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Travels in Siberia

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Overview

A Dazzling Russian travelogue from the bestselling author of Great Plains

In his astonishing new work, Ian Frazier, one of our greatest and most entertaining storytellers, trains his perceptive, generous eye on Siberia, the storied expanse of Asiatic Russia whose grim renown is but one explanation among hundreds for the region?s fascinating, enduring appeal. In Travels in Siberia, Frazier reveals Siberia?s role in history?its science, economics, and politics?with great passion ...

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Overview

A Dazzling Russian travelogue from the bestselling author of Great Plains

In his astonishing new work, Ian Frazier, one of our greatest and most entertaining storytellers, trains his perceptive, generous eye on Siberia, the storied expanse of Asiatic Russia whose grim renown is but one explanation among hundreds for the region’s fascinating, enduring appeal. In Travels in Siberia, Frazier reveals Siberia’s role in history—its science, economics, and politics—with great passion and enthusiasm, ensuring that we’ll never think about it in the same way again.

With great empathy and epic sweep, Frazier tells the stories of Siberia’s most famous exiles, from the well-known—Dostoyevsky, Lenin (twice), Stalin (numerous times)—to the lesser known (like Natalie Lopukhin, banished by the empress for copying her dresses) to those who experienced unimaginable suffering in Siberian camps under the Soviet regime, forever immortalized by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

Travels in Siberia is also a unique chronicle of Russia since the end of the Soviet Union, a personal account of adventures among Russian friends and acquaintances, and, above all, a unique, captivating, totally Frazierian take on what he calls the “amazingness” of Russia—a country that, for all its tragic history, somehow still manages to be funny. Travels in Siberia will undoubtedly take its place as one of the twenty-first century’s indispensable contributions to the travel-writing genre.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Three-fourths of Russia is in Siberia, but most of us think of its vast expanses only as a vague, frigid wasteland. New Yorker journalist and author Ian Frazier (Great Plains; On the Rez; Gone to New York) fills that vacancy with an energetic account of his ultimate road trip into the great unknown. The journey takes this intrepid American into the far reaches of this forbidding hinterland, but also deep into the often bizarre history of the region. Travels in Siberia spotlights Frazier's ability to be remarkably insightful without losing his sharp sense of wit. A dream pass for armchair travelers.

Publishers Weekly
Drawn to what he calls "the incomplete grandiosity of Russia, Frazier's extraordinary work combines personal travelogue with in-depth history and gives readers a firsthand account of a place most will never see: Siberia. After 16 years of research, five trips to Siberia and more to western Russia, Frazier (Lamentations of the Father) recounts his obsession with the inhospitable place that doesn't officially exist: "no political or territorial entity has Siberia in its name." From the Mongol hordes that galloped across the steppes to the Soviet labor camps that killed millions, he intersperses the vast region's history with his own visits. Determined to immerse himself in Russian--and particularly Siberian--culture, Frazier embarks on a drive eastward across the tundra in the summer of 2001, accompanied by two guides. Seeing such sites as Irkutsk, the onetime "Paris of Siberia," Frazier and his companions travel 9,000 miles from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific in five weeks and two days, arriving on September 11. Since he hadn't felt Siberia's renowned bone-chilling cold, Frazier returned for a month in March of 2005, this time starting in the Pacific port of Vladivostok and traveling east to west. Part long-gestating love letter, part historical record of a place shrouded in mystery, this is Frazier at his best. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“[Travels in Siberia is] an uproarious, sometimes dark yarn filled with dubious meals, broken-down vehicles, abandoned slave-labor camps and ubiquitous statues of Lenin—On the Road meets The Gulag Archipelago . . . As he demonstrated in Great Plains, Frazier is the most amiable of obsessives . . . he peels away Russia’s stolid veneer to reveal the quirkiness and humanity beneath . . . Frazier has the gumption and sense of wonder shared by every great travel writer, from Bruce Chatwin to Redmond O’Hanlon, as well as the ability to make us see how the most trivial or ephemeral detail is part of the essential texture of a place . . . [An] endlessly fascinating tale.” —Joshua Hammer, The New York Times Book Review

“Siberia provides Frazier the perfect canvas to paint what may be his masterpiece. Frazier told the story of the Great Plains (his eponymous 1989 bestseller) and Native American life (“On the Rez,’’ 2000) by mixing history, reportage, and memoir, but what makes him special is his brilliant, if quirky sense of humor . . . When confronted with a place as serious as Siberia, it helps to have Frazier’s comic leavening . . . Travels in Siberia is a typically sprawling Frazier book. Underneath a rich smear of his pen-and-ink sketches and his research (Frazier is an unusual travel writer in that not only is he very funny, but he is very serious, and he offers nearly 40 pages worth of endnotes and a bibliography of scores of books on Siberia) are the threads of five trips he took to the region since 1993. From the Alaska side, he hopscotched around Chukotka’s Chukchi Peninsula. For a satirist like Frazier, it was like shooting fish in a barrel, and he restrained himself, only rarely cracking a joke. “Chukchi girls dancing with a telephone lineman from California is a sight seen almost never, and then not more than once” — or noting that the two stuffed bears displayed in the Anchorage airport were killed by dentists . . . He then explores the question of why there are no historical markers or memorials at the Siberian gulag, as there are at some other sites of atrocity like Dachau and Auschwitz. The terrible crimes are still incompletely acknowledged, he argues, because the camps embodied Stalin and “the world has not yet decided what to say about Stalin.” It is a simple point but a powerful one and like much of the book, both Frazier’s images and his insights about the camps linger long after you stop shivering.” —James Zug, The Boston Globe

“It’s always easy to figure out whether you should read the latest book by Ian Frazier: If he’s written it, then you’ll want to read it . . . Much more than ‘travel writing,’ [Travels in Siberia] covers memoir, history, literature, politics and more. There are many reasons to love it, including the fantastic ending, possibly the best of any book in recent memory. Travels in Siberia is a masterpiece of nonfiction writing—tragic, bizarre and funny. Once again, the inimitable Frazier has managed to create a genre of his very own.” —Carmela Ciuraru, San Francisco Chronicle

