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.
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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.