Travels in Siberia (Ian Frazier,2010)

A forbidding, exotic, abused land
Siberia first entered my consciousness through the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. My introduction to him came in his brilliantly crafted One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which follows the life of a zek (inmate) over the course of 24 hours in a secluded prison camp far out in the brutal winter cold of Siberia. The story’s publication in the Soviet Union in 1962 had been a surprise, coming after Khrushchev made his famous 1956 speech denouncing some of the unspeakable crimes of the Stalin era. Solzhenitsyn’s novel, based on his own experience in the gulag as a political prisoner, forced the world to face the systematic injustice and inhumanity of the massive system of forced labor camps that had been established by the Bolsheviks. The bitter cold of the Siberian winter is almost like a character in the story, and the apparently endless taiga stretching out as far as the eye can see around the camp made escape an impossibility. These two forces of nature act as a metaphor for what happens when people are treated as objects rather than as persons with dignity and significance. Solzhenitsyn helped shape my sense of political reality, told stories that granted me insight into Russian character, history, and society, and in introducing me to Siberia guaranteed that I would hunger to know more about this demanding expanse of land.

Ian Frazier is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, where I first encountered his work. I laughed (guiltily) at his irreverent “The Cursing Mommy” series (9/4/2009, 1/11/2010, 4/26/2010, 12/20/2010), enjoyed his fascinating report on the unfortunate invasion of Asian carp into American waters (“Fish out of Water,” 10/25/2010), and when “On the Prison Highway: the gulag’s silent remains” was published in the magazine (8/30/2010) I knew I would have to read the book from which it was excerpted to hear the rest of the story of Frazier’s trips to Siberia.

Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is not primarily about the abandoned camps, desolate rough structures surrounded by barbed wire where so many suffered and perished. In fact, very little of the book is about them since Siberia, though forever cursed by the presence of the gulag, is a vast region defined by much more than the prison camps. As he travels—Frazier’s made five trips in all, one a slow driving and camping trek across all of Russia in a highly undependable van with two intrepid Russian companions—Frazier records his impressions of the land and its peoples, visits museums, cities and remote villages, camps by rivers in pristine wilderness and by the roadside near industrial towns with factories belching great clouds of smoke and dust, shares meals with scientists and common folk, and throughout uses his careful reading to tell us the history of a region so large that both the United States and Europe could fit into its space, with land left over. Frazier is a careful researcher and meticulous observer, but the skill I most appreciate in him is that of storyteller. Rather than a record of his travels, he tells stories that capture something of the essence of his days and encounters and adventures in Siberia. It is a long book, full of vivid detail but I was sorry when it ended.

Although roaming herds of pigs were occasional in villages in western Siberia, east of Novosibirsk they became more common. Now every village we went through seemed to have big gangs of them. Because the weather was so hot, the pigs had generally been wallowing in a mud hole just before they got up to amble wherever we happened to see them ambling. Evidently, the wallowing technique of some pigs involved lying with just one side of themselves in the mud. This produced two-tone animals—pigs that were half wet, shiny, brown mud, and half pink, relatively unsoiled original pig. The effect was striking—sort of harlequin. The other animals that roamed the villages in groups were geese. When a herd of pigs came face-to-face with a flock of geese, an unholy racket of grunting and gabbling ensued. I wondered if the villagers ever got tired of the noise. Whether challenging pigs or not, the village geese seemed to gabble and yack and hiss nonstop. The pigs grunted and oinked almost as much, but always at some point the whole herd of pigs would suddenly fall silent, and their megaphone-shaped ears would all go up, and for half a minute every pig would listen. [p. 249]

The stories Frazier tells contain both blessing and curse. The blessing of meeting hardy people who need to work hard to simply survive in a place where frigid temperatures in winter alternate with summers which, though brief, bring both intense heat and smothering plagues of biting insects, great swarms of mosquitoes and flies. The curse of political corruption, economic injustice, and environmental degradation on a scale that is almost unbelievable, both industrial pollution that colors the sky and poisons the land and water, along with endless mountains of trash along highways and creeks, anywhere humans pass and simply leave behind their garbage.

The history of Siberia is both fascinating and tragic. This is where the Mongols came when under Genghis Khan (and his son) massive armies of fierce horse riding warriors swept out of the steppes to conquer all that stood in their way to carve out the greatest empire the world had ever known. They laid waste to Russia, destroying entire cities, plundering wealth, and leaving behind a population decimated by slaughter and rape. Siberia is also where the Tsars sent their enemies and suspected enemies, driving tens of thousands into exile before the Communists used modern techniques to increase the horror. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Siberia has languished in a country where predatory capitalism allows a few to gain enormous wealth while the vast majority remain mired in lives with few choices and often little hope besides simply somehow cobbling together enough of an income to get by and enough vodka to occasionally forget the hardship.

On one trip during winter Frazier finds himself with his usual guide, Sergei, in an isolated city in northeast Siberia. As usual in winter people use the great frozen rivers that crisscross the landscape as highways.

Sergei and I again spent the night in the hotel in Khandyga, in the same communal bedroom as before. A local guy with a Uazik [Russian off-road vehicle] was driving us back to Yakutsk the following morning.

The only excitement of that trip happened on the Lena River. Our driver was a skittish, skinny kid who drove fast, kept to no particular lane, and often hit potholes dead-on. Duct tape held the windows in place, the door handles came off in our hands, and the whole vehicle tended to shimmy to the left or right, crabwise. Sergei sat in front and I sat in back with three other passengers—a mother from Khandyga and her thirteen-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. The ride soon made the little girl carsick, which caused the driver concern. He was solicitous when he had to stop for her to throw up, and he sometimes screeched into the parking lots of roadside cafes to buy her tea with lemon and sugar for the purpose of soothing her stomach. Then he’d hop back in the car and we’d go racketing off again.

