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.

I traveled a little in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union, and was often struck by the messy, shambolic quality that towns and even cities had. You found that in the wilderness, as well, along with a sort of practical brutality that Russians have towards nature. That all struck me as very non-Western.

You don't get very many civic reminders of any kind there. You assume that there were lots of them during Soviet times. I have an example of a banner exhorting workers, saying We will catch up and overtake America. Here in the U.S. we have Don't be a litterbug, Smokey the Bear, This section of road is being cleaned up by the Delta Epslon fraternity. There's just none of that there. The civic sense is attenuated to the point where it doesn't exist.

I have an encounter with some poachers in the Russian far east, very nice people, as it turned out. But to suggest that "Gosh, you guys are ruining your salmon run here, it's not going to happen again next year"—they didn't think of that. They didn't care. That's not a western attitude.

A running theme through the book is just the trash. The trash is really something I had never seen, not like that. We can do trashy things but they really go to some extremes. At one point I thought, they probably don't care because trash gets covered with snow five months of the year. You throw it out and the next day you don't see it because it's buried under snow. That is really different. We have trash barrels and they pretty much don't.

A lot of the trash you saw was barrels.

They had just any old thing, yeah—barrels or industrial stuff, like broken fluorescent light tubes—you'd encounter trash that you just would never encounter here. Like a metal lathe. And way the hell out! Miles and miles from Omsk we stopped at this place and it was basically industrial waste that would be illegal to dump here—probably illegal to dump there. Not a strong civic sense.

Yet it's also a place where everybody is extremely street-smart. Something I decided after going there a bunch of times is that the horribleness of the country is in direct proportion to how street-smart the people are. As an example of a country where people aren't very street smart—take my home town of Hudson, Ohio. It's just kind of a nice, Midwestern town, basically a nice place in the sense that it was well-maintained and clean, not terribly unsafe, law-abiding. The people who came out of there, I for one, were incredibly not street-smart.

It isn't to say that Russia is an anarchy. Human connection is the way things work. It's like a patronage system. You know somebody and he knows somebody and he knows somebody and he knows the district governor, and it's okay. And that works to a certain extent. As to the way they see the land, honestly, they have so much more of it than we do that our old attitude of, well, there's always more is much more arguable.

You describe the polish that places like Novosibirsk have now, created by energy wealth. One sees all the Western brands there. Has that prosperity trickled down or trickled out to Siberia's many small, rural outlying communities?

For really rural places I think you're still seeing an emptying-out. I haven't been in really rural parts since 2005, but then the far-flung places were holding on, and not with anything like the maintenance you had during Soviet times. People would show me stuff—"Oh, this used to be such and such"—but it just looked beat-up.

Almost every place had one central heating facility with ducts that went all over the town, and those things are in horrible repair. They're shredding asbestos, installation is kind of balling off of them, and the houses are not maintained. The Soviets wanted these rural places to be maintained for military or industrial purposes, and they paid attention to them. The market has not been as kind.

Is there part of you that mourns something that has passed? An old Siberia you knew that is vanishing?

Well, you know, I loved Soviet stuff, as a style. The old, clunky, huge stuff. Something about it is just cool. And I'm sorry when I see a Maybach limousine as opposed to some Soviet-era UAZ microbus, built at a factory named for Lenin with much more metal than a VW bus. It was the idea that we were all doing something together, and now Russia is so every-man-for-himself.

As has been said about the Confederates—that they fought with a devotion worthy of a better cause—there were people who were devoted Communists who were incredibly idealistic and thought this was going to be great. And you still meet them. They say, "Yes, I came out here to build Baikal-Amur Magistral [Siberia's other cross-country railroad] because I believed..." To lose that—well good riddance if you get rid of the gulag in the process, but still, you lose something.

You spend a lot of the book writing about historical figures who went to Siberia, albeit not of their choosing, in most cases and about how they were changed by the experience. Your extensive travel there includes a 9,000-mile road trip. How has the experience changed you?

Russians don't complain, usually. I know from my goings and comings that you can hear an American across an airport. He's going, We were supposed to—How come our tickets are—You never hear that in Russia. The Russian will say, "What can you do?" They are stoic. They are expert at suffering. They know a lot about it, they know what it's like and how to do it.

You tell the wonderful story of the Archpriest Avvakum Petrovich—

Oh, I'm glad you mentioned that. If I had an epigraph for the book, it would be where his wife says, "How long, Archpriest, are these sufferings to continue?" And he says, "Markovna! Till our death." So she says, "Very well, Petrovich. Let us be getting on our way." There really is something great about the country, and it's connected to that. It's something we don't have. We don't suffer. We go, "Let's fix this." And we complain—and we whine. So I hope that I complain less—or at least, if I complain, that I understand that you really shouldn't.