Travels in Siberia

New Yorker writer Ian Frazier makes a foray to Siberia, the "greatest horrible country in the world.”

Travels in Siberia By Ian Frazier Farrar Straus & Giroux 544 pp., $30

It took bestselling author Ian Frazier (“On the Rez” and “The Great Plains”) about 16 years and countless back-and-forths to Russia to pen his latest ponderous but often evocative adventurelogue, Travels in Siberia. Frazier fills his 500-page tome with everything he knows and loves about Siberia, and then some. He does know and love a lot about it – the language, the geography, the history (especially the Decembrists, those 100 or so Russian Army officers who were exiled to Siberia after their failed coup attempt in December of 1825 against the ascending czar, Nicholas I). As for the “and then some”: On the upside, he offers his reader hand-drawn sketches he’s made of landscapes and cityscapes. It’s a nice touch.

On the downside, there are way too many descriptions of airport layovers, tarmac delays, squalid bathrooms, etc. Having said that, Frazier must then be commended for his effervescing enthusiasm for a place synonymous with exile, prison camps, and Mongol hordes. “Travels in Siberia” is certainly no Martha Stewart lover’s romp through petit fours paradise. (About the only thing Frazier finds to eat and drink in the entire 7,000-mile expanse are hairy kielbasas and suspect “bottled water.”) But if you have the stomach for reading a far-flung, nose-numbing, outlandish travel adventure, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Frazier begins his foray to “the greatest horrible country in the world” as he refers to it, by flying to Nome and then taking a puddle hopper out into the Bering Sea to the tiny island of Little Diomede just so he can gaze across the watery, two-mile divide at the island’s larger twin, Big Diomede, the geographically farthest eastern point in all of Russia.

The next time he probes the great horrible, he travels west again from Anchorage to Provideniya, “a city closer to America than Dallas is to Houston.” This trip, however, is more a fishing/mushroom collecting expedition than a tour along the eastern flank of Siberia.

Finally he travels the conventional way – to St. Petersburg via New York – where he meets up with his hired guides, the irascible but eminently competent Sergei (he can fix any car problem with a nail or a piece of wire) and Volodoya, a fun-loving fellow with egregious teeth. With a van that Frazier pays for, but Sergei and Volodoya bought, the three head east toward Vladivostok.

For 7,000 miles, Frazier has the courage and patience of Job, enduring salmonella poisoning, malfunctioning automobiles (I lost count of how many times the van breaks down), hunger, sleeplessness, party-animal travel companions, camping out in tents instead of hotels, and swarms and swarms of mosquitoes. With serviceable Russian language skills, Frazier still manages to visit the important museums, ask the right questions, and comprehend most of the answers. But nothing is ever easy in Siberia. Nothing.

One scene that best exemplifies the extreme difficulty of Frazier’s adventure is when he is locked inside a train car for 2-1/2 days as they move (check that, crawl) east through a roadless tract of Siberia. His guide Sergei is laid out on the roof of their car with a teeth-chattering fever, while his other guide Volodoya drinks shot after shot of vodka in an attempt to deaden the pain from yet another toothache. Frazier describes it thus: “Being sealed in the vagon [train car] soon got to me. I mean, here were four vehicles parked inches apart in a closed space, maybe twenty gallons of gas in each vehicle, and there were no window, no fire extinguishers on the walls, no Exit signs, the vagon’s back doors secured tightly from the outside....”

Throughout his sojourn, Frazier yearns to visit the infamous gulags, symbols of Siberia’s horrific past. However, his moody traveling companion, Sergei, always manages to dissuade him whenever one comes into view. Finally, in the most remote part of Siberia yet, Sergei relents and Frazier has his longed-for encounter: “What struck me then and still strikes me now was the place’s overwhelming aura of absence. The deserted prison camp just sat there – unexcused, un-torn down, unexplained.” It is then that Frazier lets loose about the unspeakable atrocities orchestrated by the greatest villain of them all, Joseph Stalin, reminding his reader that “anywhere from fifty-five to more than sixty million Russians died by unnatural causes as a result of the Bolshevik revolution.... A large fraction of those deaths must be blamed on Stalin.”

But Frazier’s quest goes far beyond a simple shuttle run to both ends of the world’s largest land mass. Even he himself can’t fully explain why he is so obsessed with Siberia. Oddly, he seems to fixate on four ubiquitous items found there as holding the keys to this riddle of land – ravens and crows, trash, gulags, and beautiful women, not necessarily in that order. In the end these symbols never provide answers, just more questions, engendering within his mind a phrase that he neurotically repeats over and over again: “the incomplete grandiosity of Russia....”

Who would even think of trying to wrap his arms around something so incomplete and grandiose as Siberia? Only a writer as driven, versatile and intrepid as Frazier.

Richard Horan’s forthcoming book, “SEEDS: One Man’s Quest to Gather and Grow Tree Seeds from the Homes of America’s Famous Writers. From Faulkner to Muir, Wharton to Welty” is due out on Earth Day, 2011.

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