"Wonderfully worse than I thought" Ian Frazier on Siberia
Ian Frazier is drawn to vast, unfinished places. Over the course of nine years, The Atlantic and New Yorker contributor and author of Great Plains and On the Rez criss-crossed Asiatic Russia between the Urals and the Bering Strait — a sparsely populated 10 percent of the earth’s landmass. Travels in Siberiais the story of those journeys, a travelogue of taiga and steppes, ice roads, limitless distances and endless inconvenience. Vivid accounts of Mongol invasions, tsarist exile and the gulag place Siberia’s history in the foreground. Through it all is a sense of Frazier’s abiding love for the region and the people who live there. He even harbors a certain affection for the swarms of mosquitoes that attack “as if shot by a fire hose”.
I reached Ian Frazier at his home in New Jersey. I spoke to him about the role Siberia has played in shaping Russia’s identity, from Genghis Khan to oil billionaires. He explains why Russians tend to be horrified by the thought of going there, and how the slow, fraught embrace of Siberia defines Russia’s “incomplete grandiosity”.
A shorter version of the interview originally appeared in The Atlantic. Here, Frazier and I get to talk about the particular discomforts of flying on Aeroflot and using Russian bathrooms.
You write about "Russia-love,"an infatuation that afflicts Americans. You’ve actually travelled across Siberia, however. You’ve seen and experienced things that would disabuse one of any romance drawn from Russian literature. Yet this seems only to have deepened your passion for Russia — and for Siberia, specifically.
Everything I found out about it was wonderfully worse than I thought. I guess it was just that you can’t ever get to the point of saying, “Well, I’ve seen it.” At the end of the book I note that there are all these things that I never saw and really would love to see — I mean, not love, but just out of curiosity — like the tundra lakes, where methane actually bubbles up. People light the methane, standing there with cigarette lighters, and poof. What an incredible thing, that flammable gas is popping out of the lake now. I never once saw a drunken forest, where the permafrost is melting and the trees are tilting every which way.
I guess it’s the inexhaustibility of it. I thought that was true of the Great Plains, too. And after Great Plains came out I kept travelling in the Great Plains — there was a point where I just wanted to keep going.
I was very interested in the Russian-Alaskan border. For a while I thought of just doing the book about that because there is so much that has happened up there and it’s sort of neglected in people’s minds. When [Tina Fey as] Sarah Palin said, “I can see Russia from my house,” of course she can’t, but still, people went, wow! The fact that she can even make this claim facetiously is amazing. People didn’t know we had this border, or they hadn’t remembered that one of the countries we border is Russia.
You’re from Ohio, and you note that Midwesterners seem particularly drawn to Siberia.
It’s a mysterious thing and was very pronounced there for a few years. Once Siberia got a railroad, then the Midwesterners said, “OK, I can relate to that, I’ll go.” So you had a lot of Midwesterners in the years 1890-1913. There’s a period, as I say in the book, where six people from Ohio went to Siberia and wrote about it. I think it’s an attraction of land and openness and big sky. There are many other parallels between the [American] west and Siberia.
And finally I did this book on the great plains, which was 20 years ago. The Great Plains have biological features that are connected to Russia, like the tumbleweed or the hard red winter wheat, which came with immigrants from Russia. And then it’s linked as a weapons system. When the Minutemen missiles were all up there in Montana and other parts of the plains they were aimed at missiles in the USSR, mostly in Kazakhstan, but others in Siberia. So there are lots of connections.
Does the American Frontier model — from Frederick Jackson Turner to Manifest Destiny — map to the Russian experience? And will Russia ever reach a closing of its frontier, or is it just too vast, simply uncloseable?
We see our country as a frontier that we settled. We looked west, we went, we settled it. Russia looked east, but there was an element to it that we didn’t have — disaster came out of the east, in the form of the Mongols. It was where the end of the world was supposed to come from, according to Russian church chronicles. The End of Days — some have etymologized Mongol as coming from Magog, the Beast at the end of the world. They don’t have a rising sun, the way we have a setting sun, that is a glorious thing we’re walking into. They have a more ambiguous feeling about it.
