‘Travels in Siberia’
Ian Frazier, “Travels in Siberia”
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
2010, 471 pages, hardback, $30
Siberia, sitting astride Russia like a giant, comprises 1/12th of the earth’s landmass. In Siberia’s Kuznetsk Basin coal mining region, there are city-sized holes created by unregulated strip-mining practices. Buried beneath Siberia’s permafrost lie the preserved remains of approximately 150 million pre-historic mammoths, 8 million more than Russia’s entire population; hunters excavate the permafrost as the demand for mammoth ivory—which replaced the outlawed elephant ivory—grows around the world. Trash piles cover much of the ground along Siberia’s highways, and these highways are capricious, often terminating abruptly or devolving into dirt roads that themselves might conclude at rivers several times wider than the Mississippi. In the colder months (nine of the year’s twelve), frozen rivers and lakes become ice highways, which create their own American-style rush hours and haze of smog.
In Ian Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia”, we learn all this and more about Russia’s infamous region. Frazier presents Siberia as a “blank” space, almost akin to outer space, onto which generations of people have projected their hopes, fears, and yes, their trash. The word “Siberia,” at least in the Westerner’s mind, conjures images of infinite winters and brutal gulags. Frazier combines his commentary of these Siberian themes with a subtle running discussion of the region as a vast site of environmental degradation. Thankfully, Frazier celebrates what he calls the “incomplete grandiosity” of Russia’s seemingly endless frontier by letting Siberia speak for itself. His book, seventeen years in the making, is equal parts history, memoir, and travel writing. It’s also long, which seems fitting for its subject. In the world of environmental ethics, Frazier sees Russia as having its ethics stalled out in the 1960s. An enlightened American traveling there could easily expend energy decrying the ecological abuses Siberia’s inhabitants inflict upon the sensitive region. Fortunately, Frazier avoids such a blatant polemic.
In a style that’s both humorous and shrewd, Frazier’s reflections about Siberia are devoid of judgment, even with regard to the environmental issues affecting the region. Russia, he says, is both great and horrible; it is, in fact, the “greatest horrible country in the world.” The book reads like Frazier’s tribute letter to a favorite relative. He gazes upon the region’s beauty and charm without turning from its ugliness. We have him to blame then for infecting us with the same Russia-love that seized him and led him to travel there over a dozen times, braving both its subzero arctic winter and its mosquito-infested summers in an effort to experience the region in all its seasonal glories.
Frazier’s travels begin in the early 1990s, soon after Communism fell. As an American boy coming of age in the 1950s, Frazier experienced Siberia as the “blankness in between Russia and the U.S.,” the “space through which apocalypse flew.” In his Cold War childhood, Siberia loomed large. Frazier’s interest in the region—from a Westerner’s perspective, a seemingly insignificant hunk of land—flows from his curiosity concerning the mind and the environment that fostered the old enemy. What Frazier discovers there at once surprises and confirms; the far Russian interior contains good country folk who are as welcoming to foreigners as they are bafflingly indifferent to the environmental impact of their country’s industrial practices. Siberia isn’t so different than the fly-over country Frazier celebrates in his classic, Great Plains. And the “enemy” isn’t so different from us.
“Travels” reveals a Siberia as rich in its potential as it is poor in its environmental health. Beneath this northern escarpment of the Far East lie the second largest oil reserves in the world. The region contains a seemingly endless store of coal. Siberia, though, is Russia’s terrestrialized expression of out of sight, out of mind. Throughout the book, Frazier is constantly encountering and measuring the great heights of the ubiquitous trash piles. Strip-mining is unregulated. One city is constantly covered with the dust of its many concrete plants. The snowfall and the ash there play a game of palms, each covering the other throughout the winter, creating a multi-layered Zebra-patterned strata of soot and snow.
But the cities are specks in Siberia’s vast landscape. This region comprises nine time zones, and Frazier’s winter and summer journeys through these hour markers hum with an admiration for Siberia’s imperfect grandeur. For every ecological atrocity Frazier encounters and reports, he stumbles upon ten scenes of beauty that further fuel his obsession with Russia as a whole. On the shores of Lake Baikal, repository of the largest store of freshwater in the world, Frazier camps by the lake’s shoreline on a clear-sky summer night and contemplates the moon shining on the lake’s clear water:
When a wave rolls in on Baikal, and it curls to break, you can see stones on the bottom refract in the vertical face of the wave. This glimpse, offered for just a moment in the wave’s motion, is like seeing into the window of an apartment as you go by it on an elevated train. The moon happened to be full that night, and after it rose, the stones on the bottom of the lake lay spookily illuminated in the moonlight. The glitter of the moon on the surface of the lake…fluctuated constantly in its individual points of sparkling, with a much higher definition than any murky water could achieve. Light glittered differently on water this clear. I understood that I had never really seen the moon reflected on water before.
Siberia does contain people, of course. Perhaps because he’s a foreigner looking in from the outside, Frazier’s accounting of Siberia’s inhabitants comes across a bit romanticized. After reporting the degradations of the strip-mined landscape, in the next paragraph, Frazier encounters a scene he likens to a “bucolic painting,” in which he saw
dark-clothed people working the hayfields…or riding to or from the work in horse-drawn flat-bed wagons whose hard rubber wheels bouncing on the uneven pavement made the flesh of the passengers’ faces jiggle fast.
Such simple lyricism is devoid of opinion, however, and further emphasizes the “greatest” in his declaration of Russia as the greatest horrible country. Of course, Frazier would pass such a scene and then have to clear the ground of trash in order to eat his midday lunch.
Gauging from Frazier’s travel route, trash is Siberia’s universal topsoil and industrial waste courses through the rivers of every one of its urban areas, yet the majority of Siberia’s lakes and streams are so far from civilization’s footprint that they exist in a pristine, pre-human state of environmental health. According to the Russian scientists Frazier encounters, global warming is affecting Siberia as much as anywhere else on earth. The region’s permafrost is gradually melting. Siberian summer months are warmer and stretch longer into fall than anyone there can remember, yet Frazier reminds us that it’s still the second coldest place on earth, after Antarctica. Frazier’s Siberia is a cipher for the planet itself. Human beings have created ridiculous ways to harm our home, yet the earth’s beauty persists. Frazier’s Russia-love, his Siberian obsession, is a contagious ailment. Every travel book should be judged on whether it leaves you wanting to travel to the land of its subject, and “Travels in Siberia” makes you want to brave the mosquitoes and the arctic blasts to experience the region’s “incomplete grandiosity.” Frazier’s book gives us a glimpse into the closet of our old enemy and shows us the mirror inside.
Chris Margrave has an MA in Literature from Wake Forest University and is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Texas State University, San Marcos. He currently oversees public relations for the Department of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas. He lives in Austin with his wife and two daughters.