:: Writing Judgmentally and Without Judgment: On Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia

  • Title: Travels in Siberia
  • By: Ian Frazier
  • Date: 09.27.2011 (first published on October 2010)
  • Page #: 560

“There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

// // //

The first sentence in Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia begins thusly:

“Officially, there is no such place as Siberia.”

It is a confident sentence, but the adverb “officially” ascribes the assertion (i.e. the existence of Siberia) to someone or to some power besides the writer himself. It also implies a geographical limitation, something that metaphysically exist in one’s mind and heart but hasn’t yet virtually realized or achieved massive recognition (i.e. officially, there is no such place as Palestine or the Midwest.) This admission of authority, however, should not be mistaken as an intimation of defeat, but rather as a humble acceptance of challenge. Because this is what Mr. Frazier ultimately goes to do in a span of 500-plus pages: He’s equally trying to conjure Siberia’s existence in the map as well as demystifying his seemingly irrational adoration for the region. Evidently, It’s an arduous task both on his body and intellects, but as a chronicler of America’s The Great Plains (see: On The Rez), Frazier has all the credentials (and certainly the bragging rights) to pull if off. And he does pull it off. Exceedingly.

Within a span of two chapters, an astute reader is more likely to determine that Travels in Siberia doesn’t quite read like a travelogue or a compendium of cultural Russia despite possessing the added advantages of such accounts. And Frazier certainly makes this clear from the beginning when he declares his inexplicable love toward Russia—a “dread Russia love,” to which American Midwesterners like Frazier seem especially susceptible. And, indeed, Frazier cannot rationally explain the hold Russia exerts on him. It’s “an independent force out there in the ether of ideas”. This mysterious affection catapults him on an epic journey by van across the whole of Siberia in the summer of 2001, when one evening he takes on a 9,000-mile journey from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, accompanied with his two guides, Sergei and Volodya, aboard an unreliable Renault van that occasionally catches on fire.

As Russell Scott Valentino of the Iowa Review notes, Travels in Siberia is “not an academic book,” because, unlike most academic books, Frazier is not only attempting to communicate with the reader at an intellectual level but also at an emotional one, particularly his “magical, enchanted fascination” with Russia and his unsparing details of its shortcomings as an American observer. It is a rather a curious inversion of journalistic writing, considering such level of subjectivity immediately places Frazier in a vulnerable position. But Valentino, who he himself traversed Russia extensively in 1987, quickly dismisses any sense of suspicion the reader may have against Frazier’s frank judgment about Russia and the Russians:

I recognize a deeper truth in what appears to be just a subtly descriptive aside, one of many such truthful moments: a sense of responsibility in his treatment of the subject, which I can’t help thinking comes from the respect accorded by those around him for what he’s doing, writing about them and their home.

And in order to write about them with academic integrity and fairness, Frazier, perhaps through a subconscious attempt to somberly demystify Russia for himself, delves deep into the history of Siberia through war records and variety of literature. In fact, it is safe to say that Frazier’s book is as much about books he has read as it is about his journey; he loves books about Russia and Siberia as much as he loves the place itself. And through keen digressions that enlightens rather than muddles, Frazier revives many writers whom had paved the way on their previous travels, like John Reed, the author of Ten Days That Shook the World, and George Kennan, an American explorer of Siberia in the 19th century who reminds the reader of Frazier himself. Great figures of the past, too, are vibrantly rendered as those Frazier meets face to face. Genghis Kahn, the legendary Mongol overlord, fascinates Frazier in particular. There many others: Mikhail Bakunin, a colorful revolutionary, who succeeded in escaping Siberia prisons in the mid-1800s, The Tsars, the Decembrists—all of them tromp through the pages of Frazier prose like the anthropomorphized broomsticks in Disney’s Fantasia.

