After almost two decades, with the former Soviet Union having gone from scary cold war nemesis to scary turbocapitalist petro-dynasty, it’s remarkable what imaginative magic the word “Siberia” retains. Last week, a friend showed me a text message he’d just received that said if he didn’t cough up a key piece of social gossip, he’d be seated at an upcoming dinner “in a Siberia so remote it would make Moscow seem like Puerto Rico.” (My friend took his chances.) Ian Frazier, at the beginning of his new book, Travels in Siberia, himself mentions the icy metaphor of social exile, a biggie with real estate journalists and Styles section writers. It reminds him also of the Siberia he imagined as a child, no matter how anachronistic that image may now be. It was there in the game of Risk, where plenty of baby-boomer kids learned their geopolitical ins and outs, and in Dr. Strangelove, the countryside that zoomed past Slim Pickens as he skirted the tops of ermine white mountain peaks and frozen pine trees. The cinematic face matched the imagined reality of the Soviet hinterlands: They were vast and unpeopled (or so vast that, whether inhabited or not, they seemed unpeopled) and virtually impossible ever to imagine seeing in person.
When Mr. Frazier first set off for Siberia, the U.S.S.R. had been dissolved for just over a year and the future of the land east of the Urals was uncertain; it was still about as exotic and seemingly unreachable a destination as could be imagined. By 2009, when he took the last of the trips documented in Travels in Siberia, getting there had become an oddly anodyne experience, more a transaction than an adventure: pony up the grand or so for a round-trip ticket from J.F.K. to Novosibirsk, and you can be zipped like any Tom, Dick or Boris by Aeroflot across 22 time zones to a city with a requisite Ikea mall on its outskirts. When Mr. Frazier meets a family friend named Vanya in nearby Akademgorodok, home to a prestigious science campus, all the talk is about how the scientists are being forced out by the gentrifying real estate prices. “As Vanya and I sat and talked, I felt normal. I had never felt just that–normal–in Russia before. I had been making trips to Russia and working on this book since 1993. In those sixteen years I had been to Siberia five times, to western Russia five or six more. Never in all those travels had I felt merely normal.”
To some travel writers, that transition to the merely normal might be an occasion for melancholy of the world-is-growing-smaller kind, but Mr. Frazier is less interested in the easy globalism of that allegory than in an almost 19th-century attraction to the travelogue (he makes a pretty compelling case that the travel story is the Siberian literary genre par excellence and nicely describes the history of travel writing there, a canon that includes more American writers than one might imagine). And as in any good travelogue, there are many simple but somehow profound things you learn about Siberia here, some of which have been previously published in The New Yorker: That Novosibirsk looks like Seattle with Lenin statues. That Russian cottage cheese is yummiest when mixed in with sour cream and is available for sale at roadside stands (though eating too much of it makes you smell like a dirty baby). That seal meat tastes like the beef of a cow fed on salmon. That there are bevies of beautiful women throughout Siberia but perhaps nowhere in greater concentration than in Krasnoyarsk, which would “put even Velikii Ustyug in the shade.” Somehow, you feel much wiser for knowing these things, and happier for knowing that Krasnoyarsk exists.
Mr. Frazier’s road to Krasnoyarsk is a roundabout one. Bedazzled with Siberia on his first trip, a cultural-exchange-type affair to Lake Baikal and environs, he began learning Russian and gobbling large quantities of Kharms and Bulgakov and Zoshchenko, whose deadpan humor seems in places to have inspired Mr. Frazier’s prose. A few years later, Mr. Frazier saw a different part of the country, returning with a little group of Californian tourists on a hop-and-a-jump flight from Nome to the Russian city of Provideniya–just over 225 miles from the Alaskan town (closer, in other words, than Dallas is to Houston). Built by slave labor in the 1930s, Provideniya is nobody’s idea of a fun getaway. By the time Mr. Frazier visits, it’s a bleak, partly abandoned city of collapsed apartment houses. (“Walking around Provideniya one couldn’t escape the notion that it had been destroyed in a war, as I guess it had.”) The Californians gripe about not getting the low-cholesterol diet they were promised and feel ripped off when there are no reindeer to be seen.
NOT DETERRED, THOUGH, is Mr. Frazer, who sets off on more and more arduous journeys. He happily returns from his Provideniya trip emboldened to crisscross the Siberian vastness. Motoring from Petersburg in an absurdly beat-up van, he completes the trip in just under six weeks in 2001. (He reaches the Pacific with his two Russian traveling companions on, as it happens, 9/11.) The endurance-testing drive, equal parts ethnography and road trip, would seem to exhaust the enthusiasm of most travelers for Siberia. Swampy lands and potholed roads make much of the land unnavigable; they camp out amid mountains of garbage and fog clouds of mosquitoes plentiful enough to be capable of suffocating small animals.
But later, Mr. Frazier somehow convinces himself that he hasn’t seen the real Siberia unless he’s visited it in winter. So he plots a return trip: Vladivostok to Yakutsk, in the deep freeze of March. The route takes him via the northern Baikal-Amur Railway and along frozen rivers serving as seasonal highways. Some legs of the trip are jaw-dropping in their remoteness. To get to Yakutsk, which clocks in with an average winter temperature of 42 degrees below zero, from Severobaikalsk, Mr. Frazier takes a 53-hour train-trip detour, followed by eight hours in a for-hire car. But it is worth the trip to see the city, an odd mix of the familiar and the very far from home. When Wendell Wilkie visited Yakutsk in 1942, he said it reminded him of Elkwood, Indiana. Mr. Frazer corrects him by pointing out that Yakutsk has a Wrangler Jeans store, a Benetton and a Gap, and a Baskin-Robbins–a doubtless advantage that Elkwooders would have to drive to Muncie or Kokomo to find.
Nor could Elkwood boast of a proximity to a system of gulags that Mr. Frazier is finally able to examine up close on his winter reise. He investigates an abandoned site on the desolate highway near the native village of Topolinoe, a primitive and forlorn structure off the side of an appropriately primitive and forlorn road. Russia, at least when Mr. Frazier visited, had yet to master the art of dark tourism, the marketing knack for turning sites of atrocities into magnets for motorists. It requires his persistence to track down, for example, the place in Ekaterinburg where Czar Nicholas II and his family were massacred. A monument he sees to the victims of Stalin excites him and attracts his attention, much to the annoyance and embarrassment of his travel-companion guides, who are much more comfortable indulging Mr. Frazier’s fascination for finding the relics of early-19th-century Decembrist exiles than the terrible reminders of their 20th-century counterparts.
We come ultimately to understand better their reticence, thanks to Mr. Frazier’s nimble job in sketching their experiences as well as his own and those of the Siberians he comes to know. Travels in Siberia is an excellent record of a strange and passing landscape, and an even better document of describing the human beings who pass through it. And as a guide to Krasnoyarsk, well, it’s almost impossible to top.
Mr. Banks, the former editor of Bookforum, is a freelance writer in New York.