“[Travel writing] . . . is revived by Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which evinces a passion as profound as Homans’s zeal for dance: Frazier’s ‘Russia-love’ . . . Between excursions to towns like Neudachino (‘Unhappyville’), he ponders a question that has puzzled many a visitor: ‘how Russia can be so great and so horrible simultaneously.’ In exploring this paradox, Frazier describes the physical world with a keen eye . . . Some of his descriptions read like medieval nightmares: the mosquitoes of western Siberia, so numerous that they gather in fierce black clouds; or the feeling of being locked, for almost two days, in a windowless train compartment beneath a ceiling so low that it is impossible to stand. Frazier candidly addresses Siberia’s tragedies and opportunities, even as his narrative offers, like explorer stories of old (crossing the Sahara, hacking through the Congo, landing in Tahiti with Captain Cook), all the thrills of armchair travel.” —Ben Moser, Harper’s

“Ian Frazier, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is a master of nonfiction narrative. As with his previous travel classics Great Plains and On the Rez, Frazier’s Travels in Siberia not only explores the geography of a remote, seemingly barren region, but also illuminates its dark history and resilient spirit. Frazier isn’t just a chronicler—he’s a central character . . . After reading Frazier’s passionate travelogue and history of Siberia, you’ll never again view the region as a big, empty space on a map. Frazier brings Siberia into vivid, monochromatic focus.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Library Journal
Frazier, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, himself narrates this fascinating travelog (originally excerpted in that magazine) that is chock-full of history, commentary, and his love for the grand, unrealized greatness of modern Russia. His observations derive from a cross-country trip he took one summer with two Russian guides and an only somewhat reliable van and are infused with historical context and everyday details. The audio's 16-hour length feels appropriate, given the time and space needed even to scratch the surface of the vastness of Asiatic Russia. A sprawling, enthusiastic glimpse of a land that is so much more than cold and ice. Recommended for fans of Frazier's national best seller Great Plains (1989) as well as for those interested in books on Russia, history, and travel. [The Farrar hc was "highly recommended" for "history buffs, armchair travelers, and lovers of a good essay," LJ 8/10.—Ed.]—J. Sara Paulk, Wythe-Grayson Regional Lib., Independence, VA
Kirkus Reviews

The peripatetic author of Great Plains (1989) and On the Rez (2000) returns with an energetic, illuminating account of his several trips to Siberia, where his ferocious curiosity roamed the vast, enigmatic area.

Veteran New Yorker contributor Frazier (Lamentations of the Father: Essays, 2008, etc.) begins bluntly. "Officially," he writes, "there is no such place as Siberia." It is not a country, nor a province, yet the region bearing the name is extensive, comprising eight time zones. Throughout, the author confesses to a long love affair with Russia, a relationship that has waxed and waned over the decades but in some of its brightest phases sent him back repeatedly to see what few have seen. Here Frazier records several visits: a summer's trip via cantankerous automobile across the entire region, in the company of a couple of local companions; a winter's journey by train and car, during which the car sometimes used frozen waterways for roads; and a return visit to see the effects of the emerging Russian energy industry. He prepared in a fashion familiar to readers of his previous works—read everything he could, talked with anyone who knew anything, planned and schemed and made it happen. He also studied Russian extensively and tried gamely to engage local people he encountered along the way. On the road, he visited local museums and monuments and natural wonders, and he pauses frequently for welcome digressions on the historical background. He camped, fished and ate local delicacies (and indelicacies). Endearingly, he freely admits his inadequacies, fears (during one perilous icy trip he actually composed a farewell message to his family), blunders, dour moods, regrets and loneliness. The contrasts are stark—one day, he walked through the ruins of a remote, frozen Soviet-era prison camp and later saw a ballet in St. Petersburg—and the writing is consistently rich.

A dense, challenging, dazzling work that will leave readers exhausted but yearning for more.

Joshua Hammer
…an uproarious, sometimes dark yarn filled with dubious meals, broken-down vehicles, abandoned slave-labor camps and ubiquitous statues of Lenin—On the Road meets The Gulag Archipelago…Frazier has the gumption and sense of wonder shared by every great travel writer, from Bruce Chatwin to Redmond O'Hanlon, as well as the ability to make us see how the most trivial or ephemeral detail is part of the essential texture of a place…
—The New York Times
Alan Cooperman
Frazier…took five trips to Siberia and five or six more to western Russia between 1993 and 2009, and he has combined his stories into a rambling travelogue that is entertaining, illuminating and just slightly, charmingly off the deep end in its infatuation with everything about Russia, good and bad.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

The most alchemistic thing a writer can do is take a place you've never been much interested in and turn it into something so alluring you can't bear to turn away. The most generous thing such a writer can do is take you there in a book so you don't have to go yourself.

Both are done with the subject of Siberia by the matchless Ian Frazier (who does not know how to write a disappointing book -- just pick up Great Plains or On the Rez or any one of seven others). If you are already interested in this vast and largely unknown place, then after reading his treatment of it, you are liable to buy a ticket there immediately. He covers many of the reasons you might proceed with caution, but even these are likely to impassion. Like I said: alchemy.

His new book, Travels in Siberia, has the immense sweep of a place that seems unreal -- not a country or a territory, he reminds us, but more like a concept or a literary conceit that nonetheless takes up the northern third of Asia -- and it has the tiny idiosyncratic particulars that make it altogether real; in this it reminds one of a painting by Bosch. Except, in a way, Siberia is a lot weirder.

Still, or maybe because of this, Frazier adores it. Like a lover, his gaze takes in every detail -- Look! her almond eyes! And look! her sweater's hole! -- with equal overspilling enthusiasm. The very idea of Russia has gotten under his skin, and when he actually arrives . . . "No bells or sirens went off as we crossed into Russian airspace. I felt I was in an X-ray machine: a big change had taken place, but silently and invisibly." His explanation of, or rather his explanation of how he cannot explain, his infatuation with this grand, strange country is an emotive tour de force.

The reasons the reader loves Frazier's work are easier to name. For one, there's his irrepressible humor, which arises unexpectedly to provoke outright laughter (on encountering no fewer than five weddings in an afternoon of driving, Frazier notes, "I couldn't tell whether the bridal couples had actually been married on the highway or were just having their receptions there") and displays his credentials as one of our finest comic writers, which he also shows in The New Yorker. For another, there's the way he paints himself winsomely into the corner of the picture; no matter how majestic the scene, there he is down there, winking. For a third, there's his absolute mastery of narrative prose, its rhythmic propulsion and digressive powers. There is little he is not interested in, and little he does not cover (Russian literary history, lunch, purges, landscape, the Revolution, economics, fishing, ballet, the tsars). He is the tour guide who talks your ear off, but who fascinates anyway.

