Born in the Ukraine but uprooted to the Boston suburbs after the KGB blacklisted her physicist father, Alina Simone is responsible for several great indie rock albums. Her 2008 all-Russian-language tribute to the too-short career of Siberian punk-folk singer Yanka Dyagileva, Everyone is Crying out to Me, Beware, was called “lovely and mournful” by Billboard, “mesmerizing” by Spin. Released simultaneously with her third full-length album (Make Your Own Danger), Simone’s You Must Go and Win is an essay collection that chronicles the author’s struggles with family, with her homeland, and with the elusive dream of success in the music world.

Ich bin ein Berliner

It’s the early 90s and the Berlin Wall is being sold off in numbered chunks.  One piece now takes centre stage in Singapore’s Bedok Reservoir Park.  Another, I’ve been told, is somewhere out there floating in space.  Apparently, Ripley’s Believe it or Not currently possesses the largest unbridled Berlin Wall brick collection on the planet.

East Germany lies in tatters but is slowly waking from its Rip Van Winkle Marxist dream.  The Kraftwerk song “Autobahn” is playing on the radio and seems strangely befitting as we cross into former DDR.  My cousin Miriam, who lives in West Berlin, tells me that all sorts of crazies are rolling across the borders for the first time.  Many of them arrive with jars of pickles and homemade cheese, set themselves down on West German lawns and gawk at the nattily dressed; at least, so Miriam’s story goes.  Across the once-border in the newly reunified German states, the landscape seems unreal, the buildings straight out of some cubist’s sketchbook, the people world-weary.  Miriam and I roar through village after village all the way to the Polish border. Many of them are deserted. It’s almost as if they never really existed.  To the rest of the civilized world, they haven’t—not really.

“Now the Ossies [as their West German cousins call them: a word meaning ‘Easties’] whiz into the West in their dented Trabants and Ladas, oblivious of oncoming traffic.  I mean, they were cooped up like battery chickens for over 28 years.

“Can you believe it?” says Miriam. “These people have never even heard of Michael Jackson, Star Trek or Colonel Sanders.”  You can tell Miriam’s been living away from home for too many years.

According to the Berliner Tagblatt, twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 62 percent of former East Germans still don’t really feel they belong in their reunified nation, and over one tenth would actually prefer a return to the old DDR.

While the rest of us were splurging on our diet of Doctor Who and All in the Family reruns, East Germans were wondering how they might navigate the sewers, attach themselves to the chassis of a visiting Uncle’s car, or just leggit across the death strip. Booby trapped with land mines and trip-wires, armed guards posted on over 300 watchtowers down the length of the wall, escape seemed futile at best; yet, over the course of those 28 years, thousands scale that wall or dig tunnels beneath.  5000 make it to freedom. 200 or so are shot stone cold dead trying.  Heinz and Karl were not among them.

Truth be told, it seemed to me that Heinz and Karl belonged to that 11 percent that wished for the return of Khrushchev.  I guess back in the Soviet days, a Moscow-trained engineer was part of the Soviet gentry of the DDR.  As Heinz later tells me: “In the good old days, an engineer could go anywhere in the Communist Bloc, get drunk on Ukrainian champagne at state functions, and had the pick of the blondest devushkas.”

In a few days I’m to meet up with Heinz and Karl in Moscow, then head out into wildest Siberia to seal the deal of a lifetime.

Caviar, Caviar

We arrive in Moscow a few days early.  My business partner Dieter has bright ideas about how we’re going to make a bit of quick cash on the slide.  Some months earlier, he had managed to flog a container of Heineken beer to some dubious Moscow businessman named Misha.  He hadn’t exactly made a killing, but it was enough for a first down payment on his spanking-new baby blue Jaguar.

Dieter and I share a room in the exorbitant Palace Hotel just down the road from the GUM department store, where another of Dither’s business partners is selling second hand clothes he imports en-masse from Guangzhou, China.

Misha arrives in a black Mercedes limousine with tinted windows complete with two bodyguards and a driver who dons Ray Bans night and day.  In the car, Misha kisses Dieter on both cheeks then passes us snifters of a one-hundred-year-old Armagnac and a couple of Davidoff cigars.  He reminds us that on no uncertain terms should we discuss politics here in Moscow.  It’s a sure way to sour a deal.

“And for God’s sake, don’t mention Gorbachev. I spit on the Nobel Peace Prize.” he says.

According to the Western media, Gorbachev was Russia’s Saint George who slayed the dragon, he who released the people from the tyrannical manacles of Soviet oppression and the shadow of Khrushchev; but according to Misha, Gorbachev was a traitor, a conspirator of the great American spin-doctors.

