For most Americans, Siberia is a place for the exiled or the condemned, not the holidaymaker. Its land mass encompasses 1/12th of the planet’s surface area and is chock full of natural resources, but remains mysterious and misunderstood.
The prolific American writer Ian Frazier, author of ten books and a regular contributor to the New Yorker, made five trips to Siberia between 1993-2009 and chronicled his adventures in “Travels in Siberia.” His work was recognized as a notable book of the year in the New York Times and made it onto the best books of the year list in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Kansas City Star.
You wrote that in your early 40’s you were “infected with Russia.” Can you describe your motivation for taking these trips to Siberia?
It was a general fascination with the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all of these parts of Russia that were previously inaccessible were suddenly open. I wanted to take advantage of that and I had friends who had come from Russia during the Carter administration and could suddenly go back.
You talked a lot in the book about how beautiful Russian women are and how Americans had this false notion during the Cold War that they were ugly, masculine brutes. You also wrote that John Quincy Adams thought that Russian women were ugly. So did their looks improve or was he just wrong?
I think Adams was wrong. I don’t know what he was seeing but he went out of his way to describe grotesque-looking women. The Marquis de Custine, who I think was a much better observer than Adams, wrote a book that came out in 1840 about his trip and he defined the beauty of Russian women in a way that I think is still applicable. He said it’s a combination of the beauty of Asian women and the Nordic beauty that is very beguiling in the same way that Russia combines East and West. There is something that is very mysterious and beguiling about Russian women.
In 2001, you took a seven-week drive across Russia with two guides, Sergei and Volodya. Tell us about the Renault you drove across the country that kept breaking down.
It was a diesel; it had been a delivery van for dairy products. It was more like a coal-fired vehicle; it felt like a steamboat. It seemed very crude and simple- it kept breaking down, but they kept figuring out how to get it going again, sometimes with parts they found on the road. I think we paid about $4,000 for it. The theory was that we would sell it after the trip. They said I’d get that money back- ha, ha, ha, that never happened. As far as I know, it’s still sitting in somebody’s backyard in the village of Olga on the Pacific Ocean.That’s the village where Volodya met a woman he decided to leave his wife for, correct?
Right. He met a pharmacist while we were passing through there in 2001, and by the time I returned in 2005, he had left his wife in Sochi and moved all the way across the country, to Vladivostok, to be closer to her. So the trip really changed his life. I tried to find him in 2009, but I couldn’t track him down.
The Crazy American who likes seat belts and reindeer meat but not pork fat and vodka…
You wrote “safety is never the Russian’s primary concern” and mentioned that your request to have seat belts put in the Renault was viewed as a bizarre demand. Why do you think Russians have a different attitude towards seat belts and safety in general compared to Americans?
Hard to say. People live really hard and they have total contempt for what we take for granted in terms of safety. If you put your seat belt on people don’t even understand why you would want to do that. My request for seat belts was viewed as a real peculiarity. Maybe it’s just that they have plenty of other problems to worry about- why care about things like seat belts, smoking, drinking, or the rest?
And on the topic of health, Volodya thought that eating pork fat and chasing it with very hot tea was good for you?
He thinks that the tea washes the fat away- melts it. This is pure pork fat, not even like fatty bacon with a streak of meat in it.
But you wrote that you really liked eating reindeer. How does that taste?
The reindeer was some of the freshest meat I’ve ever had. I’ve had elk, different types of deer and game but this was really special.
It doesn’t taste like chicken?
It tastes a bit like elk, very tender and good. It was boiled, too. It almost tasted like pot roast, but better. But food is very uneven in Siberia; you can get some really bad food.
Your long road trip ended on 9/11, and your general impression was that the Russian news media was implying that we deserved it based upon our support for the Afghan mujahedeen?
It was, ‘what did you think was going to happen, you were the ones funding these people when they were fighting us and now look what’s happened.’ But also there was a great deal of sympathy for Americans as people. It was amazing how much sympathy and affection there was for us on a personal level. People would come up to me and tell me how sorry they were about 9/11. There’s still a huge amount of affection for America.
Your first few trips to Siberia were during the summer and you wrote that the bugs were as “inescapable as distance and monotony.” Are they the worst in the world?