Indeed, when was the last time you heard someone get at the essence of a place just by examining its smell? Frazier made the country more real for me than a whole stack of Kodachrome postcards (or even the author's own pencil drawings, sweet though these are) in describing the Russian national smell as made up of sour milk, diesel, cucumber peel, and several other disparate items. Then there are colors (lots of cement-gray, apparently, and manmade chemical tones), flavors -- berries and mushrooms -- and, overwhelmingly, people's faces, bodies, clothes. This is a book made of textures.

There are some standouts in a work that seems to be all standout (except for some passages of history you may feel guilty for thinking a tad boring, wishing he'd get back to the broken-down-van ride across nine thousand miles, which is the true heart of these pages). One of them is his description of the epic swarms of mosquitoes:

With such astronomical numbers, Siberian mosquitoes have learned to diversify. There are the majority, of course, who just bite you anywhere. Those are your general practitioner mosquitoes, or GPs. Then you have your specialists -- your eye, ear, nose, and throat mosquitoes.

Another is . . . well, just about every vignette of a chance meeting -- and that is all he had, months' worth of daily chance meetings -- with Siberians (also Russians and other foreigners): ". . . the usual Russian Miss Universes, some in really unseasonal outfits, went step-stepping along." He picks only the telling details, lines them up just right, and zing: a comic masterpiece in miniature. Then he repeats the success again and again.

Not that it's all funny. Frazier has a refined taste for the melancholic, too, and Siberia is the station to fill your tank full of that. Lonely roads through lonelier expanses, the long history of breathtaking cruelties, the sense that there is so much space and very few people to care about it; mostly, though, the feeling that in this insular place, so many lives have been launched, ended, then forgotten that it seems saturated with a true existential hopelessness that is somehow heartening in its grandeur: "the blankness of eternity."

This is only nominally a travel book; really, it is a valentine. Although he still did not succeed in making me want to go -- even the most aching love poem does not make you desire the exact subject of its lines, just one of your own -- I am glad. For the real Siberia might pale next to the enrapturing lands seen through the eyes of the lovesick, and genius, Ian Frazier.

--Melissa Holbrook Pierson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374278724
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/12/2010
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ian Frazier is the author of Great Plains, On the Rez, Lamentations of the Father and Coyote V. Acme, among other works, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He graduated from Harvard University. A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

PART I

Chapter 1

Officially, there is no such place as Siberia. No political or territorial entity has Siberia as its name. In atlases, the word “Siberia” hovers across the northern third of Asia unconnected to any place in particular, as if designating a zone or a condition; it seems to show through like a watermark on the page. During Soviet times, revised maps erased the name entirely, in order to discourage Siberian regionalism. Despite this invisibility, one can assume that Siberia’s traditional status as a threat did not improve.

A tiny fraction of the world’s population lives in Siberia. About thirty-nine million Russians and native peoples inhabit that northern third of Asia. By contrast, the state of New Jersey, where I live, has about a fifth as many people on about .0015 as much land. For most people, Siberia is not the place itself but a figure of speech. In fashionable restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, Siberia is the section of less-desirable tables given to customers whom the maître d’ does not especially like. In one of the most important places to be seen having lunch in midtown Manhattan, Siberia is the tables next to the ketchup room, where the condiments are stored.

Newspaper gossip columns take the word even more metaphorically. When an author writes a book about a Park Avenue apartment building, and the book offends some of the residents, and a neighbor who happens to be a friend of the author offers to throw him a book party in her apartment, and the people in the Park Avenue building hear about this plan, the party giver is risking “social Siberia,” one of them warns.

In this respect (as in many others) Siberia and America are alike. Apart from their actual, physical selves, both exist as constructs, expressions of the mind. Once when I was in western Russia, a bottler of mineral water was showing my two Russian companions and me around his new dacha outside the city of Vologda. The time was late evening; darkness had fallen. The mineral-water bottler led us from room to room, throwing on all the lights and pointing out the amenities. When we got to the kitchen, he flipped the switch but the light did not go on. This seemed to upset him. He fooled with the switch, then hurried off and came back with a stepladder. Mounting it, he removed the glass globe from the overhead light and unscrewed the bulb. He climbed down, put globe and bulb on the counter, took a fresh bulb, and ascended again. He reached up and screwed the new bulb into the socket. After a few twists, the light came on. He turned to us and spread his arms wide, indicating the beams brightly filling the room. “Ahhh,” he said triumphantly, “Amerika!”

Nobody has ever formally laid out the boundaries of the actual, physical Siberia. Rather, they were established by custom and accepted by general agreement. Siberia is, of course, huge. Three-fourths of Russia today is Siberia. Siberia takes up one-twelfth of all the land on earth. The United States from Maine to California stretches across four time zones; in Siberia there are eight. The contiguous United States plus most of Europe could fit inside it. Across the middle of Siberia, latitudinally for thirty-six hundred miles, runs the Russian taiga, the largest forest in the world.

The Ural Mountains, which cross Russia from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan, are the western edge of Siberia. The Urals also separate Europe from Asia. As a mountain range with the big job of dividing two continents, the Urals aren’t much. It is possible to drive over them, as I have done, and not know. In central Russia, the summits of the Urals average between one thousand and two thousand feet. But after you cross the Urals, the land opens out, the villages are farther apart, the concrete bus shelters along the highway become fewer, and suddenly you realize you’re in Siberia.

To the east, about three thousand miles beyond the Urals, Siberia ends at the Pacific Ocean, in the form of the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Bering Sea. Since Soviet times, Russians have called this part of Siberia the Russian Far East.

The Arctic Ocean borders Siberia on the north. West to east, its seas are the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, and the East Siberian Sea. For most of the year (though less consistently than before) this line is obscured under ice. The land here for as much as 250 miles in from the sea is tundra—a treeless, mossy bog for a couple of months of summer, a white near-wasteland otherwise.