Our history used to be a continental history, now we’re in a global history. Russia has always had a global history. Global history is a bummer. You suffer invasions of all different kinds. And Russia was not defended against them. We had an ocean on either side — Russia could have anything slosh over it from any direction, practically, except for the north.
And in the case of the Mongols — boy howdy.
Well, the Mongols are Exhibit A. That’s how they became a continental power. The Mongols washed all over them, ruined their lives and once the Mongols ran out of steam and receded back to the steppes from which they had come, Russia looked in that direction and said, OK, all this land is out there, we know about it, and then they began to go out there.
So yes, it was the Wild East, it was a land of promise, it was homesteaded, it had gold rushes, it had native peoples who died of smallpox — there were all these parallels between the American West and the Russian East. But that feeling of ahhh, this is hope is not there in any way.
The Whitney Museum had a show called “Perpetual Mirage” about American photographers in the West. I wrote a piece about it. It was a really good show, with all these different photographers from the first survey pictures all they way up to the present. “Perpetual Mirage” was a good title for it. When I was talking to some photographers last fall — I thought, what would be the equivalent thing for Russia? And I think it would be “Siberian Nightmare”. We’re pursuing a mirage, they’re sort of entering into a nightmare where there may be something that isn’t so horrible, there may be many things that will work out great, but there is a much different, darker cast to it.
What do you do in a landscape of danger like that? However it affects us to have the West, and however the closing of the American frontier is supposed to have formed the American character, I know that having this big place is really, really important for Russia. And I know it forms their character.
The guys that I went with had this endless sense of how adventurous this was. In fact Sergei and Volodya didn’t see this as a nightmare experience at all. At the end of the section where I go to the Gulag camp I go to a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, and I say maybe this is why Russians are such good dancers. They’re constantly flinging themselves across huge, huge expanses. Their dance has that kind of headlong, flinging quality to it — like Nureyev being born on a Trans-Siberian train — it gives you kind of a momentum in space just to have to cover this huge swath of the globe.
You encounter the ambiguous relationship Russians have with Siberia in St. Petersburg and Moscow. When you mention the plan for your book, many people react in horror. Why would you do that? Why would you go there? It’s dangerous! Your guides Sergei and Valodya enjoyed the trip, embracing Siberia, but they seem to be the exception to the rule.
They had fun. They’re great Russian adventurers, great Russian explorers. There is a real sense among some Russians of adventure and exploration and being intrepid explorers. It’s there in Nabokov — he had a real sense of he’s going to get out and explore things and find butterflies in the middle of nowhere and stay in every hotel in America.
Many people that I talked to said, “Oh, God, you gotta be kidding me. You’ll be killed.” They were so much more negative than the situation warranted. On the other hand, they weren’t entirely wrong. There were dangers there that the guys I went with did not play up at all until much later. After I got back, while I was doing the notes for the book, I went through all these Russian news stories about Siberia, and on the roads where we were there were robberies, there were killings, there was a bus full of people that was pulled over — the driver was shot and all the people were robbed on the same road, not far from Chita, where we were.
Then again, I suppose there are people in America who would say, “Oh, God, don’t go to North Dakota, there’s nothing there.”
You know, I think I could have seen myself doing everything that you did — except when it came to the Siberian mosquitoes. That was decidedly outside my comfort zone.
A lot of people found that to be a step beyond.
Before reading this, if you’d asked to make an association with Siberia I would have said, winter. Or perhaps Winter in the gulag. You made a point of returning in the winter to experience that. How much can the Siberian gestalt really only be understood in terms of winter?
I think you have to be aware that everything is under snow for a good part of the year. We have parts of America that are like that, but mostly where we get snow it comes and goes. There’s a name in Russian for the first snow, because that’s the beginning of the snow cover — it’s not going to go anywhere. The snow becomes like a solid. It’s like somebody came through and repaved your street and that’s what’s there. Everything is under it. It’s very hard snow, very dry — there were parts where I could hardly bear to walk on it because of the squeakiness of it. You don’t build snowmen with it; you can carve steps with it.
