’s a striking passage where he compares the Decembrist rebels of 1825 to the Founding Fathers: those Russians, he suggests, “deep down…simply could not imagine themselves the equals of the tsar,” whereas the Americans genuinely believed that King George III was no better than they were. But “I believe we Americans have lost our grip on [this sense of equality] today.”
Russia, to Ian Frazier, is “an abused country,” which explains—for him—why it is “so great and so horrible simultaneously.” Perhaps, but he finds it hard to forgive Russian reluctance to commemorate the horrible part. Why are the deserted camps of the Gulag not excavated, restored, and made into museums, with their victims and guards identified by name and the graves marked? The answer, which Frazier misses, is that converting shameful times into official memory (“heritage”) is a minority taste. Democracies with a sophisticated elite in charge can afford to do it. But most people in the world prefer not to think about recent pain (such memories, they think, are best kept private), and to overlook its material relics as they slowly rust away. In Russia, devoted private groups like Memorial work to commemorate the Gulag’s victims. But the government’s reluctance to give Stalin’s crimes their proper place in history probably represents the instinct of most Russians, as expressed to Frazier by Sergei: “he told me I should not spend time on this sort of thing.”
Alexander Herzen, a Russian who knew all too much about Siberia and its exiles from many nations, wrote that the Poles at least had a past, a starting point toward which they could strive. “They had masses of holy relics, while we had empty cradles.” Frazier, so marvelously observant, toiled back and forth across the colossal, inchoate Siberian space and felt this emptiness. Something will one day fill this cradle and may tip the balance of the planet. But what that will be, great or horrible or both, not even he can guess.
November 25, 2010