In the south, Siberia technically ends at the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China, although Siberian watersheds and landforms continue on into them. This region is mostly steppe. The steppes of Siberia are part of the great Eurasian steppe, which extends from almost the Pacific westward as far as the Danube. For more than two thousand years, the Eurasian steppe produced nomadic barbarians who descended upon and destroyed cultivated places beyond the steppe’s margins. The steppes were why China built the Great Wall. Out of the steppes in the thirteenth century came Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes, civilization’s then worst nightmare, the wicked stepfathers of the Russian state and of its tsars and commissars.

Sakhalin Island, which almost touches the Russian coast north of Japan, is considered part of Siberia. The island was a prison colony during tsarist times. Six hundred miles northeast of Sakhalin, the peninsula of Kamchatka descends from the Siberian mainland, dividing the Sea of Okhotsk from the Bering Sea. Kamchatka lies within the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire and has active volcanoes. Kamchatka’s Klyuchevskaya volcano, at 15,580 feet, is the highest point in Siberia. Among Russians, Kamchatka has served as a shorthand term for remoteness. Boris Pasternak’s memoir, Safe Conduct, says that for Russian schoolchildren the far back of the class where the worst students sat was called Kamchatka. When the teacher had not yet heard the correct answer, he would cry to the back bench, as a last resort, “To the rescue, Kamchatka!”

Coincidentally, Kamchatka was the first geographic fact that many people my age in America knew about Siberia. I am of the baby-boom generation, who grew up during the Cold War. In our childhood, a new board game came out called Risk, which was played on a map representing the world. The object of Risk was to multiply your own armies, move them from one global region to the next while eliminating the armies of your opponents, and eventually take over the world. This required luck, ruthlessness, and intercontinental strategizing, Cold War–style. The armies were little plastic counters colored red, blue, yellow, brown, black, and green. Of the major global powers, you basically understood which color was supposed to stand for whom. The Kamchatka Peninsula controlled the only crossing of the game board’s narrow sea between Asia and North America, so gaining Kamchatka was key.

Risk didn’t openly mention the world politics of the day—the Soviet Union’s name wasn’t even on the board, just regions called Yakutsk, Ural, Ukraine, etc.—so the struggle with the dark forces was only implied. But that mysteriousness was very James Bond–like and thrilling, too. Among my friends in my hometown of Hudson, Ohio, Risk had a period of great popularity, completely eclipsing the previous favorite, Monopoly, and its old capitalist-against-capitalist theme.

Some of our Risk games went on for days. A favorite story among us was of an all-day game one September just before school started for the year. One of the players had not reenrolled in college for the fall and thus had become eligible for the military draft. A few weeks before, he had received his draft notice, and in fact he was supposed to show up for his induction physical that very day. Our friend played along with the rest of us, conquering countries and drinking beer without a care. In those years, being drafted meant you were going to Vietnam, almost for sure, and not showing up for your induction physical, it went without saying, was a crime. We kept suggesting to our friend that maybe he should get busy—call the draft board, at least, do something about the situation. Late in the afternoon a call came from his father, a prominent lawyer in Akron, with the news that our friend’s draft deferment had been approved. To cheering and amazement he hung up the phone, opened another beer, and returned to the game.

On the Risk game board, the lines between regions and around continents were angular and schematic, after the manner of familiar Cold War maps having to do with nuclear war. On the walls at think-tank strategy sessions and as illustrations for sobering magazine articles, these maps showed the arcs of nuclear missiles spanning the globe—theirs heading for us, ours heading for them. Almost all the missile arcs went over Siberia. In the Cold War, Siberia provided the “cold”; Siberia was the blankness in between, the space through which apocalypse flew.

In the best and funniest of all Cold War movies, Doctor Strangelove, the arc of the nuclear bomber sent to attack Russia by the deranged General Jack D. Ripper crosses the war map at the Pentagon slowly, inch by inch, while frantic officials argue what to do. Then we see the plane’s pilot, Slim Pickens, in a cowboy hat, and his brave crew. Then there’s an exterior shot of the B-52 flying low to elude the Russian radar. Below the plane, practically at its wing tips, rise the tops of skinny pine trees. Then clearings open up, all covered with snow. Then more pines. This can only be Siberia. Suspensefully, the sound track plays “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” As a kid I knew the scenery was probably just stock footage, not really Siberia. Still, it seemed romantic to me—so far away and white and pure. I watched the scenery more closely than the plane.

Cold War movies with happy endings showed the bomber or missile flight paths on the Big Board making U-turns and heading back home or out to sea. Doom had been averted, as the generals threw their caps in the air and shouted for joy. In a sense, that ending actually did occur. The United States and Russia are no longer aiming so many missiles at each other, and you almost never see those maps with dozens of missile arcs on them anymore. The apocalyptic tracks in the sky over Siberia have gone from being hypothetical to being practically nonexistent. Today, Siberia is an old battlefield in which the battle it is known for never took place; the big worries have moved elsewhere.

As a landmass, Siberia got some bad breaks geographically. The main rivers of Siberia are (west to east) the Ob, the Yenisei, the Lena, and the Amur. I have seen each of these, and though the Mississippi may be mighty, they can make it look small. The fact that these rivers’ tributary systems interlock allowed adventurers in the seventeenth century to go by river from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with only five portages. Seeking furs, these men had crossed all Siberia in less than a hundred years, and built fortresses and founded cities along the way. In western Siberia, there are cities more than four hundred years old. Siberia’s rivers still serve as important north–south avenues for barge traffic, and in the winter as ice highways for trucks.

The problem with Siberia’s big rivers is the direction they flow. Most of Siberia’s rivers go north or join others that do, and their waters end up in the Arctic Ocean. Even the Amur, whose general inclination is to the northeast and whose destination is the Pacific, empties into the stormy Sea of Okhotsk. In the spring, north-flowing rivers thaw upstream while they’re still frozen at their mouths. This causes them to back up. This creates swamps. Western Siberia has the largest swamps in the world. In much of Siberia, the land doesn’t do much of anything besides gradually sag northward to the Arctic. The rivers of western Siberia flow so slowly that they hardly seem to move at all. There, the rivers run muddy; in eastern Siberia, with its real mountains and sharper drop to the Pacific, many of the rivers run clear.

In general, then, much of Siberia drains poorly and is quite swampy. Of the mosquitoes, flies, and invisible biting insects I will say more later. They are a whole other story.

