Siberian Rhapsody: A Conversation With Ian Frazier


Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ian Frazier is drawn to vast, unfinished places. Over the course of nine years, the longtime Atlantic contributor and author of Great Plains and On the Rez (which began as an Atlantic article) criss-crossed Asiatic Russia between the Urals and the Bering Strait—a sparsely populated 10 percent of the earth's landmass. Travels in Siberia is the story of those journeys, a travelogue of taiga and steppes, ice roads, limitless distances, and endless inconvenience. Vivid accounts of Mongol invasions, tsarist exile and the gulag place Siberia's history in the foreground. Through it all is a sense of Frazier's abiding love for the region and the people who live there. He even harbors a certain affection for the swarms of mosquitoes that attack "as if shot by a fire hose".

Ian Frazier spoke to The Atlantic from his home in New Jersey about the role Siberia has played in shaping Russia's identity, from Genghis Khan to oil billionaires. He explains why Russians tend to be horrified by the thought of going there, and how the slow, fraught embrace of Siberia defines Russia's "incomplete grandiosity".

You write about "Russia-love," an infatuation that afflicts Americans, and Midwesterners in particular. You've actually travelled across Siberia, however. You've seen and experienced things that would disabuse one of any romance drawn from Russian literature. Yet this seems only to have deepened your passion for Russia—and for Siberia, specifically.

Everything I found out about it was wonderfully worse than thought. I guess it was just that you can't ever get to the point of saying, "Well, I've seen it." At the end of the book I note that there are all these things that I never saw and really would love to see—I mean, not love, but just out of curiosity—like the tundra lakes, where methane actually bubbles up. People light the methane, standing there with cigarette lighters, and poof. What an incredible thing, that flammable gas is popping out of the lake now. I never once saw a drunken forest, where the permafrost is melting and the trees are tilting every which way.

I guess it's the inexhaustibility of it. I thought that was true of the Great Plains, too. And after Great Plains came out I kept traveling in the Great Plains—there was a point where I just wanted to keep going.

I was very interested in the Russian-Alaskan border. For a while I thought of just doing the book about that because there is so much that has happened up there and it's sort of neglected in people's minds. When [Tina Fey as] Sarah Palin said, "I can see Russia from my house," of course she can't, but still, people went, wow! The fact that she can even make this claim facetiously is amazing. People didn't know we had this border, or they hadn't remembered that one of the countries we border is Russia.

Does the American Frontier model—from Frederick Jackson Turner to Manifest Destiny—map to the Russian experience? And will Russia ever reach a closing of its frontier, or is it just too vast, simply uncloseable?

We see our country as a frontier that we settled. We looked west, we went, we settled it. Russia looked east, but there was an element to it that we didn't have—disaster came out of the east, in the form of the Mongols. It was where the end of the world was supposed to come from, according to Russian church chronicles. The End of Days—some have etymologized Mongol as coming from Magog, the Beast at the end of the world. They don't have a rising sun, the way we have a setting sun, that is a glorious thing we're walking into. They have a more ambiguous feeling about it.

Our history used to be a continental history, now we're in a global history. Russia has always had a global history. Global history is a bummer. You suffer invasions of all different kinds. And Russia was not defended against them. We had an ocean on either side—Russia could have anything slosh over it from any direction, practically, except for the north.

And in the case of the Mongols—boy howdy.

Well, the Mongols are Exhibit A. That's how they became a continental power. The Mongols washed all over them, ruined their lives and once the Mongols ran out of steam and receded back to the steppes from which they had come, Russia looked in that direction and said, OK, all this land is out there, we know about it, and then they began to go out there.

So yes, it was the Wild East, it was a land of promise, it was homesteaded, it had gold rushes, it had native peoples who died of smallpox—there were all these parallels between the American West and the Russian East. But that feeling of ahhh, this is hope is not there in any way.

The Whitney Museum had a show called "Perpetual Mirage" about American photographers in the West. I wrote a piece about it. It was a really good show, with all these different photographers from the first survey pictures all they way up to the present. "Perpetual Mirage" was a good title for it. When I was talking to some photographers last fall—I thought, what would be the equivalent thing for Russia? And I think it would be "Siberian Nightmare". We're pursuing a mirage, they're sort of entering into a nightmare where there may be something that isn't so horrible, there may be many things that will work out great, but there is a much different, darker cast to it.

You encounter the ambiguous relationship Russians have with Siberia when you mention the plan for your book to people in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Why would you do that? many of them ask. Why would you go there? It's dangerous! Your guides Sergei and Valodya enjoyed the trip, embracing Siberia, but they seem to be the exception to the rule.

They had fun. They're great Russian adventurers, great Russian explorers. There is a real sense among some Russians of adventure and exploration and being intrepid explorers. It's there in Nabokov—he had a real sense of he's going to get out and explore things and find butterflies in the middle of nowhere and stay in every hotel in America.

Many people that I talked to said, "Oh, God, you gotta be kidding me. You'll be killed." They were so much more negative than the situation warranted. On the other hand, they weren't entirely wrong. There were dangers there that the guys I went with did not play up at all until much later. After I got back, while I was doing the notes for the book, I went through all these Russian news stories about Siberia, and on the roads where we were there were robberies, there were killings, there was a bus full of people that was pulled over—the driver was shot and all the people were robbed on the same road, not far from Chita, where we were.

You know, I think I could have seen myself doing everything that you did—except when it came to the Siberian mosquitoes. That was decidedly outside my comfort zone.

A lot of people found that to be a step beyond.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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