It’s a not uncomfortable way to live once you get used to it. I find it more uncomfortable to have the snow come and go. It just settles in — it’s winter now and it will be until April 21st. The ice road on Lake Baikal starts in December and functions until Aprili 15th. Big vehicles drive on it — huge, earth-moving type things, really big equipment drives on it, bigger than regular semis. I looked down into the road, it’s something like eight, nine feet of ice — it’s very different from most of our experience of winter. There’s a real comfort about the indoors of it, because Russia has so much fuel. You go down in these big buildings and it’s really warm. At least sometimes, in certain places. Other places like Provedenya don’t have coal and then you freeze to death all winter.
In Novosibirsk or in Yakutsk, I’d go in these buildings there’s this diesel smell and this warmth and this darkness — they use the tiniest lightbulbs. It’s like they have as candle in there, practically. There’s just a burrow quality to it. Very, very cozy.
I travelled a little in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union, and was often struck by the messy, shambolic quality that towns and even cities had. You found that in the wilderness, as well, along with a sort of practical brutality that Russians have towards nature. That all struck me as very non-Western.
You don’t get very many civic reminders of any kind there. You assume that there were lots of them during Soviet times. I have an example of a banner exhorting workers, saying We will catch up and overtake America. Here in the U.S. we have Don’t be a litterbug, Smokey the Bear, This section of road is being cleaned up by the Delta Epslon fraternity. There’s just none of that there. The civic sense is attenuated to the point where it doesn’t exist.
I have an encounter with some poachers in the Russian far east, very nice people, as it turned out. But to suggest that “Gosh, you guys are ruining your salmon run here, it’s not going to happen again next year” — they didn’t think of that. They didn’t care. That’s not a western attitude.
A running theme through the book is just the trash. The trash is really something I had never seen, not like that. We can do trashy things but they really go to some extremes. At one point I thought, they probably don’t care because trash gets covered with snow five months of the year. You throw it out and the next day you don’t see it because it’s buried under snow. That is really different. We have trash barrels and they pretty much don’t.
A lot of the trash you saw was barrels.
They had just any old thing, yeah — barrels or industrial stuff, like broken fluorescent light tubes — you’d encounter trash that you just would never encounter here. Like a metal lathe. And way the hell out! Miles and miles from Omsk we stopped at this place and it was basically industrial waste that would be illegal to dump here — probably illegal to dump there. Not a strong civic sense.
Yet it’s also a place where everybody is extremely street-smart. Something I decided after going there a bunch of times is that the horribleness of the country is in direct proportion to how street-smart the people are. As an example of a country where people aren’t very street smart — take my home town of Hudson, Ohio. It’s just kind of a nice, Midwestern town, basically a nice place in the sense that it was well-maintained and clean, not terribly unsafe, law-abiding. The people who came out of there, I for one, were incredibly notstreet-smart.
It isn’t to say that Russia is an anarchy. Human connection is the way things work. It’s like a patronage system. You know somebody and he knows somebody and he knows somebody and he knows the district governor, and it’s okay. And that works to a certain extent. As to the way they see the land, honestly, they have so much more of it than we do that our old attitude of, well, there’s always more is much more arguable.
You did a wonderful job of poking fun at your own comfortable, Midwestern lack of street smarts as you went out into the Siberian wilderness with these two very self-sufficient, very street smart, ready-for-anything guides. You were a good counterpoint to them with your cautiousness and comparative fastidiousness.
I was just a mystery to them because I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke — a lot more people in Russia smoke than smoke here — and I insisted on wearing my seat belt.
You describe the polish that places like Novosibirsk have now, created by energy wealth. One sees all the Western brands there. Has that prosperity trickled down or trickled out to Siberia’s many small, rural outlying communities?
For really rural places I think you’re still seeing an emptying-out. I haven’t been in really rural parts since 2005, but then the far-flung places were holding on, and not with anything like the maintenance you had during Soviet times. People would show me stuff — “Oh, this usedto be such and such”— but it just looked beat-up.
