Siberian Rhapsody

Ian Frazier ventures across the steppe and back in time
November 23, 2010

Ian Frazier is one of the few true stylists in nonfiction writing today. Along with Susan Orlean and not many others (would that David Foster Wallace were still around), he writes in a fashion that is recognizably and unmistakably his own. Much of his writing consists of short humor pieces, mostly for The New Yorker, often built around a conceit of oddball juxtapositions. In the title essay of Lamentations of the Father, for example, a dad delivers a series of warnings and homilies to his young children in the portentous syntax of the Old Testament. (“Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room.”)

Frazier is probably known best, however, for books such as Great Plains, Family, and On the Rez, which take him out of New York and into history and wide open spaces. In these works, the first-person narrator comes and goes, generally mild and self-effacing: there is no risk of authorial bravado in a Frazier book.

His first such production in a long time, Travels in Siberia is also the most ambitious, in terms of the time it took (Frazier began researching his book in 1993) and the sweep of his subject. Siberia is 6,000 miles across and spans eight time zones, making up three-quarters of Russia and one-twelfth of the land on earth. It has a long human history, which Frazier also wants to explore. The 544-page book is the result of several trips; the arduous seven-week summertime drive across Siberia, which is its centerpiece, was completed, as circumstance would have it, on September 11, 2001. Frazier’s final trip, a short visit to Novosibirsk, was made last fall.

Frazier begins with a convincing account of how he was “infected with a love of Russia” in middle age. A lecture in New York by two Soviet dissident artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, led to a New Yorker piece about them. The ensuing friendship with Melamid resulted in a trip to Siberia and immersion in the artist’s circle, with Frazier firmly ensconced behind a linguistic barrier: “[A]ll the conversation was in Russian, and I became a cat or a dog, understanding nothing except once in a while my own name.” Just the same, he leaves exultant: “Moscow was the greatest place I’d ever been, and Russia the greatest country I’d ever seen.”

Frazier begins a study of Russian, taking lessons first in the émigré community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and later in St. Petersburg. He reads deeply in Russian history and literature, paying special mind to Pushkin. There is a dignity and gravitas he appreciates in Russia, and he is enchanted even by its characteristic smell, whose components he identifies as diesel fuel, tea bags, cucumber peels, wet cement, sour milk, chilly air, and currant jam. By contrast, he says, America smells like the Cinnabon franchise in the airport in Anchorage. Frazier concludes, “The smell of America says, ‘Come in and buy.’ The smell of Russia says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!’ ”

After this, he visits Nome, Alaska, which he describes in some wonderful passages, but which is not Siberia. There are also brief trips to the Chukchi Peninsula, right across the Bering Strait from Alaska, and the nearby Diomede Islands—but these places, too, have a fairly tenuous connection to the essential, Russian-flavored Siberia. Many pages are spent on the history of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, with the narrator hardly present, and on earlier accounts of travels in Siberia by other writers, of which there are many. Frazier focuses on one such chronicle by an Ohio telegraph operator named George Frost Kennan (after his distant relative, George Kennan, the twentieth-century diplomat and Russia expert). The untutored Kennan had some interesting travels and wrote a good book. But by the time Frazier, who was born in Cleveland and grew up in Hudson, Ohio, gets around to noting the many other Ohio-Siberia historical connections (“That’s five people from Ohio visiting and writing about Siberia in the space of fifteen years, or an average of one Ohioan every three years,”), the conceit has worn a bit thin. We want to hit the road!

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We finally do on page 178. In St. Petersburg, on an earlier visit, Frazier has introduced himself to officials at the Museum of the Arctic and the Antarctic, and asked for their advice on how to drive across Siberia. They hook him up with a guide, Sergei, who brings along an assistant, Volodya—“tough and competent-looking” men who belong to a nationwide emergency rescue organization called the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations.

Frazier stakes them $4,500 for the purchase of a vehicle, and remarks on their odd choice when he returns and sees it in Sergei’s garage: a Renault delivery van. The van strikes him “as not Siberia-ready. It looked more suited to delivering sour cream and eggs, the job it had done until recently.” But with Sergei at the wheel, the trio crosses the Urals and heads toward the Pacific. At last, the travels in Siberia have begun.

It is a boon to the story that the van is prone to breakdown—and a boon to the trip that Sergei has an almost magical ability to get it fixed. There being few motels in Siberia, the group mostly camps out. In what becomes a recurrent pattern, the guides establish camp at night, cook dinner, let Frazier set up in his tent . . . and then take off to meet women. Frazier’s Russian is not very good and he doesn’t object to this abandonment, which is both understandable and kind of sad. In the daytime, though, he’s more in charge. His readings in Russian history and travel literature have prepared him with a list of places he hopes to stop and explore. Frazier’s Siberia is intimately connected to history; he collects buildings and locations that may not seem too important in today’s world, but which once had profound meaning.

Early in the journey, for example, he tries to find a brick pillar that he read about in George Kennan’s book. The pillar, 150 miles east of Ekaterinburg, marked the boundary between the western Russian province of Tobolsk and the Siberian province of Perm. It stood on an old road, the Trakt, along which, during tsarist days, thousands of prisoners passed every year. At the pillar they were allowed to pause, look back, pick up a little of the dirt of western Russia, and say goodbye before “jumping off into the void.” Like many other things he’s looking for, the pillar has disappeared. Yet the legacy of exile is palpable to Frazier, who believes that a landscape can be permanently marked by human sadness.

Of course, the seriousness of Siberia is almost a priori: its use as a place of banishment dates to the time of the tsars. Frazier wants to stop at prisons and former prison camps on the drive, but time and again it doesn’t work out. He finally concludes that’s because Sergei and Volodya, out of a mixture of pride, prudence, and perhaps a faint sense of shame, would rather he focus on other things.

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.

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.