More typically, Frazier will describe the feel of a city or town, what’s cool about it, and what’s in its museum. Always, always, Frazier must stop in at the museum. These visits make sense for an historical travelogue like this, but by the end I could see them coming: another town, another museum. Frazier’s style, of course, accords honor to the quirky and the serendipitous; readers of his earlier works will recognize his interest in ravens and trash. Siberia turns out to have plenty of both—and from the reader’s point of view, too much.

On the other hand, when the right balance between seriousness and humor is struck, which is more often than not, there is a magic in the book that is Frazier’s alone. Travels in Siberia is full of marvels. One is the steklyannyi plyazh, or glass beach, near Vladivostok, composed of an infinity of bottle shards. “Green and amber and blue and pink and brown and clear glass fragments lay ankle-deep everywhere and lifted and fell in the waves,” Frazier recounts, “sand slowly returning to sand.” We learn the true tale of flamingoes that fell from the sky, on two separate occasions, near in the village of Verkhnemarkovo, and survived. On a more sobering note, there is the remote Topolinskaya Highway, built by slave labor under Stalin. The road, writes Frazier, “appeared to have been beaten into the earth by hands, feet, and bodies. Almost unaided, human beings had forced it through the wilderness. To the right and left, the roadside showed none of the healed-but-still-visible gouges you see along roads built by earthmoving machines.”

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.

 

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Ted Conover is a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. His latest book is The Routes of Man, about roads.