Yes, absolutely. We wore gloves; we laced our boots up with our pants tucked inside. We wore beekeeper hats and had mosquito netting. It didn’t help much.
Never go to Achinsk, or linger in a Siberian bathroom…
Staying on the topic of unpleasant travel realities, you also wrote about the appalling condition of Siberian bathrooms and noted that Americans are a bit obsessed with toilets.
People in other parts of the world live in older buildings and are used to dealing with sewage in older ways. We’re just used to cleaner bathrooms. Dirty toilets aren’t just in Russia. But a really disgusting toilet in a place where the temperature never goes above zero, like an outdoor toilet, develops grossness that you can’t imagine. You get a stalactite effect; everything freezes and builds up in a kind of tower of filth. Summer or winter, their toilets are disgusting.
You published a lot of sketches in the book, but you didn’t stick around in a Siberian toilet long enough to sketch one, did you?
God no! You go into it almost with your eyes closed and just hope to come out. Russians consider us squeamish because they’re used to it, but we aren’t.
You wrote in the book “never go to Achinsk.” Was this the ugliest, most polluted city you visited?
I only got close to it, but it looked horrible. We had to roll up the windows; you could smell it from a distance. They make cement and process aluminum. It is the most blighted place I’ve ever seen in my life. It was horrible even before they got that industry. It’s just been a historically awful place. Someone writing in the 19th century wrote that birds couldn’t’ even fly over the place because the toxins killed everything within a 50 miles radius.
You also mention how bad the trash problem is.
For a place that had a socialist ideal, it’s the most every man for himself place I know. There is no concept of the public good. People destroy public spaces very quickly. You go up a hallway in an apartment building, and it’ll be filled with cigarette butts and all sorts of trash. And you can’t put a light bulb in a hallway because people will steal it. So the hallways have to be completely dark. But inside people’s homes, it’s all very nice. The distance between order and chaos is just the distance of your doorsill.
The higher the level of street smarts in a people, the worse the country…
You wrote, “nothing is self evident in Russia.” What did you mean by that?
It’s a place of many layers- anything that’s visible, there’s always something going on behind that. It’s a place of incredible street smarts- people know how to solve problems. But I would say that as a general rule of thumb, the higher the level of street smarts in a people, the worse the country. It’s like everyone’s trying to figure out something for themselves but the country as a whole has been destroyed and abandoned. Some of the nicest towns you can find in America, the people are terrific but they don’t have street smarts.
You revealed in the book that you received a $22,000 advance from The New Yorker for your big road trip. Do you have any idea how much that trip cost you?
I burned through a huge amount of that. The New Yorker published about 25,000 words of the book, out of about 170,000. From the advance money they gave me, I basically broke even.
You studied the language as well. I once traveled across Russia without speaking Russian and it was extremely difficult. Did you find that you needed to learn the language after your first trip there?
A lot of Russians speak English, but out in remote areas of Siberia not many people do. I started studying right after my first trip and then worked on it intermittently all the way through. It’s not a total disadvantage to have crude language skills because it tends to make people feel superior to you, and that’s not bad. I ended up talking to a lot of elementary school teachers, because they were patient in speaking to me.
You learned Russian but were still a victim of Russia’s dual pricing schemes, where foreigners pay more than locals, right? I think you had a Russian friend try to buy you a ticket for a ballet at the Russian price, but it didn’t work?
They have these old lady ticket takers- they can tell the difference between a foreigner and a Russian. I thought I could get past them with a ticket for Russians but they spotted me as a foreigner immediately. The difference in the ticket prices is huge. I think I paid about 10 times the price locals paid. My Russian friends said, ‘oh we’ll buy you the ticket,’ but it didn’t work and it was very embarrassing.
Do you think that your guides, Sergei and Volodya have seen the book?
I think Sergei has, but I haven’t heard from him in some time. I don’t know whether the book insulted him or not. It hasn’t appeared in Russian yet, and I’m not sure about Volodya. I was impressed with their fortitude and ability. They did a great job. Russians have all kinds of problems, but they’re really tough people and very smart. They get underestimated all the time in the West. Napolean underestimated them. Hitler underestimated them.
