October 04, 2010
As Ian Frazier, author of On the Rez and Great Plains, suggests early in his compellingly enjoyable new book illustrated by the author’s exquisite line drawings, Travels in Siberia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) there are two kinds of narratives about Siberia: the picaresque and the slave. One may travel to Siberia as an explorer, tramping—or, as in Ian Frazier’s case, driving—from one town or outpost to another, or one may be sent there for hard labor and sometimes to die. Both Stalin (on numerous occasions) and Lenin had been exiled to Siberia, but they’d had it a lot easier than when Stalin sent his prisoners there. These two men were sent there to be kept away from their followers or potential acolytes; years later Stalin sent people there to die under the weight of hard labor.
Apart from being cold and vast and somewhere way out there, beyond the wave of a hand, Siberia was historically also a place of oblivion. One might travel there to forget and be forgotten and eventually vanish, if not from memory, at least from the public records, just as some Americans must have wandered West, past the prairies and into the high mountain passes of the Sierra Nevada, to wrestle with their demons and sometimes abandon their own identities to the vagaries of legend. A place as vast as Siberia can never be the backdrop to an individual life; it swallows you whole and forgets to spit you out.
As Frazier seems to suggest, there’s something about Siberia that makes it almost too big to write about, a kind of alien, otherworldly quality that radically distinguishes it from the more European Western Russia, as though moving from one to the other were like walking off the edge of the world.
Defining Siberia becomes for the author an almost metaphysical task. Though we in the West take it for granted that Siberia is a geographical region, Frazier explains that “no political or territorial entity has Siberia in its name.” Which is like expecting Wonderland or Heaven to be signposted and mapped. Not just one but five separate trips are chronicled in this volume, as though the author had been repeatedly drawn back there by some need to understand the nature of the place. This leads me, and I expect to some degree Ian Frazier, to believe that ultimately Siberia is something closer to a state of mind, a vastness of the imagination and, more often, a hellhole of nightmare. He puts it in perspective for us: encompassing eight of Russia’s nine time zones, home to some thirty-nine million citizens (slightly more than the population of California) it also occupies one-twelfth of the earth’s land mass. The name itself conjures up images and sensations of intense cold, great bleak stretches broken only by birch trees and, as Frazier tells us, heaps of garbage left along the roadside, not to mention signs of imprisonment, such as rusted barbed wire and the shabby emptiness of haunted dormitories that once housed the prisoners of one regime or another.
Siberia is also a place of silence and separation; in Manhattan it’s where less-famous diners are sat in posh restaurants, near, as Frazier points out, the condiment room. It can be an extreme version of the British concept of being sent to Coventry, which is an adult form of enduring the proverbial cold shoulder, though Siberia has a more permanent and icier connotation than that cathedral city in the English Midlands. But it’s not all snow and saltmines. My grandfather, who until 1911 or so lived in Pinsk, a city in what was then known as the Pale of Settlement, variously “White Russia” and now Belarus, was approached one day by a relative who was despairing of ever finding a wife. “Go to Siberia,” my grandfather told him. “There are plenty of nice women there.” I don’t know if the man listened to my grandfather, but according to Frazier Siberian women are supermodel-gorgeous, which is probably why most of them leave as soon as they can to become supermodels.
Ian Frazier’s generosity of spirit and style of writing reminds me of the English writer Eric Newby’s travel narratives, whether he was rowing down the Ganges or walking the Hindu Kush. We can read Newby and always feel that we’re in the presence of someone as fallible as we are. Like Frazier he never attempts to master his environment or to look down at the people of whatever land he’s exploring. There’s an amiability to the teller (as opposed to, say, the cranky impatience of a Paul Theroux, excellent travel writer that he is) that makes us appreciate his company, and yet Frazier almost tells us too much about his Siberian journeys, from the purchasing of an airline ticket to a lengthy and somewhat overlong digression on the American explorer George Kennan, as though he were attempting to incorporate not just his own experiences in Siberia, but as many diverse facts as possible about this vast eastward stretch of Russia. But who can blame him? Siberia, like most forbidding and forbidden places in the universe, is a kind of magnet, and for Frazier a powerful one. And so his discoveries during his trips there are as surprising to us as they are to him; such as the beauty of the Siberian women, or that the village known as Neudachino—east of Ekaterinburg (where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918) and north of Kazakhstan—is literally translated as “Unhappyville.”
The major difference between the writers is that Newby always had a geographical goal in mind, and thus hanging over his journeys was the question Will he make it? I felt at first that there was something directionless in Travels in Siberia, that five trips may have been four too many, at least to write about in detail, and especially because little in Siberia seems to change from one journey to another. But in retrospect I think Frazier does have a goal in mind: he’s seeking not so much a geographical place but something more like the soul of a country. Five trips; five separate and very different glimpses of it. But in the end, one senses, he just about found it.
