Having tackled America’s wide-open spaces in Great Plains, Ian Frazier lights out for even emptier spaces in the farmlands and forests of Siberia. Travels In Siberia recounts his findings, leavened with self-conscious humor and an extraordinary observational gift, over five trips to Russia’s remotest region.
Frazier first entered Siberia when prompted by a friend’s casual invitation a few years after the demise of the Soviet Union, when Western visitors were rare enough to prompt comment. Returning home, Frazier fed his fascination with the culture via Russian lessons and expeditions to the Alaskan towns surrounding the Bering Strait, where bad flying weather would routinely strand him for days at a time, as he waited for a helicopter trip into Russian-held islands. Travels In Siberia’s centerpiece (which Frazier wrote about for The New Yorker) is his several-week sojourn in which he hired two men to drive him from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean over the summer, over the protests of Russian friends who feared for his safety. Together in an eternally breaking down van, they battle dense clouds of mosquitoes by night and argue about necessary landmarks by day, as Frazier muses over Russian history amid some of its most desolate lands.
Frazier keeps one eye on the road and one on his notebook throughout Travels In Siberia, nimbly hopping between descriptions of the “Russian smell” and the intricacies of Tsarist politics. From topography to stray bits of pop culture, nothing escapes his eye, with particular radar for moments where he senses his guides and hosts are misleading him. Nowhere does this battle play out more fiercely than in Frazier’s insistence, over his guides’ terse objections, on seeing the ruins of Stalin’s Siberian prison camps, but that struggle yields some of his most flinch-worthy passages, as he searches for them on a special winter trip to Novosibirsk.
Other tangents naturally crop up to enrich the narrative without overwhelming it, including a diverting sideline into Frazier fellow Ohioans who brought reports of Russia back to curious Americans. Frazier’s sense of humor about his late-blooming mania brightens his horizons throughout Travels In Siberia. When even his Russian-American friends don’t understand the idea he’s chasing to the point of danger, he employs his self-awareness to leaven his theory, hung on the fate of the Decembrists, of Russia’s inevitable return to form after periods of tumultuous change. Clear-headed enough to see his own folly, he plunges forward anyway, into the barely known.