Another bad geographic break is Siberia’s continentality. The land simply stretches on and on; eventually you feel you’re in the farthest, extra, out-of-sight section of the parking lot, where no one in the history of civilization has ever bothered to go. Only on the sea can you travel as far and still be in apparently the same place. The deeper into Siberia, the farther from the mitigating effect of temperate oceans, the harsher the climate’s extremes become. Summers in the middle of Siberia are hot, sometimes dry and dusty, sometimes hazy with smoke from taiga fires. In the winters, temperatures drop to the lowest on the planet outside Antarctica. In the city of Verkhoyansk, in northeast-central Siberia, the cold reaches about -90°. When I mentioned this frequently noted Siberian fact to my friends and guides in St. Petersburg, they scoffed, as Russians tend to do. Then they said they knew of someplace in Siberia even colder.

Because of the cold, a lot of central Siberia and most of the east lie under permafrost—ground permanently frozen, sometimes to more than three thousand feet down. Permafrost also covers all the tundra region. Agriculture on any large scale is impossible in the permafrost zone, though in more forgiving parts of it people have kitchen gardens, and greenhouse farming occasionally succeeds. Much of Siberia’s taiga rests on permafrost, implying a shaky future for the forest if the permafrost melts, and a shakier one, scientists say, for the earth’s atmospheric chemistry. Huge amounts of climate-changing methane would be released into the air.

Cities and villages in the permafrost zone must have basic necessities brought in. Fuel comes in steel barrels that are about three feet high and hold fifty-three gallons. Around settled places these empty barrels are everywhere, sometimes littering the bare tundra surreally as far as you can see. In 1997, the Los Angeles Times estimated that in Chukotka, the part of farthest Siberia just across from Alaska, the Soviets had left behind about two million barrels, or about sixteen barrels for each person living there. Fewer people, and probably more barrels, are in Chukotka today.

What, then, is good about Siberia?

Its natural resources, though hard to get at, are amazing. Its coal reserves, centered in the Kuznetsk Basin mining region in south-central Siberia, are some of the largest in the world. The Kuznetsk Basin is also rich in iron ore, a combination that made this region Russia’s armory. Siberia has minerals like cobalt, zinc, copper, lead, tin, and mercury in great abundance; in Norilsk, the second-largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle, the Soviets dug the world’s largest nickel mine. The diamond mines at Mirny, near the Vilyui River, are second only to South Africa’s. Siberia has supplied the Russian treasury with silver and gold since tsarist times; during the 1930s, the Kolyma region of eastern Siberia produced, by means of the cruelest mines in history, about half the gold then being mined in the world. Russia has some of the world’s largest reserves of petroleum and natural gas. A lot of those reserves are in Siberia.

Along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway, trains of oil tank cars extend across the landscape for miles. Each tank car, black and tarry-looking, with faded white markings, resembles the one that follows it; slowly rolling past a grade crossing of the Trans-Siberian Railway, a trainload of these cars defines monotony. The Trans-Siberian Railway covers 9,288 kilometers between Moscow and the Pacific port of Vladivostok, or 5,771 miles. In other words, if it were twenty-one miles longer, it would be exactly twice as long as Interstate 80 from New Jersey to California. Lying awake near the tracks in some remote spot, you hear trains going by all through the night with scarcely a pause. Sitting beside the tracks and observing the point in the distance where they and the cables above them merge—the Trans-Siberian Railway is all-electric, with overhead cables like a streetcar line—you find that the tracks are empty of traffic only for five or ten minutes at a time.

Besides oil, the railway carries coal, machinery parts, giant tires, scrap iron, and endless containers saying HANJIN or SEA-LAND or MAERSK on their sides, just like the containers stacked five stories high around the Port of Newark, New Jersey, and probably every other port in the world. Now and then a passenger train goes by, and if the time is summer and the weather, as usual, hot, many shirtless passengers are hanging from the open windows with the curtains flapping beside them. Not even the most luxurious car on the Trans-Siberian Railway offers air-conditioning. Then more freight comes along, sometimes timber by the trainload. Siberian timber can be three or four feet in diameter, a size only rarely seen on logging trucks in America today. Some of these trees are called korabel’nie sosni—literally, “caravel pines,” trees from which ships’ masts were made.

American companies have tried to put together deals to harvest Siberian timber, but as a rule the deals go wrong. Executives of these companies eventually give up in disgust at Russian business practices, particularly the corruption and bribery. In one story—hearsay, only—a major timber company of the American Northwest withdrew from negotiations after its representative in Siberia was taken up in a helicopter, ostensibly to look at some trees, and then was dangled from the door until he agreed to a contract disadvantageous to his company. He agreed, landed safely, and advised his company to get out of Siberia. Some environmentalists say that Russian corruption is the Siberian forests’ true preserver and best friend.

Geologists have always liked Siberia, especially its eastern part, where a lot is going on with the earth. Well into eastern Siberia—to a north– south range of mountains roughly paralleling the Lena River Valley— you are still in North America, tectonically speaking. The North American Plate, sliding westward, meets the Eurasian Plate there, while to the south, the Amursky and the Okhotsky plates complicate the collision by inserting themselves from that direction. All this plate motion causes seismic activity and an influx of seismologists. Eastern Siberia is among the most important places for seismic studies in the world. Farther west, Siberia offers other remarkable geology, in a formation called the Siberian Traps. These are outpourings of volcanic rock that covered a huge portion of present central Siberia 245 million years ago, in an event that is believed to have caused the massive die-off of predinosaur species known as the Permian extinction.

Paleontologists come to Siberia not for dinosaur fossils, which are not found nearly as often as in the Mongolian steppes to the south, but for more recent fossils of prehistoric bison, mammoths, rhinos, and other species that lived ten thousand to fifteen thousand years ago. The Siberian mammoth finds alone have been a bonanza, some of them not fossils but the actual creatures themselves, still frozen and almost intact, or mummified in frozen sediments. A museum in Yakutsk displays the fossilized contents of a fossilized mammoth stomach, in cross section, beside a whole preserved mammoth leg with its long, druidical hair still hanging down. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, discoveries of mammoth remains were so common that for a while mammoth ivory became a major export of Siberia.

