En route with Ian Frazier: A 20-year long love affair with Siberia

Ian Frazier is a writer for The New Yorker and the author of the nonfiction works “Great Plains” (1989), “On the Rez” (2000) and “Travels in Siberia” (2010). Source: Alexandra Guzeva

Ian Frazier is a writer for The New Yorker and the author of the nonfiction works “Great Plains” (1989), “On the Rez” (2000) and “Travels in Siberia” (2010). Source: Alexandra Guzeva

Ian Frazier, a contributor to the New Yorker and the author of the travelogue “Travels in Siberia,” seems to love Russia more than many locals. At a visit to the Krasnoyarsk Book Fair, Frazier discussed his fascination with the country with RBTH’s Alexandra Guzeva.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: When did you visit Russia for the first time?

Ian Frazier: It was Moscow in 1993. I went with my friends, artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. They emigrated in the 70’s and had not come back for 15 years. They were friends with a man in Ulan-Ude who wanted to bring people for cultural exchange. So then we went there.

That time we visited Baikal. Everything is very different now. Even post cards were like Soviet postcards, hilarious sometimes, like a postcard of the Ministry of Agriculture building. Things you would never think to put on a postcard in America.

That was the Soviet Union we thought it was (like in a joke). I started my book telling about smells of Russia, these different exotic and exciting smells (diesel fuel, wet concrete). And I almost haven’t smelled them on this trip. The Soviets built everything with concrete, and when concrete gets wet it smells and when I smell that smell, it makes me think of Russia.

That was really a very powerful experience. I was so touched when they were showing me what their life was like, when they were showing me their elementary school and so on. They knew my life in America. And what I saw was a childhood on the other side. My friends’ lives were totally different from mine.

RBTH: What inspired you to make another trip to Siberia and write a book about it?  

I.F.: A love of adventure and a desire to write a book like George Kennan, who was from my hometown in Ohio, wrote. It was a really good book – “Siberia and the Exile System.” My great-great-grandfather published his work in a newspaper, so I had that connection. I admired that guy and I wanted to try to do what he had done. That was one inspiration, but there were many reasons, including my admiration of Russian writing – maybe to write something and to be like Tolstoy.

RBTH: How many times did you go to Siberia? Did someone from Russia help you with your journeys?

I.F.: I was there five times: in winter and in summer, in different times of year. Usually there were people who helped me, only one time I was alone. My longest trip was with a diesel step van. I gave my guides money to buy a car but I guess they bought something cheaper... And then we flew, we took the BAM [The Baikal-Amur Mainline railway], we took the Trans-Siberian [Railway]. The craziest way was in a boat in the Bering Sea, that was terrifying. But I was scared in the car as well.

RBTH: People say that when you travel by train in Siberia, you see only trees out your window for three days. Is that true?

I.F. Yes. We traveled with BAM to Tynda where we took another train to the town of Aldan. And I think we were in the train for 52 hours because it was really a slow train. And when you look out the window, you can see just trees and snow, you fall asleep, you wake up and it’s the same. There was nothing: no houses, no people. And then you come to a town with a crazy train station – for example, one building had gigantic clock. Or when you come into a station and it’s -40 – this is when I learned that -40 Fahrenheit and -40 Celsius are the same – and you see guys are standing around with big beards. And then you go out and your whole car would be completely covered with frost.

RBTH: Describe briefly what Siberia is for you

I.F.: It’s frost, really cold air and cigarette smoke. And trees and snow. And the sound of snow when you walk on it when it’s really, really cold. I saw the ice sculpture of Ermak in Yakutsk that is 20 feet tall. I saw a sable in the wild when I was in Sakha. For me that was incredible – a sable, the animal. Unbelievable.

RBTH: Do you think that Siberians have a unique character different from people in other parts of Russia?

I.F.: I think Siberians are more independent-minded and they are friendly in a way that people in Moscow are not.

The other thing that they have – they are not afraid of Siberia. People in St. Petersburg would say ‘Oh, you’ll be killed or robbed if you go there.”

RBTH: Was a city you liked best?

I.F.: I had the most fun in Novosibirsk because I didn’t have to work much there and I stayed in a nice hotel and I went to movies, to museums. For history, Tobolsk was wonderful. And then Irkutsk, because I became very passionate about the Decembrists: they are very inspiring people. 

RBTH: You said in your book that Siberia is not only the Gulag, but it is the Gulag, too.

I.F.: First off, it was hard to find a Gulag to visit. I did find one in the Sakha Republic, a little bit west from Oymyakon and it was the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen, but in the same time very fascinating because nothing changed, it was like frozen in time. The camps were all along the road, so you can stop and see them. There were raw boards where people slept. In America we also have sights that are very gloomy, but at least we put up markers. It needs a marker and it needs historians to uncover what happened there.

5 things that impressed Frazier:

1) I was impressed with ability of people to repair their cars. They were just stopping, finding a place by the side of the road and making repairs.

2) The beauty of Siberia took me by surprise. I read many things about Baikal, but I have never seen water that clear in my life. I saw the moon and it was glittering on the water of Baikal and the water was so clean that the moon glittered in different way, like you are looking at sable fur.

3) In America, the idea of riding into the sunset, riding west is hopeful. For Russians, riding east is both exciting and frightening. If you look at the roads of Siberia, how they disappear into the horizon, you have mixed feelings: maybe you’re on your way to Beijing or maybe to exile or prison.

4) I went to Irkutsk and I saw a museum of the Decembrists and I read everything about them. I even read the memoirs of Yakushkin in Russian with a dictionary and it took me about 18 months.

5) In the U.S., the tumbleweed is a symbol in Hollywood Westerns, this weed rolling along a dusty wind. But it’s a Russian plant that never existed in the West of America before Russian immigrants brought it with the corn they brought to grow.


RBTH: In 1901, British author John Foster Fraser wrote a book called “The Real Siberia” in which he compared the region with the United States and said that it had the potential to some day be as developed as that country. Do you think there is any truth in this prediction?  

I.F.: No. Parts of it are really developed with gas and stuff like that. They built BAM because of minerals along that line. But by the time they finished it, the Soviet times were over and there were already not many people to develop the area. The author was from an optimistic generation and the future is hard to guess. Now because of global warming, Siberia could be under water, who knows.

RBTH: Have you seen any major changes in your travels to Siberia after the research for your book ended?

I.F.: This is my first time in Siberia since then. And it is less Soviet. But I am visiting big cities, and I am sure that cities that were closed cities have yet to become modern.

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