“Officially, there is no such place as Siberia. No political or territorial entity has Siberia as its name. In atlases, the word ‘Siberia’ hovers across the northern third of Asia unconnected to any place in particular, as if designating a zone or a condition; it seems to show through like a watermark on the page. During Soviet times, revised maps erased the name entirely, in order to discourage Siberian regionalism. Despite this invisibility, one can assume that Siberia’s traditional status as a threat did not improve.” — Ian Frazier
In both imperial tsarist and Soviet times, Siberia was a place of exile-where revolutionaries, artists, writers, and others were neutralized out of the political game.
The Siberia of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is a place of childhood infatuation that began with his roots in the American Midwest (Ohio), where he first heard stories of Russian scientists’ exploits. Through the years, occasional mentions of Russia and his own readings sparked his infatuation into a full-blown obsession that developed in full force in his 40s.
In the 1990s, he and his wife had become friends with some Russian émigré artists he’d met while writing a profile about them for a publication. This resulted in a social bridge that enabled him to visit the country. He found that Russia had a unique smell: “The components of the smell are still a mystery. 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 treads of heavy boots-and fresh wet mud, and a lot of wet cement.” This phenomenon existed no matter what point-of-entry he used for the country-whether it was through Alaska or the east coast or the central part of the continent.
On his first visit, he was surprised at how travelers could smoke on the plane and tipple vodka from the shopping bags they’re brought on the flight. He compared the airplane seating to flimsy lawn-chairs with “one’s knees supporting the spine of the passenger in front while one leaned on the passenger behind.”
On-ground, he was appalled at the state of the men’s bathrooms: “No surface inside the men’s room, including the ceiling, was clean. There were troughs and stools, but no partitions, stalls, or doors. Everything done was done in full view. The floor was strewn with filth of a wide and eye-catching variety.”
He discovered a deep love of Russia that blindsided him. He struggled to justify his emotions compared to what he observed rationally: “We all know of famous authors who gave the world great works of literature yet were not such good people themselves. I supposed maybe Russia was an entire country like that. Certainly, it had the great books to show. That explanation proving unsatisfactory, I tried a simpler formula: Russia is both great and horrible, or as the greatest horrible country in the world.”
After tagging along with his Russian friends for his first trip, he planned his first solo trip by first trying to tag along with an evangelical team heading out to the far wilds using snowmobiles. That trip did not materialize, so he decided to travel north to Nome, Alaska, and head across the Bering Sea to the northeastern-most tip of Siberia as part of a tour group pursuing adventure, photographs, and souvenirs. The group headed to Provideniya, Russia, and landed in an airport with plane and helicopter wrecks pushed off to the side of the runway. They found “lots of old, Cold War, formerly high-tech electronic stuff, antennae and whatnot, all of it silhouette black and leaning one way or another, disconnected wiring dangling from it, and poles holding up wires in such quantity that they had to be strung on circular frames at intervals to separate them from one another, and stumps of poles, and guy wires running diagonally, and corkscrew-shaped contraptions dark against the sky…”
In 2001, at age 50, he was sent by The New Yorker to go on a writing assignment to explore Siberia. He had just explored Siberia’s westernmost and easternmost ends and planned on using the summer for the 9,000 mile road trip for the in-between spaces. For this 7-week trip, he was given a $22,000 advance. He hired a Russian handler/driver and his friend, purchased a boxy Renault van and various supplies (including a satellite phone), and set off on their grand road trip.
Frazier contemplated the checkered history of the uses of Siberia for human punishment and exile.
They visited gulag barracks where many people lived and died discomfiting his Russian co-travelers.
“Just as the twentieth century split the atom, it took apart the human soul, in the camps of the Siberian gulag, the soul’s reduction approached the absolute,” observes Frazier.
While he cited the dark period of Siberia’s use, and Siberia has reverted now to mining for natural resources and for tourism, he observes: “Through simple luck, the present seemed to be a breathing spell, at least for a little while. Sometimes travel is merely an opportunity taken when you can.”
The roads themselves were unpredictable.
“For days we motored eastward toward the Urals. Though the road went on and on, it never settled down and became what I would consider a standard long-distance highway. You never knew what it would do next. Sometimes it was no-frills two-lane blacktop for hours. Then without any announcement it would change to gravel degenerating into mud and enormous potholes, and I learned the word yama, meaning ‘hole.’
Arriving in a village, the road might lead straight into an Olympic-sized mud puddle or lose itself among streets apparently based on cattle paths. Many stops to ask directions would be required before we could pick up its thread again.”
Driving through Primorskii Krai, the group arrived at the Russian Far East, in Vladivostok, on September 11, 2001, to devastating news of the 9/11 attacks. With all flights to the US grounded, he waited around a bit longer before he was able to return state-side.
His next trip to Siberia, his fourth, related to a common question he got about Siberia-whether it was very cold. He realized that he had not gone during very cold periods and so by 2005, he planned yet another trip-albeit from east to west, in order to say that he’d experienced the Siberian cold.
He took the cross-country railroad, the Baikal-Amur Magistral (BAM), for part of the way and experienced driving over Baikal’s iced over surface “road.”
In 2009, he made a quick jaunt to Novosibirsk in Siberia and saw many Western commercial influences, including a large shopping mall.
Travels in Siberia is illustrated with some of Frazier’s own ink doodles.
His observations of Russia’s return to more authoritarian governance (away from glasnost and democracy) makes one wonder whether Frazier will return again.
Shalin Hai-Jew works at Kansas State University and resides in Manhattan.