You noted in the book that Russians consume twice as much alcohol as the amount considered dangerous for your health by the WHO, and men now live to just age 59, on average.
Russia has a lot of problems; alcoholism is certainly one of them. Women’s life spans are 10-12 years longer. You encounter drunks and have to deal with them. I didn’t drink. People saw that as totally crazy. I would tell people I had a stomach ulcer and people would accept that, or I’d sketch, and people respected that too.
Dressing for 40 below…
You worked on this book over a period of 17 years through 5 trips, why did you wait so long to publish it?
The first three trips were in the summer and I knew I had to experience Siberia in the winter and see some prisons there before publishing the book.
What’s it like to be in a bitterly cold place like Yakutsk in the winter?
You need boots with a very good tread because the streets are like polished, hard, deep snow. Russians don’t use salt on the streets. So you could easily fall and hurt yourself. It was sometimes 40 below zero and windy, so I had thermal underwear, snowmobiling overalls, and an L.L. Bean down coat that was so heavy with down you had to cinch it around the middle. But if you’re sitting in a vehicle, and they don’t have heat, you’re going to freeze your ass off anyway. But people there get used to it. I’d see women in high heels, and if you look on the ground, you see the snow is punctured everywhere with little high heel marks, which look like ski pole points.
One of the places you seemed to be very fond of is a town called Veliki Ustyug. Tell us about that place.
Veliki Ustyug at one point was the richest city in Russia during the time when Russia’s main export was fur. It was a sort of clearinghouse for sable and other furs coming out of Russia and Siberia. The place is at a strategic river confluence and there are hundreds of churches in the town and when I was there they had just re-gilded all the onion domes. And it’s on the banks of a river, so it’s very much a vision of what a 17th century Russian fairy tale city looks like. Like a lot of other places in Siberia, there are also lots of beautiful women there.
What could an American see in Siberia on a two-week trip?
On a short trip, you might fly to Moscow, and then connect to Novosibirsk. It’s very representative of Siberia- it’ll give you an idea of what it’s like. There’s a hilarious, huge shopping mall out on the taiga. I was there in the winter and there’s no light. There are millions and millions of stars- that’s the great thing about Siberia. The Trans-Siberian is slow as hell but you can take the train east. To get to Veliki Ustyug, you have to drive; we did it in a two-day drive from St. Petersburg. But that’s not Siberia, that’s still Russia. You can also fly to Siberia on Korean Air from Anchorage. You change in Seoul, but you’re in Vladivostok, which is an amazing place as well.
You wrote that Chekov thought that Krasnoyarsk was the most beautiful city in the world.
He may have said it was the most beautiful in Russia. I thought it was a pretty place and it’s very different from the rest of Russia. It has a more Asiatic feel and you delight in the Pacific atmosphere of it. It reminded me a bit of California.
You also wrote that Blagoveshchensk looks like Palo Alto.
Not Palo Alto today but how I remembered it from when I was a kid. And Vladivostok really is reminiscent of San Francisco. It has hills like San Francisco, it has late-19th century architecture like it, and it has geography like it- it has bays and inlets; it has that same kind of feel.
When Americans think of Siberia, California isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
No. But there’s a part in the book where people were selling watermelons, and I’d never seen so many in my life. This is Siberia- how did that happen? Well, it’s a huge place. People think of it as cold but it can also be very hot.
Near the end of the book you wrote about Russia’s “incomplete grandiosity.” What does that mean?
Russia is like an idea that sounded great but didn’t work out. Communism sounded like it would be a great change from the inequality and cruelty of the czarist years but it didn’t work. They always have an idea of something great over the horizon- we’re like that too. There’s an unfinished quality, and there’s a fantasy or dreamlike quality to the place. They have this huge country and they keep flinging themselves at it- they haven’t mastered it yet, but they keep trying.
Ian Frazier is the author of ten books and writes frequently for The New Yorker. His new novel, “The Cursing Mommies Book of Days,” will be published in October.
Photos by Sigrid Estrada, Dave Seminara and via Flickr: Efenstor, Sashapo, Eva Rinaldi, cramnic, and Robert S. Donovan.