When I was a sophomore in high school, my World History teacher, Mrs. Alger, had what Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia (2010) would probably refer to as a bad case of “Russia-love.” She was fascinated with the intellectuals of the era, and like any good high school teacher, that fascination captured her students’ imaginations, at least those of me and my friends. I remember especially the final weeks of the class, where we engaged in a project she had titled “meeting of the minds.” We were each given an important figure in 19th century history, and our task was to role-play as that person for an entire class period. We were placed in different groups. My friends and I all gravitated towards the “intellectuals” group (go figure).
All of which is to say that of course, I had selected Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel. Others in our group included Nietzsche, Bakunin, and Marx. Oddly I seem to remember Otto von Bismarck also being in our group, which doesn’t make a ton of sense, but I think it was the case. Since I hadn’t done the reading (a recurring these at this stage of my education) what I remember spending the period doing was repeatedly abusing the tripartite distinction of thesis-antithesis-synthesis – a formulation I was later to learn Hegel himself didn’t really use. But I thought I heard someone mention it in class, so that was enough.
Anyhow, one of Mrs. Alger’s bigger preoccupations, when it came to Russia-love, was “the land.” One of the guiding theses of our history textbook (this is just second-hand- to repeat – I never did the reading) was apparently that a country’s geography was inexorably bound up with its destiny. I remember thinking this was silly (I have always found it especially easy to dismiss a thesis as overly simplistic when I haven’t actually read the text – it’s really easier that way). Mrs. Alger was committed to the belief that Russia was bound to exert an outsized influence on 20th century history because of the immense amount of land and resources it controlled. This had somehow led it to great power but not a lot of intellectual refinement.
I thought of Mrs. Alger often while reading Travels in Siberia, a massive, but essentially relaxed, casual and informal travel diary of five of Ian Frazier’s trips across different parts of the Russia hinterland. This is the sort of nonfiction I don’t get a chance to read often enough – intellectual but non-academic exploration. I came to read this book after encountering a condensed version of its third section in The New Yorker sometime last year. I was definitely taken with the project at the time. Frazier had arrived in St. Petersburg, committed to finding a guide and a vehicle in which to drive across the entirety of Siberia, all the way to Vladivostok, the far-eastern Russia port city on the Pacific ocean.
This book abounds with descriptions of the immensity of the challenge- lots of observations like that it’s farther from one end of Russia to the other than it is from Alaska to eastern Siberia, lots of calculations involving thousands of kilometers, and that sort of thing. To be honest those got a bit old after a while (the book was 471 big pages). But there were two other aspects to the book I really enjoyed.
First, there was the interspersed micro (and macro) histories. Happening upon the village where Yuri Gugarin had been born, for example, brought on a sequence of stories about Russia space travel. Extensive sections of the text summarize vast swaths of medieval history involving the Mongols and their invasions of the steppe-lands. I have a lot of trouble reading history (see above) so I actually appreciated the way it was presented here – almost as epic-style ecphrasis. In some sense, each lonely town or booming oil megapolis (Novosibirsk, located to the west of Lake Baikal, is the third largest city in Russia – who knew?) – anyway, each stop along the way becomes an opportunity for embedded narrative, history, poetry, naturalistic sketch, and so on – each a veritable shield of Achilles, with Siberian rust, grime, litter and diesel fuels, but still. So all these individual anecdotes and histories somehow hung together for me in a really engrossing fashion. Reading a chronologically organized narrative of Russia probably wouldn’t have done that.
Second, this book really did justice to the frustrations and anticlimaxes of travel. On p. 176, for example, Frazier writes,
Travel, like much else in life, can be more fun to read about than to do. When I’m reading a travel book and the protagonist sets out on a journey and the harbor lights drop behind, I imagine enviously what a grand feeling that must have been. In actual travel situations, however, I’ve noticed that moments of soaring consciousness are rare. Worries and annoyances and trying to remember which pocket the passport is in tend to deromanticize the brain.
It was nice to read a book written by someone who has experienced this as I have. Frazier details the dynamic of travelling with two Russian natives – Sergei and Volodya. Much of the narrative is made much more humorous by the Quixote-and-Panza sorts of interactions between these three. Sergei and Volodya are repeated surprised and confused by Frazier’s “must-see” list. They’re even a bit confused about why he’s undertaking this trip at all, but since he’s paying him, they oblige, at least most of the time. The three travel Siberia in a Pugeot windowless van – picture a DHL truck like the ones in those European towns in those commercials, but all white and very well-used. The van breaks down nearly constantly, but is often miraculously repaired by the two Russians. Quite often the reader is treated to Little Miss Sunshine-esque accounts of running the van down a hill while trying to engage the clutch, even in reverse. The book captures well the sort of frustrations that can overtake even the best of friends while travelling, the way you can look back fondly on a trip that, at the time, you were very glad to have finished.
I may not being a good joy conveying it, but this book was basically hilarious on nearly every page. A particular subject of frequent amusement is the description of Russian sanitary arrangements. So too are Frazier’s vivid accounts of the trash that apparently abounds though all corners of Russia.
At any rate, what emerges is a very full picture of a nation through the ages, though presented idiosyncratically, humorously and in quite a bit of depth. I recommend it, especially at this time of year – if there’s snow outside the window, and relative cold, Siberia will feel like an appropriate subject about which to read. This book has also encouraged me to take up the mantle of the Dostoevsky project again, rather than waiting until next summer. So look for posts soon about Crime and Punishment and The Gambler…