All of this tribute is inadvertently telling of the nonfiction genre’s capability to reconstruct stories. And in Frazier’s case, the reconstruction is ultimately redemptive—to him and to Russia’s origins. Indeed, Frazier seems more occupied in exploring Siberia’s past than musing over its future. For one, he scarcely riffles through economy texts to study Russia’s crucial role in gas and oil exploration, which is gradually making it the prime source of its wealth (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Russia tops the world largest gas and crude oil producers list.) Perhaps this veneration of the past is a tactic in balancing his American sensibility that repulses at the sight of Siberian bathrooms—“I’ve noticed that in books by Siberian travelers of the past they don’t talk about bathrooms, and that’s probably good. I reluctantly break with this tradition for two reasons. First, I am an American, and Americans pay attention to and care about bathrooms”—or perhaps this is Frazier implicitly admitting that Siberia’s historical richness and fascinatingly dark metaphors are enough to sustain his personal examination from invidious scrutiny. What is certain, however, is Frazier’s observational keenness that remains undiminished throughout even when it tips into comedic candor (it helps that Frazier employs his signature, self-deprecating humor with endearing regularity in his narrative, especially his irritated testimonies of his linguistic failures with the Russian language and his struggles to communicate efficiently.)

But if there’s one area where Frazier is totally open with his emotions, it has to be his focus—or even obsession—on the extensive history of Siberian exiles, an account that imparts a lingering melancholy to a largely gleeful book. It is Travels in Siberia’s most inviting investigation. The manner in which the book transmits the minute details of these exiles not only seems to lend a valedictory respect to their lives but also a sympathetic exposure to their hardships. While Frazier repeatedly marries Siberia’s mystery and vastness to that of America’s, the Siberian “road,” in contrast, conjures to mind not the positive impressions of freedom and possibility and reinvention of self, but rather punishment, imprisonment and “the deep and ancient sorrow of exile.” He cannot abstain from condemning the Siberian gulag and the atrocities committed there. “Using a place as punishment may or may not be fair to the people who are punished there, but it always demeans and does a disservice to the place,” he writes. Later, after a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe, which, against Sergei’s persuasion to avoid it, he comments on the pall of unmentionableness that coats the place in the midst of thicketed woods:

What struck me then and still strikes me now was the place’s overwhelming aura of absence . . . The deserted prison camp just sat there—unexcused, un-torn down, unexplained. During its years of operation it had been a secret, and in some sense it still was. Horrors had happened here, and/or miseries and sufferings and humiliations short of true horrors. ‘No comment,’ the site seemed to say.

But this is also Frazier’s attempt to also say that “the limitless periods of suffering” experienced by the countless millions who trudged their way into Siberia seems to be a part of the very soul of the Russian people—that it comes with the territory. It is quite a twist to a narrative that began with an odd love story; though one might argue that is precisely what makes Frazier’s love so real—that he has fallen in love with an unreliable lover who possesses the capacity to enchant as much as to betray. And how fittingly elegiac that Frazier finds himself at the end of his long summer journey across Siberia at the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the Sikhote-Alin mountains, with what could have constituted a perfect ending; there, when he and his companions merrily swim in the ocean, having made it across Siberia, as he shares a brutal reflection, “Today was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.” Quite a few nonfiction authors are given such a rare opportunity; alas, Frazier rejects the gift and refocuses the narrative back to Russia for another arguably less rewarding 140+ pages.

Still, Frazier seems to want to defy the illusionary effects of time by carving out a physical place in Siberia for those who never had the chance to preserve their lives in literature. “Just as the twentieth century split the atom, it took apart the human soul; in the camps of the Siberian gulag the soul’s reduction approached the absolute,” Frazier writers. “Writers… who might have described the horrors did not survive to do so. Among those who did survive, the experience usually depleted the residue of hope in them to a level where they didn’t have much left to write with.” But Frazier clings to that hope. And so he keeps on writing. On telling stories with benign judgments that honors humanity in large. Its successes and failures.

One thought on “:: Writing Judgmentally and Without Judgment: On Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia

  1. Mo,

    Very nicely done. good thoughtful approach to Frazier’s Siberia, which alienated plenty of readers by its description of an alien land and its obscure history. I think you’re right that the book is neither Travelogue nor cultural deconstruction, it’s a search for the human legacy of the place.

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