When we turned onto the Lena River, the driver explained that this new route was longer than the previous ice road because there had been an accident on the previous road a month ago—several cars had broken through the ice and six people had drowned. The southbound lane on this new road had a fair amount of irregularities in the ice, and as we were rattling over them the Uazik suddenly sputtered and stopped cold. Traffic backed up behind us immediately with a great honking and roaring that did not let up as people drove around us on the ice. The mother from Khandyga was worried because from here it was several miles to land. I told her not to disquiet herself because Sergei could fix anything. He and the driver were peering under the hood. The driver seemed overwhelmed, but Sergei had taken a piece out of the engine and was strolling on the ice, hunting around.

The mother told me they had lived in Khandyga for seventeen years and often made this trip to Yakutsk. I asked about the coal dust in Khandyga and she said it was a real problem because clothes got dirty so fast. She and her husband had moved there because of the military base, which back then had more than four thousand vehicles. Her husband was a mechanic, the best one in Khandyga or anywhere, and he believed in repairing vehicles as his mission in life. The village was poor now, with much unemployment, she said, and her children could no longer get a good education there. Sometimes there was not much food in the stores, the streets melted into the permafrost every summer and had to be re-paved, and winter was dark and sooty and very cold. She said she loved Khandyga anyway, especially in the summer, a beautiful time of year, when she and her husband and children sometimes went on four-thousand-mile drives to see relatives in Kazakhstan.

After more tinkering by Sergei, the driver turned the key and the car started and ran at a rough idle. The mother from Khandyga exclaimed in joy, and I said, “What did I tell you?” Later I asked Sergei to describe how he had done it, and he said, “When the Uazik died at approximately four o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of the great Lena River in traffic, the driver opened the hood and found with horror that in a most important part of the engine—the carburetor—a piece was missing. A screw had come off and the small rod that held the float regulating the gasoline level of the carburetor had fallen out and disappeared. Thus, the gasoline stream flew into the carburetor as if from a hose, gasoline was spilling on the ice, and naturally the car would not run.

“What was to be done? I looked all over on the ice road in the hope of finding our missing part. Instead of our part I picked up about half a bucket of other parts, but not the one needed. I then disassembled the carburetor and it appeared that all we needed was to find a piece of wire or a nail of the right diameter in order temporarily to replace that rod on which the float of the carburetor was set. I did find such a wire nearby on the ice, I cut off a piece of this wire, and I inserted it where the missing part should be. I found a bolt of approximately the right size belonging to some other machine under our car’s wheels, and with this bolt’s help I fixed the rod in place. In truth, the carburetor did not work so well as before, but nevertheless we were able to drive from the ice road and reach our hotel. Thus I was once again convinced that the Russian car is the most reliable in the world, because it is possible under necessity to replace any part in it with a piece of wire or with a nail.” (p. 433-435).

I am certainly no expert on Siberia, but the one criticism I have of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is that he does not take adequate notice of the impact Orthodox Christianity has made on the people, its history, the glories of its culture and the problems that now plague Russian society. On thing Frazier notes in this regard is how monasteries sometimes served as shelters during periods of great unrest to keep alive ideas and save precious manuscripts from destruction.

To escape the Mongol influence, a population shift took place in Russia, with people moving into the forests and northward to more remote cities where the horsemen were unlikely to come. Russian culture, too, stunned by the occupation, retreated into its spirituality, and into monasteries deep in the woods. Russia survived as itself mainly in the monasteries during this hard period. The Mongols, with their unlikely reverence for things of the spirit, allowed the institutions of the Orthodox church to be exempt from taxes; as a result, during these centuries the Russian church did all right. Some Russian historians say that the spiritual growth and sense of self that Russia found during the Mongol period formed the beginnings of the Russian empire, or that the later Russian state combined the continental vision inherited from the Mongols with Russian spirituality. [p. 124]

True enough, and important, but there is far more to the story of religious conviction and culture than this.

On the one hand, Travels in Siberia is as the title says, a chronicle of Frazier’s travels in a land in which he is far from home with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language. Yet, as the notes and bibliography show, Frazier has done his research well but I wonder if the skepticism that is so obvious in the pages of The New Yorker perhaps blinds him to an enduring influence that is present but just beyond the edges of his worldview. After noting what he does in the above paragraph, Frazier says he prefers a psychological explanation for the unfolding of Russian society. As a Christian I do not share his difficulty in understanding the Mongol interest in spirituality, nor in their willingness to allow the Orthodox monasteries to maintain their existence during the period they ruled Russia. Frazier’s psychological explanation is not without merit but is, it seems to me, insufficient to explain a phenomenon so immense, so vital, and so human.

Siberia, for all its reality and vastness as a place, does not really exist. At least there is no village or city or province with that name. The Russian word, Sibir’, apparently comes from two Turkic words (most of Siberia is in Asia) that are closely related to Mongolian terms. Si means “water,” and birr means “a wild unpopulated land.” Full of marshes and rivers, great and small, it remains wild but even when the term was birthed the area was populated, though for obvious reasons very sparsely. The term first appears in a written text that dates to the year 1228, and the reality still stretches out between the Ural Mountains and the Pacific, the Arctic Ocean in the north and Mongolia in the south.

Reading Travels in Siberia is like taking a leisurely road trip with a well-informed guide but without having to endure the inconveniences of travel in a place where conditions remain rough (to say the least) by American standards. It is a region where both people and land have been abused, and so its true wonder—what Frazier refers to as “the incomplete grandiosity of Russia”—awaits the day when it can be appreciated and lovingly used and cared for as it should be. May that day come soon.


Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2010) 471 pages + notes + bibliography + index.