“You know five minutes after winning the Nobel Prize, Gorbachev had Pugo shot,” he says.  “Akhromeyev hung himself in his office.  And I don’t believe what they say. It was no suicide.”

I’m still not sure if it’s Misha’s intention to impress (Dieter insisted we stay in the most expensive hotel in Moscow so Misha would know we meant business), or if this is his house-restaurant.  Needless to say, all they serve here is Beluga caviar: boatloads of it.  And it doesn’t come on cute little blinis with chives and sour cream.  No, here caviar is the only course, and you gobble it straight from your gold-inlaid Rosenthal soup bowl with a large silver tablespoon.  On the side, you sip—or in Dieter’s case, guzzle—a glass of Moet Chandon, which you refill directly from the spout of a faux-Grecian fountain (complete with Aphrodite on the half-shell). In actual fact, your Uzbek waiter makes sure your crystal flute is always brimming and bubbling.

Misha pays in US dollars, in advance: counting a couple of thousand from a wad that he rustles out of thin air. One of his bodyguards tosses the Uzbek waiter a 100-dollar bill. We stuff our faces with fish eggs and champagne as Misha leans in with his proposition.

Dieter’s eyes are quite literally fishlike—and believe me, not from all the caviar.

The day before Dieter and I had taken a stroll along the Red Square where hundreds of babushkas in tattered scarves and threadbare shawls were clamoring outside storefronts.  Old men and little girls lined the avenues touting second-hand transistor radios, bits of silver, old boots and chipped teacups.  Smuggled cigarettes could be purchased in foreign currency down some shady alley that led into the back streets of oblivion.

“So,” Misha whispers. “Eight million dollars.  I need you to help me with eight million dollars.”  He doles himself a heaping spoon of Beluga.

Dieter glances over.  He’s doing that thing with his eyebrows.  I know his heart is racing.  I wonder if Misha wants to sell or buy.

“Tell me about your eight million,” says Dieter.

“I need you to get it to freedom.  To Switzerland,” he says. “I have it in cash. In seven different denominations, but I really need it in Switzerland.”

At this stage, Dieter isn’t touching food or drink.  His ears seem to be flapping.

Misha sips his champagne.  “Twenty percent commission.  I’ll give you twenty percent,” he says, grinning.

Quick sum: Twenty percent is 1.6 million US dollars.  Enough for Dieter to buy himself a few Jags.  I’m thinking a chalet on some island off the coast of Brazil, blue parrots in the coconut trees.  Of course we know there’s a snag.  There always is.

“OK, so here is how it works,” he says.  “I can get it to you in cash. I don’t mind how you get it there, as long as 6.4 million arrive in a numbered bank account under my name. Simple.”

Easy peasy.

It’s tempting, but the thought of all that lies between Moscow and Zürich, sends a shiver down my spine.  Back at the hotel I spend half an hour staring at the little map of Europe in the back of my faux-leather agenda planner.  The shortest distance is: Moscow—Belarus—Poland—Czech Republic—Germany—Zürich.  I try to conceive how much we have to pay the border guards.  An image of the Berlin Wall creeps into my head.

Neither of us sleeps that night.

Next morning, Dieter says, “There are ways, you know.  If we can get into Poland, we can transfer the funds to an offshore account, Caiman Islands or something, then reroute back to Switzerland.”

“Sure.  Missing an arm,” I say.  I don’t think Dieter has ever seen The Godfather.

Big Balls

We’ve moved to another Moscow hotel, apparently booked by our East German friends, Karl and Heinz.  This one, the Cosmos, reeks of Chanel Number Five—or something approximating it.  After check in, Dieter proposes that we take the hotel management up on their complimentary drink.  We send our bags to the room and head to the bar; only, you can’t even get to the counter.  The whole place is swelling with women, and these are no apparatchiks—least not any longer—these are all run-of-the-mill Moscow hookers, hundreds of them, swarming around potbellied entrepreneurs like flies to sugar.  Before I manage to order our two vodka tonics, one of them already has her hand on my crotch.

“Big balls,” she says grinning.  “Hey, Big Balls, you buy me a drink?”

“No big balls, no drink.”

She grimaces, but soon has her sights on an Egyptian looking gentleman down the far end of the bar.

All night the telephone rings: It’s always the same thing: “You like try Russian girl? You want blowjob?  You need a good massage.” Finally, I unplug the phone.  At three in the morning, someone’s knocking at the door.  A peroxide blonde in a spotted leopard-cling-film-legging-thing leans against the doorframe.  “You know in Moscow you should not sleep,” she says.  “Your wife’s not here.  Maybe Sasha can be your wife for tonight.” I notice her bag is a Hermes.  She has a pair of Dior sunglasses perched on her head.  What is it about Russians and sunglasses?