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First Chapter

Travels in Siberia


By Ian Frazier

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Ian Frazier
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374278724

PART IThis page intentionally left blank
Chapter 1
Officially, there is no such place as Siberia. No political or territorial entity has Siberia as its name. In atlases, the word “Siberia” hovers across the northern third of Asia unconnected to any place in particular, as if designating a zone or a condition; it seems to show through like a watermark on the page. During Soviet times, revised maps erased the name entirely, in order to discourage Siberian regionalism. Despite this invisibility, one can assume that Siberia’s traditional status as a threat did not improve.
A tiny fraction of the world’s population lives in Siberia. About thirty-nine million Russians and native peoples inhabit that northern third of Asia. By contrast, the state of New Jersey, where I live, has about a fifth as many people on about .0015 as much land. For most people, Siberia is not the place itself but a figure of speech. In fashionable restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, Siberia is the section of less-desirable tables given to customers whom the maître d’ does not especially like. In one of the most important places to be seen having lunch in midtown Manhattan, Siberia is the tables next to the ketchup room, where the condiments are stored.
Newspaper gossip columns take the word even more metaphorically. When an author writes a book about a Park Avenue apartment building, and the book offends some of the residents, and a neighbor who happens to be a friend of the author offers to throw him a book party in her apartment, and the people in the Park Avenue building hear about this plan, the party giver is risking “social Siberia,” one of them warns.
In this respect (as in many others) Siberia and America are alike. Apart from their actual, physical selves, both exist as constructs, expressions of the mind. Once when I was in western Russia, a bottler of mineral water was showing my two Russian companions and me around his new dacha outside the city of Vologda. The time was late evening; darkness had fallen. The mineral-water bottler led us from room to room, throwing on all the lights and pointing out the amenities. When we got to the kitchen, he flipped the switch but the light did not go on. This seemed to upset him. He fooled with the switch, then hurried off and came back with a stepladder. Mounting it, he removed the glass globe from the overhead light and unscrewed the bulb. He climbed down, put globe and bulb on the counter, took a fresh bulb, and ascended again. He reached up and screwed the new bulb into the socket. After a few twists, the light came on. He turned to us and spread his arms wide, indicating the beams brightly filling the room. “Ahhh,” he said triumphantly, “Amerika!”
Nobody has ever formally laid out the boundaries of the actual, physical Siberia. Rather, they were established by custom and accepted by general agreement. Siberia is, of course, huge. Three-fourths of Russia today is Siberia. Siberia takes up one-twelfth of all the land on earth. The United States from Maine to California stretches across four time zones; in Siberia there are eight. The contiguous United States plus most of Europe could fit inside it. Across the middle of Siberia, latitudinally for thirty-six hundred miles, runs the Russian taiga, the largest forest in the world.
The Ural Mountains, which cross Russia from the Arctic Ocean to Kazakhstan, are the western edge of Siberia. The Urals also separate Europe from Asia. As a mountain range with the big job of dividing two continents, the Urals aren’t much. It is possible to drive over them, as I have done, and not know. In central Russia, the summits of the Urals average between one thousand and two thousand feet. But after you cross the Urals, the land opens out, the villages are farther apart, the concrete bus shelters along the highway become fewer, and suddenly you realize you’re in Siberia.
To the east, about three thousand miles beyond the Urals, Siberia ends at the Pacific Ocean, in the form of the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Bering Sea. Since Soviet times, Russians have called this part of Siberia the Russian Far East.
The Arctic Ocean borders Siberia on the north. West to east, its seas are the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea, and the East Siberian Sea. For most of the year (though less consistently than before) this line is obscured under ice. The land here for as much as 250 miles in from the sea is tundra—a treeless, mossy bog for a couple of months of summer, a white near-wasteland otherwise.
In the south, Siberia technically ends at the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China, although Siberian watersheds and landforms continue on into them. This region is mostly steppe. The steppes of Siberia are part of the great Eurasian steppe, which extends from almost the Pacific westward as far as the Danube. For more than two thousand years, the Eurasian steppe produced nomadic barbarians who descended upon and destroyed cultivated places beyond the steppe’s margins. The steppes were why China built the Great Wall. Out of the steppes in the thirteenth century came Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes, civilization’s then worst nightmare, the wicked stepfathers of the Russian state and of its tsars and commissars.
Sakhalin Island, which almost touches the Russian coast north of Japan, is considered part of Siberia. The island was a prison colony during tsarist times. Six hundred miles northeast of Sakhalin, the peninsula of Kamchatka descends from the Siberian mainland, dividing the Sea of Okhotsk from the Bering Sea. Kamchatka lies within the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire and has active volcanoes. Kamchatka’s Klyuchevskaya volcano, at 15,580 feet, is the highest point in Siberia. Among Russians, Kamchatka has served as a shorthand term for remoteness. Boris Pasternak’s memoir, Safe Conduct, says that for Russian schoolchildren the far back of the class where the worst students sat was called Kamchatka. When the teacher had not yet heard the correct answer, he would cry to the back bench, as a last resort, “To the rescue, Kamchatka!”
Coincidentally, Kamchatka was the first geographic fact that many people my age in America knew about Siberia. I am of the baby-boom generation, who grew up during the Cold War. In our childhood, a new board game came out called Risk, which was played on a map representing the world. The object of Risk was to multiply your own armies, move them from one global region to the next while eliminating the armies of your opponents, and eventually take over the world. This required luck, ruthlessness, and intercontinental strategizing, Cold War–style. The armies were little plastic counters colored red, blue, yellow, brown, black, and green. Of the major global powers, you basically understood which color was supposed to stand for whom. The Kamchatka Peninsula controlled the only crossing of the game board’s narrow sea between Asia and North America, so gaining Kamchatka was key.
Risk didn’t openly mention the world politics of the day—the Soviet Union’s name wasn’t even on the board, just regions called Yakutsk, Ural, Ukraine, etc.—so the struggle with the dark forces was only implied. But that mysteriousness was very James Bond–like and thrilling, too. Among my friends in my hometown of Hudson, Ohio, Risk had a period of great popularity, completely eclipsing the previous favorite, Monopoly, and its old capitalist-against-capitalist theme.
Some of our Risk games went on for days. A favorite story among us was of an all-day game one September just before school started for the year. One of the players had not reenrolled in college for the fall and thus had become eligible for the military draft. A few weeks before, he had received his draft notice, and in fact he was supposed to show up for his induction physical that very day. Our friend played along with the rest of us, conquering countries and drinking beer without a care. In those years, being drafted meant you were going to Vietnam, almost for sure, and not showing up for your induction physical, it went without saying, was a crime. We kept suggesting to our friend that maybe he should get busy—call the draft board, at least, do something about the situation. Late in the afternoon a call came from his father, a prominent lawyer in Akron, with the news that our friend’s draft deferment had been approved. To cheering and amazement he hung up the phone, opened another beer, and returned to the game.
On the Risk game board, the lines between regions and around continents were angular and schematic, after the manner of familiar Cold War maps having to do with nuclear war. On the walls at think-tank strategy sessions and as illustrations for sobering magazine articles, these maps showed the arcs of nuclear missiles spanning the globe—theirs heading for us, ours heading for them. Almost all the missile arcs went over Siberia. In the Cold War, Siberia provided the “cold”; Siberia was the blankness in between, the space through which apocalypse flew.
In the best and funniest of all Cold War movies, Doctor Strangelove, the arc of the nuclear bomber sent to attack Russia by the deranged General Jack D. Ripper crosses the war map at the Pentagon slowly, inch by inch, while frantic officials argue what to do. Then we see the plane’s pilot, Slim Pickens, in a cowboy hat, and his brave crew. Then there’s an exterior shot of the B-52 flying low to elude the Russian radar. Below the plane, practically at its wing tips, rise the tops of skinny pine trees. Then clearings open up, all covered with snow. Then more pines. This can only be Siberia. Suspensefully, the sound track plays “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” As a kid I knew the scenery was probably just stock footage, not really Siberia. Still, it seemed romantic to me—so far away and white and pure. I watched the scenery more closely than the plane.
