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Monday, Nov. 22, 2010

Ian Frazier’s ‘Travels in Siberia’

American author shares his fascination with Russia

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Siberia, on the vast, frozen eastern climes of Asiatic Russia, is the oldest new frontier on the planet—a place of death marches, gulags and exile, with a history of Mongols, fur traders, czars, peasant uprisings, Eastern Orthodoxy and Communism.

The challenge of comprehending these living inconsistencies has been taken up in Travels in Siberia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Ian Frazier, a Harvard graduate and an itinerant writer for magazines like Playboy and TheNew Yorker, as well as a novelist, whose Great Plains garnered praise for his ability to write a witty history of the American Midwest in a sometimes gentle, sometimes critical voice.

Travels in Siberia
takes this theme to a new level with numerous trips to Russia via Alaska to view, study and live with our distant neighbors to the east. The book begins by pointing out that there really is no such place as Siberia; no political or territorial entity has Siberia as its name; and maps and atlases float the word like a stationary balloon hovering over the northern third of Asia. Frazier is quick to note that the amorphous landmass with the true name is chock full of natural resources in both quality and quantity, including cobalt, zinc, copper, lead, tin, gold, nickel and, of course, furs, which were a staple trade commodity from the time of the first trappers.

Frazier has long been fascinated with Russia and, with it, Siberia, which means “the sleeping land.” His love of this culture was culled from great Russian authors, notably Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, not to mention playwrights Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin. On his first trip to Russia, Frazier was delighted to find that Russian passenger planes were named after these great authors, a sign of affection that Americans may not understand.

A great amount of this book logs Frazier’s travels from his home to Alaska to Moscow and beyond. Frazier includes a passage noting that he was in Russia on Sept. 11, and that Russian people came together with him in his anguish, as he had many friends in the twin towers.

Travels in Siberia
is a travelogue, a history lesson and an appreciation for the rich and ironic culture of Russia, including the steppes, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the Kremlin, Cossacks and ballet dancers. Frazier’s experiences in Russia and with its people serve as a reminder that the United States and Russia were not always Cold War enemies, and that there is truly much in common between our cultures. In time, we may come to realize that we are all explorers in this world.
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