“Who is it?” Dieter shouts from his bed.

“Hooker,” I say.

“What’s her name?”

“Sasha.”

“Tell her we are waiting for Marina.”

I do.  She grumbles, wobbles down the hall in her stilettos to the elevator.  She has seven more floors to try before she reaches the roof.

“There’s bound to be some horny Japanese on the next floor,” Dieter says before he starts snoring again.

Marina never arrives.

Aeroflot

Six thirty and we’ve checked in to our flight to Tomsk.  We sit there in the waiting hall dozing on plastic bucket chairs dreaming about eight million dollars.  At least that’s what I’m sure Dieter is doing.  At the airport the infamous Karl and Heinz, who’ve just flown in from Berlin, have joined us.  They’re in great spirits.  You’d almost think they were going on holiday.  Still, they keep a distance—a professional one—sort of.

This is the deal: Karl and Heinz, soviet-educated engineers, former employees of one of the largest petrochemical processing plants in East Germany are old buddies of Vlad, the manager of Tomsk’s largest petrochemical facility. Dieter tells me that the Chinese are screaming for plastic, cheap plastic: “All those American toys,” he says.

Dieter has convinced me, and himself, having procured a manufacturing license from one of the world’s chemical giants, that we can produce plastic resin at this Tomsk facility for half the price of what it costs in the West.  We manufacture the stuff in Tomsk under license, package it with the chemical giant’s logo, then ship it by Trans-Siberian railroad to Beijing and to the rest of China.  Dieter has a buyer in Shanghai.  Karl and Heinz would be stationed in Tomsk during the implementation phase to make sure that quality is up to spec.  Sounds like a simple plan, right?

Simple as getting eight million dollars from Moscow to Zürich?

It takes us three days to reach Tomsk.  Mostly because there’s no gasoline.  We wait at the airport, check out the five shops selling Russian folk dolls, plastic Kremlins, plastic babushkas, probably all made from plastics supplied by the Tomsk Petrochemical Works.  Finally, we make it on board the Aeroflot Illyushin II-62, destination Tomsk.

Dieter, tickets in hand, struts into the plane and finds three Russian army officers sitting in his seat.

“Wrong seat,” he says pointing at his ticket.

The three officers look up.  They have eyes of steel, chiseled jaws and without even a flinch, bark: “Niet.”

Dieter smiles sheepishly, then sits down wherever he can find an empty seat.  Somehow all four of us manage to sit side by side.  Is that a chicken I hear clucking somewhere?

The Illyushin takes off with a bang.  Literally.  Apparently they use water ballast, and as they’re making their way into the stratosphere they shed their extra water-weight.  Feels like a rally of cannon barrage.  Dieter is one of the worst fliers I think I’ve ever met.  He’s brought along two bottles of Johnny Walker Black as a gift for Vlad.  By the end of the six-hour flight one of the bottles is down to its dregs.  And somehow, the airplane’s carpet is not affixed to the floor. Half of it ends up wrapped around Dieter’s ankles. Karl and Heinz slumber through entire thing; Dieter, on the other hand, can’t stop talking.  Anything I didn’t know about him before this, I do now, particularly things that weigh heavy on his conscience.

One thing’s for sure: He swears he will never take this flight again.

“Guess that’s the eight million dollars down the drain,” I say.

“I’m too old for this shit,” Dieter says, knocking back the bottle.

The service on the Aeroflot 101?  What service?  Although the stewardesses are straight out of Vogue they have the manners of a Kazakhstani pig farmer.  They toss you the sticky rolls and bottled water as if they couldn’t be shod of them quick enough, and they don’t speak a word of English—or more likely, don’t want to.

“Don’t they teach them to smile in flight school?” I ask Karl sometime during the flight.

“What flight school?” he says.

And the in-flight toilet?  I’ve seen cleaner toilets on London Transit.  I won’t go into the gory details.  Needless to say, don’t take your shoes off in an Aeroflot flight. Walking around in your socks is not recommended.

Sci-fi City

Tomsk: One of the oldest towns in Siberia.  In 1990, around half a million people live here in up to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  Lucky for us, it’s summer and a cozy 65 degrees plus. If only it weren’t for the damn mosquitoes.  And the size of the buggers.  I kid you not: bigger than your average housefly.

“Stay away from the trees,” says Heinz.  “Or you’ll be bleeding like a pig. A white shirt is not recommended.”  Difficult to stay away from the trees here since 20 percent of the Siberian forest is actually situated in the Tomsk oblast.

