One evening, during a 9,000-mile journey from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, Ian Frazier and his two guides, Sergei and Volodya, are invited to a party by two schoolteachers who arrive at their campsite in the middle of the night, ostensibly to meet the American.
Frazier declines. He tries to sleep while Sergei and Volodya disappear with the schoolteachers.
After reading this, my friend told me he literally yelled, "No Mr. Frazier, don't go to bed just when things started to get interesting!"
I think that I understand my friend's point, which was not that Frazier is a fuddy-duddy. In fact, many of the far-flung places he travelled to in Russia, many adventurous Russian would think twice about visiting. Rather, it's that the material Frazier milked out of his human interactions during numerous trips through Siberia are the real gems of Travels in Siberia and his early-to-bed, early-to-rise demeanour comes at a cost on this count.
Frazier, a New Yorker staffer, is not the kind of writer to stay awake (for either prurient or journalistic intent) when the available schoolteachers come calling. He is the kind of writer in whose lyricism, especially in descriptive prose and lengthy sections of historical distillation, one luxuriates. Much of the first 200 pages is historical overview - Genghis Kahn and the Mongol yoke, Peter the Great and 18th-century reforms, the Decembrists, the 1917 Revolution, the murder of the last czar's family, civil war etc. - often told through the lens of centuries of travel writing on Siberia.
He locates his inspiration for the project in a vague fascination with Russia that obtained after his first trip there in 1993, accompanying his friend, the famous conceptual artist and Russian émigré Alex Melamid, and in a sense of kinship with his fellow Midwesterner George Kennan, whose Tent Life in Siberia was published in 1870.
Travels in Siberia picks up momentum for me around 200 pages in, when the three men finally set off on their first Siberian journey in a Renault van that occasionally catches on fire. The travel narrative centres on the following conflict: Frazier is intent on seeing old Siberian prison camps and Sergei, for reasons that are at first unclear, is absolutely opposed.
At one point, seeing a prison camp on the side of the road, Sergei, who is driving, refuses to stop. Frazier leaps from the Renault and photographs it. Sergei screams at him and speeds away, as if he's actually leaving him on the side of the road in the middle of Siberia for this transgression.
Finally, on another Siberian excursion a few years later, this time in winter, Frazier's wish is granted. Sergei consents to stop at an old camp along the Topolinskaya Highway. Here, Frazier lapses into his most compelling historical section on Stalin and the Stalin-era Gulags.
Throughout the trip, Frazier has catalogued ad nauseam various curious and negligible monuments, obelisks and memorials in honour of this or that man or woman or deed, however insignificant. Now he's struck by the lack of so much as a marker to designate the stark remains of this camp.
" 'No comment,' the site seemed to say," he writes.
The Russian Federation position in providing no marker seems identical to Sergei's personal position, one Frazier struggled against throughout their journeys. Sergei believed that interest in these camps was in bad taste, and disapproved of anyone's enthusiasm for visiting them.
Frazier spends some time discussing Stalin's place in history, especially in the Russian world view, where he is still seen by many as a hero. Even in statements made last October by President Dimitry Medvedev, one hears the solicitation of a position as yet unsold: "Even now you can hear people say that what happened to the many victims was justified by certain higher government aims. [But]nothing can be placed higher than the value of human life. There can be no justification for the repressions."
After visiting this camp, though they subsequently pass several more, Frazier does not ask to stop again.
In one of the most beautiful scenes in the book, Frazier meets a woman at the winter garden, a kind of tropical botanical oasis in the village Severobaikalsk on the northern edge of Lake Baikal. He gives the narration over to her, a technique to which he returns several more times in the book. One hears the wonder in her telling the fantastical story of not one but two frostbitten flamingoes found and rehabilitated in the winter garden.
Meanwhile, Sergei skis with the mayor of the city, who tells him that he is discouraged because of the lack of jobs and cutbacks by the railway, the main employer in the region. The mayor tells him that Severobaikalsk is dying.
Early on, Frazier makes the case for the expectation that Travels in Siberia's genre is tripartite: travel story, slave narrative, picaresque. Too often he tries for all three. But when juxtaposing the simultaneous wonders and horrors of the variegated vastness that is Siberia, genre be damned, he nails it.
Jeff Parker co-edited the anthologies Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia and Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States.