Cold War movies with happy endings showed the bomber or missile flight paths on the Big Board making U-turns and heading back home or out to sea. Doom had been averted, as the generals threw their caps in the air and shouted for joy. In a sense, that ending actually did occur. The United States and Russia are no longer aiming so many missiles at each other, and you almost never see those maps with dozens of missile arcs on them anymore. The apocalyptic tracks in the sky over Siberia have gone from being hypothetical to being practically nonexistent. Today, Siberia is an old battlefield in which the battle it is known for never took place; the big worries have moved elsewhere.
As a landmass, Siberia got some bad breaks geographically. The main rivers of Siberia are (west to east) the Ob, the Yenisei, the Lena, and the Amur. I have seen each of these, and though the Mississippi may be mighty, they can make it look small. The fact that these rivers’ tributary systems interlock allowed adventurers in the seventeenth century to go by river from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with only five portages. Seeking furs, these men had crossed all Siberia in less than a hundred years, and built fortresses and founded cities along the way. In western Siberia, there are cities more than four hundred years old. Siberia’s rivers still serve as important north–south avenues for barge traffic, and in the winter as ice highways for trucks.
The problem with Siberia’s big rivers is the direction they flow. Most of Siberia’s rivers go north or join others that do, and their waters end up in the Arctic Ocean. Even the Amur, whose general inclination is to the northeast and whose destination is the Pacific, empties into the stormy Sea of Okhotsk. In the spring, north-flowing rivers thaw upstream while they’re still frozen at their mouths. This causes them to back up. This creates swamps. Western Siberia has the largest swamps in the world. In much of Siberia, the land doesn’t do much of anything besides gradually sag northward to the Arctic. The rivers of western Siberia flow so slowly that they hardly seem to move at all. There, the rivers run muddy; in eastern Siberia, with its real mountains and sharper drop to the Pacific, many of the rivers run clear.
In general, then, much of Siberia drains poorly and is quite swampy. Of the mosquitoes, flies, and invisible biting insects I will say more later. They are a whole other story.
Another bad geographic break is Siberia’s continentality. The land simply stretches on and on; eventually you feel you’re in the farthest, extra, out-of-sight section of the parking lot, where no one in the history of civilization has ever bothered to go. Only on the sea can you travel as far and still be in apparently the same place. The deeper into Siberia, the farther from the mitigating effect of temperate oceans, the harsher the climate’s extremes become. Summers in the middle of Siberia are hot, sometimes dry and dusty, sometimes hazy with smoke from taiga fires. In the winters, temperatures drop to the lowest on the planet outside Antarctica. In the city of Verkhoyansk, in northeast-central Siberia, the cold reaches about ?90°. When I mentioned this frequently noted Siberian fact to my friends and guides in St. Petersburg, they scoffed, as Russians tend to do. Then they said they knew of someplace in Siberia even colder.
Because of the cold, a lot of central Siberia and most of the east lie under permafrost—ground permanently frozen, sometimes to more than three thousand feet down. Permafrost also covers all the tundra region. Agriculture on any large scale is impossible in the permafrost zone, though in more forgiving parts of it people have kitchen gardens, and greenhouse farming occasionally succeeds. Much of Siberia’s taiga rests on permafrost, implying a shaky future for the forest if the permafrost melts, and a shakier one, scientists say, for the earth’s atmospheric chemistry. Huge amounts of climate-changing methane would be released into the air.
Cities and villages in the permafrost zone must have basic necessities brought in. Fuel comes in steel barrels that are about three feet high and hold fifty-three gallons. Around settled places these empty barrels are everywhere, sometimes littering the bare tundra surreally as far as you can see. In 1997, the Los Angeles Times estimated that in Chukotka, the part of farthest Siberia just across from Alaska, the Soviets had left behind about two million barrels, or about sixteen barrels for each person living there. Fewer people, and probably more barrels, are in Chukotka today.
What, then, is good about Siberia?
Its natural resources, though hard to get at, are amazing. Its coal reserves, centered in the Kuznetsk Basin mining region in south-central Siberia, are some of the largest in the world. The Kuznetsk Basin is also rich in iron ore, a combination that made this region Russia’s armory. Siberia has minerals like cobalt, zinc, copper, lead, tin, and mercury in great abundance; in Norilsk, the second-largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle, the Soviets dug the world’s largest nickel mine. The diamond mines at Mirny, near the Vilyui River, are second only to South Africa’s. Siberia has supplied the Russian treasury with silver and gold since tsarist times; during the 1930s, the Kolyma region of eastern Siberia produced, by means of the cruelest mines in history, about half the gold then being mined in the world. Russia has some of the world’s largest reserves of petroleum and natural gas. A lot of those reserves are in Siberia.
Along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway, trains of oil tank cars extend across the landscape for miles. Each tank car, black and tarry-looking, with faded white markings, resembles the one that follows it; slowly rolling past a grade crossing of the Trans-Siberian Railway, a trainload of these cars defines monotony. The Trans-Siberian Railway covers 9,288 kilometers between Moscow and the Pacific port of Vladivostok, or 5,771 miles. In other words, if it were twenty-one miles longer, it would be exactly twice as long as Interstate 80 from New Jersey to California. Lying awake near the tracks in some remote spot, you hear trains going by all through the night with scarcely a pause. Sitting beside the tracks and observing the point in the distance where they and the cables above them merge—the Trans-Siberian Railway is all-electric, with overhead cables like a streetcar line—you find that the tracks are empty of traffic only for five or ten minutes at a time.
Besides oil, the railway carries coal, machinery parts, giant tires, scrap iron, and endless containers saying HANJIN or SEA-LAND or MAERSK on their sides, just like the containers stacked five stories high around the Port of Newark, New Jersey, and probably every other port in the world. Now and then a passenger train goes by, and if the time is summer and the weather, as usual, hot, many shirtless passengers are hanging from the open windows with the curtains flapping beside them. Not even the most luxurious car on the Trans-Siberian Railway offers air-conditioning. Then more freight comes along, sometimes timber by the trainload. Siberian timber can be three or four feet in diameter, a size only rarely seen on logging trucks in America today. Some of these trees are called korabel’nie sosni—literally, “caravel pines,” trees from which ships’ masts were made.
American companies have tried to put together deals to harvest Siberian timber, but as a rule the deals go wrong. Executives of these companies eventually give up in disgust at Russian business practices, particularly the corruption and bribery. In one story—hearsay, only—a major timber company of the American Northwest withdrew from negotiations after its representative in Siberia was taken up in a helicopter, ostensibly to look at some trees, and then was dangled from the door until he agreed to a contract disadvantageous to his company. He agreed, landed safely, and advised his company to get out of Siberia. Some environmentalists say that Russian corruption is the Siberian forests’ true preserver and best friend.
Geologists have always liked Siberia, especially its eastern part, where a lot is going on with the earth. Well into eastern Siberia—to a north– south range of mountains roughly paralleling the Lena River Valley— you are still in North America, tectonically speaking. The North American Plate, sliding westward, meets the Eurasian Plate there, while to the south, the Amursky and the Okhotsky plates complicate the collision by inserting themselves from that direction. All this plate motion causes seismic activity and an influx of seismologists. Eastern Siberia is among the most important places for seismic studies in the world. Farther west, Siberia offers other remarkable geology, in a formation called the Siberian Traps. These are outpourings of volcanic rock that covered a huge portion of present central Siberia 245 million years ago, in an event that is believed to have caused the massive die-off of predinosaur species known as the Permian extinction.
Paleontologists come to Siberia not for dinosaur fossils, which are not found nearly as often as in the Mongolian steppes to the south, but for more recent fossils of prehistoric bison, mammoths, rhinos, and other species that lived ten thousand to fifteen thousand years ago. The Siberian mammoth finds alone have been a bonanza, some of them not fossils but the actual creatures themselves, still frozen and almost intact, or mummified in frozen sediments. A museum in Yakutsk displays the fossilized contents of a fossilized mammoth stomach, in cross section, beside a whole preserved mammoth leg with its long, druidical hair still hanging down. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, discoveries of mammoth remains were so common that for a while mammoth ivory became a major export of Siberia.


