A bear hug for Mother Russia

Children cross a road through a former prison camp in Siberia.
Children cross a road through a former prison camp in Siberia.
By Alan Cooperman
Sunday, December 5, 2010


By Ian Frazier

Farrar Straus Giroux. 529 pp. $30

To the Soviets, size mattered. Stalin had a plan to put a statue taller than the Statue of Liberty on top of a skyscraper higher than the Empire State Building. This plan came to naught; in the end, the cathedral that Stalin demolished to make way for his fantasy was replaced by . . . a public swimming pool. But it was an enormous pool, certainly among the largest in the world!

Even the Soviets mocked their gigantism. "We have the world's reddest tomatoes - and the biggest transistors," a Russian journalist told me, bitterly, in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

The lasting legacy of Bolshevik braggadocio is a natural skepticism toward claims that, whatever the rest of the world has got, Russia has more of it. But in "Travels in Siberia," Ian Frazier makes many such claims, and most of them convincingly, if only because his own powers - particularly of observation and description - are so oversized. Frazier, a staff writer at the New Yorker, took five trips to Siberia and five or six more to western Russia between 1993 and 2009, and he has combined his stories into a rambling travelogue that is entertaining, illuminating and just slightly, charmingly off the deep end in its infatuation with everything about Russia, good and bad.

Take the trash, for example. On the roads leading out of Russian cities, Frazier tells us, there is no mere litter like what you might see along highways in other countries. No, a typical Russian roadside rest area consisted of "a ground layer of trash basically everywhere, except in a few places, where there was more. In the all-trash encirclement, trash items had piled themselves together here and there in heaps three and four feet tall, as if making common cause." Or the mosquitoes. "I have been in mosquito swarms in beaver meadows in northern Michigan, in wetlands in Canada, and near Alaska's Yukon River. Western Siberia has more," Frazier insists. After a night of their onslaught, oatmeal cooked over a camp stove has the added crunch of mosquito bodies, some full of blood.

Or the smell of Russia. Not smells, plural. Rather, a singular "Russia-smell" that remains constant from Moscow to the Bering Strait, 5,000 miles away: a mixture, Frazier says, of old tea bags, cucumber peels, wet cement, chilly air, currant jam and sour milk, all tied together by diesel exhaust.

Lest this begin to sound unpleasant, let us not forget - how could we ever? - the women. In Frazier's view, the Siberian city of Velikii Ustyug has "more beautiful women per capita than any other city in the world." Except possibly for Krasnoyarsk, which is like "the set of a science-fiction movie about a city inhabited only by beautiful women," who are possibly surpassed only by the ballet dancers and the women in the audience at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. The descriptions of these beauties might have been even more captivating if Frazier had actually spoken to any of them. To his credit, he was mindful that he had a wife back home. Plus, his spoken Russian was somewhat awkward, and he didn't drink alcohol, which is something of an impediment to socializing in Russia. So while his two main Russian traveling companions - also married men, though they didn't seem to care - were frequently off chasing women, he says, "I sometimes preferred to stay in camp and read a book."

Still, Frazier did speak to a fair assortment of Russians, including friends of Russian émigré friends and a number of scientists. He also listened to guides at small museums in backwater towns describing the local flora, fauna, history and geology. These surprisingly touching museum encounters - along with Frazier's perceptive eye as he crisscrossed the Eurasian landmass by car, van, train, plane and ferry - flesh out two paradoxes about Siberia that, to my mind, make "Travels in Siberia" much more illuminating than just a perplexing case of what the author diagnoses as "the dread Russia-love."

The first is that Siberia is both remote and central. Some of its settlements on permafrost in Yakutia are mind-boggingly isolated; metaphorically, "Siberia" is used to describe the farthest away one can be, as in "social Siberia" or "restaurant table Siberia." Yet, as Frazier gradually explains, Siberia is central to Russia's history (the great shock absorber of invaders from the Mongols to Hitler), central to Russia's finances (source of oil, gas, gold and diamonds) and central to the planet's ecology (a giant forest that acts as one of the Earth's lungs).

The second paradox, which is perhaps harder for Americans to understand, is that Siberia is both a place of oppression and a place of freedom. It's been a site of forced exile for centuries; Frazier's visit to a former Soviet prison camp, now abandoned, with his attempt to imagine what life was like inside its hand-hewn walls, is the most haunting scene in the book. Yet, as he also notes, Siberia is the one part of Russia where serfdom never existed. Far away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, Siberians who were not imprisoned came to see themselves as living more freely than people in western Russia. To be a true Siberian man or woman became synonymous with deprivation, yes, but also with self-sufficiency and relative independence.

Frazier's traveling companions, and even the vehicles in which they traversed thousands of miles of tundra and taiga, exemplified this paradoxical spirit. The vehicles were constantly breaking down, but the Russians always managed to get them going again - on more than one occasion, by picking through the roadside trash for necessary items. As one Russian told Frasier proudly after fixing a broken carburetor on a remote highway of ice over a frozen river, "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."

Alan Cooperman, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, was a Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report from 1990 to 1996.

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