The parts of this book that truly stand out for me are when Frazier deals with the exiles and the camps of Siberia—which are what most of us associate with the region. Does not the name itself make us see these men, women and even children—most of them innocent of any crime worth mentioning—being transported there, to the salt mines and gold mines and the general misery that goes along with exile, of being separated from one’s family and friends, those you sat with late on summer nights, drinking vodka, eating black bread, walking the streets debating literature in the white half-dawn of three in the morning? In the seventeenth century, Frazier informs us, one could be exiled for “fortune-telling, prizefighting, vagrancy, taking snuff, and driving a horse with reins instead of sitting on its back or running alongside. Usury, debt, drunkenness, trespassing, salt gathering, wife beating, and begging when not in distress” also got you sent into this nowhere land.
In the last century, apart from political exile, one could be dispatched there for such high crimes as stealing a spool of thread or what Frazier refers to as “facial crimes,” such as smiling during a serious party lecture, or studying Esperanto or dancing the decadent Western dance known as the foxtrot. The Kafka in me especially appreciated the tale of a druggist who “threw a rock with a petition wrapped around it through the window of a government minister, for which he was sent to live in a Siberian village that the authorities did not know no longer existed, so the druggist had to keep looking for it for thousands of miles.”
Perhaps the most historically famous of the exiles were the Decembrists, to whom Frazier devotes several pages, and for good reason: Russian Army officers, many of them noblemen with sizeable fortunes who wanted most of all to free the serfs and rid the country of its tyrannical leadership, paid the price for their rebellion of 1825 with either execution or exile. Frazier writes of how, in Siberia, these men “started schools, experimented with new crops, studied the native peoples…. In general, the Decembrist exiles greatly raised the tone of Siberia. Travelers through the region sought them out; though under police supervision…they became Siberia’s unofficial first citizens.” What remained of their disappearance into the eastern wilderness of the empire was reputation. Because of their completely noble intentions in rebellion their ideas saturated the air, and even when Russian streets were named after their major figures, when names of not only streets but of cities might lose their identity according to dictatorial whims of the day, the names have never been changed. Frazier’s pages on the Decembrists are his most heartfelt.
Every country has its smell. For me, Russia (to which I’ve never traveled) is the long-ago smell of the lobby of my grandmother’s apartment house in Washington Heights, where the milky green sorrel soup known as schav seemed forever to be simmering on emigrant stoves, or cabbage was being cooked, to be served with boiled beef and horseradish after a bowl of borscht and a boiled potato, accompanied by the sound of spoons in glasses of tea and the raised voice of endless disagreement, mostly in Yiddish and often directed at me. Frazier renders the aroma of Russia as a mixture of diesel fuel, cucumber peels, old tea bags and sour milk, as well as jam and wet cement and mud. It’s this kind of sensory experience, whether of taste, smell or something heard, we believe, only by us—immediately taken as a private moment of privilege—that makes us fall in love with a country, especially one that has not yet succumbed to the scent of the American shopping mall, a combination of scented candles, tired food courts, and a large dose of what a place such as that aspires to, Nothing Very Much At All.
But Russia, for all its new money, for its shiny new cars and nightclubs, is still mired in its past. History for the Russians is a kind of weight that we in America shrug off so easily that fringe groups can simply assume its mantle and change all the facts to suit their political vision. Some of this must be due to the sentimentality of the Russian soul. As Frazier puts it when he reaches the point where Perm meets Tobolsk and Russia gives way to Siberia, “at this pillar…exiles were allowed to stop and make a last goodbye, to press their faces to the ground and pick up a little of the earth of western Russia to bring with them. Beyond this spot they were, in a sense, jumping into the void.” Well into her eighties and far from her place of birth, my aunt would suddenly have the eyes of a young girl when she described her years in Russia. And the ice-cream. Always the ice-cream. Mother Russia has very long apron strings.
Travels in Siberia is at times a rollicking tale, well-told and sometimes very funny, especially when the author is on the road with his companions Sergei and Voldya. Driving the nine thousand miles from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean in a van of dubious reliability with two Russians of unsurprisingly capricious dispositions, it’s in his sections on the Decembrists and especially on the camp that he visited that his writing truly stands out. How convenient, as Stalin surely knew from experience, snow and cold can be: one keeps us inside, shutters closed, fire blazing, blind to what horrors lie under the wintry moon; while the other buries the machinery of human misery beneath a downy, pleasing aspect. All that remains is memory that, like the snow, will melt away as time grows weary with age and the cold, dark heart of human arrogance will survive only in lines of poetry, in pages of memoir, in stories passed down from one generation to the next.
The camp Frazier visits, some twenty-five kilometers from Topolinoe in eastern Siberia, had not become a tourist spot that could accommodate groups or provide parking for motor coaches, but an abandoned place of desolation and memory, beautifully evoked in some of his most moving pages. There’s a sense that this fourth trip, with all its detours and breakdowns and pratfalls, delays and dangers, was meant to lead us to this spot in the middle of nowhere. Because intense cold preserves things, he walked into a place virtually unchanged since the 1950s. He quotes Eugenia Ginsburg, who spent fifteen years in the Kolyma camps: “…when a camp of children prisoners in Magadan was given two guard-dog puppies to raise for a while, the children at first could not think of anything to name them. The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”