Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Travels in Siberia

I'm in St. John's Newfoundland, having sailed from Britain, through the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.  I haven't had internet access since Dublin, nine days ago.  In another week, I'll be back more regularly and catch up with everyone's blog.  I'm still posting my travel stories in my other blog.

Ian Frazier, Travels in Siberia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 529 pages including index, bibliography and notes plus eight pages of black and white photos and a few drawings and maps.

I received this book for Christmas as I was planning for my summer trip. I read the first chapter in the winter, but then decided to put it away and read it as I traveled across Russia. It was the perfect companion. I shipped the book (along with a Trans-Siberian Handbook and some medical test strips) to the hotel where I stayed in Beijing. As the train raced across Mongolia and the steppes of Russia, I’d alternate between looking out the window, talking to traveling companions and reading chapters of Frazier’s book. The author is perhaps best known for his book Great Plains, in which he explores a similar geography that runs through the center of the United States and Canada. His earlier subject made him well suited for this survey of Siberia. His insights helped me more thoroughly understand the country through which I was traveling.

Starting a few years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Frazier began to travel to Russia and on to Siberia. His first trips are brief (such as when he travelled across the Bering Straits from Alaska). In 2001, he made an extensive journey across the vastness of the continent, traveling in a used van with two Russian guides. The story of this trip consumes the bulk of the book. He later returns and does another long trip through the central part of Siberia in March (still winter, but late enough there is more sun and the temperatures are not quite as cold). In describing his travels, he tells of the history and geography of the region while weaving in stories from other travelers to this vast, sparsely settled, part of the world. One such traveler, fellow Ohioan George Kennan helped survey a telegraph line across the region. Ironically, this George Kennan shares a name and is distantly related to a better-known American diplomat who worked with the Soviet Union during the early years of the Cold War. The older Kennan was enthralled with Siberia. His first book was a hit and perhaps because he wrote so favorable on his experiences, he was invited back to write a more detailed book. In his latter travels, he saw the brutality of the Czar’s labor camps and lambasted the treatment of prisoners. This caused him to be barred from Russia but also helped give the term “Siberia” another meaning. No longer was it known only as a vast wasteland; it also became a word known for severe punishment. His descriptions upset people. Supposedly Mark Twain, upon attending a lecture given by Kennan, stood up at the end and said (referring to the revolutionaries who were bombing the Czar and targets), if dynamite is the answer, thank God for dynamite. (57)

Frazier tells the history of Siberia starting with the Mongols who, for centuries, dominated Russia by frequently invading and sacking cities east of the Urals. These invaders were ruthless, often killing all the inhabitants of a city. When Russia was finally able to subdue the Islamic Mongolians (they’d later become Buddhists) with equally ruthless practices, it was a consolation prize for Christendom who’d lost the Ottoman Empire to Muslims conquerors. Frazier notes that 911 (which ironically occurred as he completed his first trans-Siberian trip in a van) wasn’t a new war, but a winkle in an older war that he been ongoing for centuries. (335)

Siberia became Russia’s outlet for those who didn’t fit. When Peter the Great attempted to “Europeanize Russia,” reforms which extended to the church, there were those who resisted the reforms (one which reform was to simply how they positioned their fingers when they “crossed themselves” during prayer). Those who hung on to the old ways were called “Old Believers” and many of them ended up as settlers in Siberia, where today there are still villages who, after the struggles with Communism, are re-emerging. Another group who found themselves in Siberia were the “Decemberists,” a mostly nobility led reform movement that attempted to bring Russia out of a feudalistic economy in the 19th Century. As challenges to the Czar’s control became more common, more people were sent to Siberia. Some were “encouraged” to resettle there (where they could live a somewhat normal life), while others were sent to camps. During the Stalin years, the camps became even more notorious. In Frazier’s winter travels in Siberia, he visits one such camp that was closed in the mid-50s, after Stalin’s death. (426-429) Frazier discusses how Stalin as a “monstrosity” has been “soften to resemble that of an ogre in a fairy tale” (431), and he notes Stalin’s popularity among Russians is rising (432).

Frazier concludes the book talking about Siberia’s potential, which is only recently been understood. Europe receives much of its natural gas from Siberia, giving Russia a certain amount of control over Europe that he never knew during the Cold War (447). Today, according to Frazier, the two most likely groups of Americans one will meet in Siberia are oil workers and meteorologists (469).

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Russian history or geography. The book is detailed yet readable and gives a background to the history of a vast but mostly unknown region of the world.


  1. Good summary. Thanks. I've read Frazier's GREAT PLAINS, and I can imagine his fascination with the terrain of Siberia and its history.

  2. Sounds like a perfect book to read on your journey. Good thinking - shipping that ahead.

  3. This is now on the Amazon wish list. It sounds like my kind of reading.


  4. thanks, I've been missing your book reviews! This sounds magical and must be checked out. Hope all is well with you...I have to catch up on your other blog...although I may not be able to comment on it...but I keep trying! Take good care of you and enjoy your journey!

  5. Sounds like a great book to read on your journeys! Lots to learn!