Almost every place had one central heating facility with ducts that went all over the town, and those things are in horrible repair. They’re shredding asbestos, installation is kind of balling off of them, and the houses are not maintained. The Soviets wanted these rural places to be maintained for military or industrial purposes, and they paid attention to them. The market has not been as kind.
Places like Novosibirsk, a comfortable, nice, big city of a million and a half people, are really improved. The airports are now fabulous. They’re so much nicer than they used to be. Aeroflot planes used to be a joke, they were so uncomfortable. Did you every fly on Aeroflot?
I did. What I remember most vividly was that the nosecone was plexiglas. I realized was flying in a bomber. And the seats —
The seats were terrible! But now they use Airbuses and Boeings, which are named after Russian writers. It’s incredible that Ivan Bunin, who you could get 15 years in the gulag for saying he was a good writer, now is on the side of a plane. Joseph Brodsky, who I know, and who was Poet Laureate of the United States, is on the side of a plane!
Is there part of you that mourns something that has passed? An old Siberia that you knew that is vanishing?
Well, you know, I loved Soviet stuff, as a style. The old, clunky, huge stuff. Something about it is just cool. And I’m sorry when I see a Maybach limousine as opposed to some Soviet-era UAZ microbus, built at a factory named for Lenin with much more metal than a VW bus. It was the idea that we were all doing something together, and now Russia is so every-man-for-himself.
As has been said about the Confederates--that they fought with a devotion worthy of a better cause--there were people who were devoted Communists who were incredibly idealistic and thought this was going to be great. And you still meet them. They say, “Yes, I came out here to build Baikal-Amur Magistral [Siberia’s other cross-country railroad] because I believed…” To lose that — well good riddance if you get rid of the gulag in the process, but still, you lose something.
You spend a lot of the book writing about historical figures who went to Siberia, albeit not of their choosing, in most cases and about how they were changed by the experience. Your extensive travel there includes a 9,000-mile road trip. How has the experience changed you?
Russians don’t complain, usually. I know from my goings and comings that you can hear an American across an airport. He’s going, We were supposed to — How come our tickets are — You never hear that in Russia. The Russian will say, “What can you do?” They are stoic. They are expert at suffering. They know a lot about it, they know what it’s like and how to do it.
You tell the wonderful story of the Archpriest Avvakum Petrovich —
Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that. If I had an epigraph for the book, it would be where his wife says “How long, Archpriest, are these sufferings to continue?” And he says, “Markovna! Till our death.” So she says, “Very well, Petrovich. Let us be getting on our way.” There really is something great about the country, and it’s connected to that. It’s something we don’t have. We don’t suffer. We go, “Let’s fix this.” And we complain — and we whine. So I hope that I complain less — or at least, if I complain, that I understand that you really shouldn’t.
I really enjoyed the book. There were so many delightful moments in reading it — I actually posted the opening of Chapter Three, which begins, “"What I have to say next concerns the Omsk airport men's room. I regret this.” It got many responses here and on Facebook.
There’s a sentence in there where I’m talking about how we’re really very far apart from other countries in the global market, and I say, “I’m talking to you too, China.”
Yes! It’s so true. And it’s not just Asia — France! The toilet paper!
My friend Jamaica Kincaid has said, what we should send the rest of the world is not Peace Corps people, but plumbers.
I didn’t go nearly as far as you into the interior of Russia, but I remember the toilets in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg — of the great museums of the world — holes in the ground. I took one look and said what is this?
It does really take you by surprise.
And then there’s the whole concept of smell as a global differentiator. You do that so well. One of the very first images that strikes the reader is your description of the smell of Russia in the Moscow airport.
Russians seem to have a comfort level with smells that Americans don’t have. Actually, most countries probably have a comfort level with smells higher then ours. Americans are not comfortable with smells. We would prefer to smell nothing, except for bathroom air freshener.
Right. I think we have more tolerance for stuff that’s very, very artificial. Whereas natural smells to us are gross.
Maybe because we closed our frontiers we said, smells, no, we’re done with that. It’s bathroom freshener only from now on.
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