Charmingly, another aspect of Frazier’s Russia-love is his appreciation of the beauty of Russian women. The Cold War stereotype of them as rough and ugly he regards as nearly incomprehensible. In city after city, his head is turned, and this particular trope comes with some equally charming self-awareness: “The Mariinsky [opera house] is another excellent setting in which to remark on the beauty of Russian women, but I will pass up the opportunity, except to mention the woman in the box next to ours wearing the black top and midriff-baring pants who had long honey-blond hair to the middle of her back and a lithe ease of movement that was a distraction to be near.”
Frazier’s Siberia, it should be noted, is quite distinct from the average journalist’s Russia, and generally unconnected to headlines about autocracy, pollution, and breakaway republics. Vladimir Putin’s name does not appear until the very end, when we’re learning about Siberian oil production and are told that the prime minister “showed up to inaugurate a new Lukoil station at Tenth Avenue and Twenty-fourth Street in Manhattan.” (Since it’s Frazier reporting, we also are apprised that Putin “held a cup of coffee and a Krispy Kreme donut in his hands.”)
The figures from Russian history that the author most admires are the Decembrists, the passionate young reformers who attempted a revolt in December 1825, and instead mostly ended up dead or exiled to Siberia. (He has a “favorite Decembrist,” Ivan Yakushkin, who had the self-possession to admire a Renaissance painting on the wall while he was being prepped for a session with the enraged Tsar Nicholas I.) For the sake of convenience, Sergei actually tells people they meet along the road that his companion is doing a research project on the Decembrists. It’s fitting, then, that Frazier should end the book with an unfinished sentence by a Decembrist, Prince Sergei Volkonsky, who was writing a memoir in his old age when he was, well, interrupted. It’s one of the strangest, most original endings I know—and perfectly Ian Frazier.