Slap a mosquito in Tomsk in the summer wearing a white shirt, and by the time the evening is through it’ll look more like some pink/red Indonesian batik. The mozzies are little blood pellets.  Still, we we’re not headed out to the forest; at least, not yet.

We rattle into town, down this potholed avenue fringed by forest on each side, through Lenin Square, driving without paying any heed to which side of the road we’re on. The driver’s more focused on the oncoming trucks and the potholes. Dieter, having just recovered from his Aeroflot jaunt, cracks out his second bottle of whisky.  Strangely, despite all the alcohol in his bloodstream he as sober as a schoolmaster.  Must be his adrenalin.

The Tomsk Petrochemical Works is the largest factory I think I’ve ever seen.  It’s like some kind of Buck Rogers’ sci-fi city. Ming the Merciless might appear any moment, ray gun at the ready.  As we get in closer, we can see that the whole machination is crumbling around its ears.  Walls are half-collapsed, rust and holes creep down the giant pipe work suspended above our heads. By the time we’ve finished our factory tour, my new suit looks like I’ve lent it out to a cowhand.  You can smell the plant from miles away and the methanol fumes and the sweet sickly smell of plastics clings to everything: your clothes, your hair.  I’m starting to miss the Chanel Number Five reek of the Cosmos Hotel.

The meeting with Vlad starts and ends with Stolichnaya shots.  Karl and Heinz dig in, rattling away in fluent Russian.  After his two bottles of whiskey, the hue of Dieter’s skin resembles a fragile china doll.  Still, he knocks back the vodka like a true Cossack.  They offer up platters of something that looks like salami, only it has a sort of grey hue and pickles, plates and plates of pickles.  Larissa the translator tells us that Vlad has invited us to his country dacha for dinner.  She won’t be coming.  Heaven forbid. “This,” she says, “is a mans’ thing.”

My head starts reeling.  My stomach churns.

Mosquitoes

Tomsk Forest, 7.00 pm: Vlad’s Dacha.

Some giant of a man with biceps like a circus strongman is massaging half of a cow’s carcass over a giant vat.  The blood is running down his arms and into his sleeves.  Good for him, he’s wearing a black shirt.  Vlad says something about this being Boris’ best barbeque recipe.  On a table next to Boris, a dozen bottles of Stolichnaya glimmer in the forest twilight.  Once again, Karl and Heinz dig in, handing Dieter and me tumblers full to the rim. Nostrovia!

Vlad downs two more, then suddenly drops his trousers, tosses them to Boris, who reaches up from his bloody massage, folds them neatly and drapes them over the vodka table. Vlad chuckles like some kind of half-crazed troll, drops his underpants, removes his shirt and skips off into the underbrush.  If only I had a camera handy.  These were the days before mobile phone cameras. Karl and Heinz, normally the epitome of engineer-seriousness, follow suit and two more butts disappear into the underbrush.  Dieter gawks.  Is this some kind of bizarre Cossack coming-of-age ritual?

“I know, I know,” I tell Dieter.  “You’re getting too old for this shit.”

Minutes later, Karl, Heinz, Vlad, three unknown burly mafia-looking types with tattoos across their backs, Dieter and I, are sitting in Vlad’s sauna somewhere in the Siberian forest.  Vlad is swigging Stoli from the bottle.  One of the mafia-types pours a bottle of beer over the sauna stones.  Lager-haze burns my eyes.

As soon as I step out of the sauna, some old guy grabs me by the arm, spins me around and starts whipping me with birch leaves.  He chuckles like some kind of wild animal. Although I can’t understand him, I get that this is part of the ceremony.  At this stage I wouldn’t have been surprised had a vampire emerged from the shadows, but the old chap simply sits me down and pours me yet another vodka.

Half an hour later, we’re standing around an open fire, plate of meat in one hand, glass of vodka in another, and someone’s strumming the balalaika to the tune of Kalinka.  Where’s Dieter?  I drop my plate and go looking for him.  I find him out in the clearing trying to wrestle a goat.  By this time, he’s well and truly shitfaced.  He grabs the goat by the horns and starts tugging it back towards the fire.  As he nears, the music dies down.

“What are you planning to do with that thing?” I ask.

For a moment there’s a deathly silence, but then he reaches down to the goat’s udder, squeezes and is soon spraying us all with milk.  Vlad bursts into a hail of laughter; Karl and Heinz start doing a Cossack.  Me?  That’s about where everything goes black.  All I remember is that the next morning I wake up fully dressed in my bed back in the hotel.  I still have my tie and shoes on and someone’s knocking at the door.  My head feels like it had been through one of those ancient Siberian barbeque massages.

“Come on,” says Dieter. “They’re waiting to sign the contract. Vlad’s cracking open a bottle of his best.”

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.”