Continues...

Excerpted from Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier Copyright © 2010 by Ian Frazier. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 12, 2010

    An Incredible Book

    This is one of the most engrossing, enjoyable and fulfilling books I've read in years. I happened to receive an advance copy from a friend who told me he thought it was amazing, and I couldn't agree more. Mr. Frazier spent an enormous amount of time studying the history of Russia, learning the language, and traveling throughout Siberia. What he gives is a combination of his own experience of the country during these trips, his encounters with many fascinating characters, including the two men he drove with on the longest, cross-Siberia trip, as well as the amazing landscape, the rivers, Lake Baikal (the world's deepest and second largest lake), the forests, the swamps, the cold, the mosquitos, and so much more. He integrates these experiences and descriptions with the equally remarkable history of Siberia as the land of exile. He goes deeply into the story of the Decembrists-the soldiers who revolted against Nicholas I in the 1820's and failed, many of them then being exiled to Siberia. He also visits one of Stalin's infamous prison camps, and his description of this is truly moving. Also, the book is just beautifully written. There is so much more to praise, but I'll just close by saying I couldn't recommend a book more highly. It is truly a masterpiece.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Travel Siberia from Home!

    I traveled in Siberia last summer, and I loved it. When I saw this book, I had to read it. Frazier writes with wit and the studies eye of a curious traveler. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves to travel or has a passion for Russia.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 6, 2010

    Reviewing the Barnes & Noble review by Ms. Pierson

    I recently finished "Travels in Siberia" myself. It is truly a great, great book. I just want to encourage anyone considering whether or not to get it to read the B&N review here by Melissa Holbrook Pierson. She has totally captured Frazier's brilliance and why this book is so extraordinary. I really can't add anything to what she said. Just get this book. It will be one of the best reading experiences you will ever have.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    A most enjoyable read

    This is a wonderful book about Siberia, a place you never hear much about, and the author's loveof all things Russian, which comes under a great deal of scrutiny and reflection. The humor is mild ( a rarity, since much travel writing is based on bad experiences, which he modestly plays down). It is a very companionable book, worth savoring.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 7, 2012

    I used Google maps as I read it.

    I looked at some of the locations through the photographs on Google maps. I could not see the actual things that Mr. Frazier described, but it gave me a good visual idea of the cities and villages. My favorite parts were his adventures, mis-adventures and the people he met along the way. I definitely will read again in the future.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2011

    A great learning experience about Siberia.

    I enjoy reading about Russia, and this one didn't let me down. A very knowledeable writer did a great job of expanding my knowledge of a rather esoteric subject. I'll reread it some day just to experience empathy for the victims and awe and wonder about the perpetrators of the gulag.

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  • Posted January 30, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Really well done

    I am pleased with the author's efforts and his mania about Siberia. I too would like to go see it, once the clean restroom shortage is dealt with. I greatly enjoyed the history lessons embedded in the travel story. I look forward to readining more by Ian Frazier.

    PS - I wish it had more photographs. Many more. The author's descriptions made me want to see all the people he encountered.

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