on October 13, 2010
i read two excerpts from this book in the New Yorker Magazine a summer or two ago and couldn't tear myself away. It's such an adventure. If you've ever read one of the great Russian novels or studied world history at all you already have an historical vision filed away in your head and this book brings it all back, richly. The spirit in which Frazier traveled to research this book and because he's written it so well you feel like a fly on his shoulder throughout the journey. i'm so happy the book is finally published, i've been waiting a long time for it. Highly recommended!
on November 12, 2010
I'm going to write my review without biasing myself by reading the others.
I lived and worked in Siberian and the Russian Far East for several years in the 1990s. Frazier has always been one of my favorite authors; he is king of detail. "On the Rez" was a phenomenal book. Missing my second home, Russia, I snatched up Travels in Siberia the instant it became available.
I'm going to start with the limitations of this book:
1. East of Chita and Yakutia, the locals uniformly call their land the "Russian Far East." They do not call it Siberia, any more than people from Idaho or California call their land the Midwest. Just like Americans have the Midwest and the West, the Russians have the corresponding landlocked Siberia and the coastal Far East. It perpetuates Westerners' geographic misnaming of the region.
2. Leaving the history of Siberia's Indigenous peoples out of the book. This is the most egregious oversight of this book, and it's particularly perplexing given Frazier's history researching and writing "On the Rez." Can you imagine an author writing on the history and the experience of the Dakotas without mentioning the Sioux? This book manages to paint Siberia and the Russian Far East as the historic battleground of Russians and the Mongols, without mentioning the couple dozen tribes - of Asian, Turkish, or European descent - that migrated to, lived in, and defined Siberia for centuries before either the Russians or the Mongols arrived. In a few of these regions, Indigenous peoples still outnumber Russians, and it is still common to hear the native languages spoken on the streets or in government offices. Frazier writes about two visits to the Republic of Buryatia without clarifying that Buryatians are Indigenous descendents of the Mongols. He then visits a bit with the Even peoples in Yakutia, but again fails to relate any information about their history, although the book has some history on the Russian colonization of the region.
3. Frazier entered Siberia with the notion that it is All About Gulags; that is a typical American lens/misperception. Siberia is a whole lot of things, and Siberians do not, nor did they ever, think of their land as Prison Land, any more than Californians currently obsess about Japanese internment camps in California. In both places the gulags are a sad and horrible history but they are far from defining the place. If you lived in Siberia for a year and listened to Russian conversation, you would never know there are any prisons there. Another stereotype of Siberia that Frazier failed to question, and ended up just perpetuating.
4. Siberia and the Far East are the very most beautiful (a) in nature and all the wilderness parks, which Frazier never seems to get off the highway to see!; and (b) in private homes, where Russians and other natives fully open their hearts and are your best friends for life. Frazier is more exposed to the (much harsher) "public life" of Russia, the train toilets and the public litter, than to its wonderful private life. Russians often said to me, "I've visited America, and it's boring there." What they often mean is that Russians, and particularly those who live east of the Urals, are a very social, hospitable, warm, fun people who know how to have a good time. Frazier for whatever reason barely gets a peak at this. And he writes about forests, but never really gets a look at how gorgeous they are in Siberia, because he is always sort of on the main drag, pushed on by two hosts from St. Petersburg who only want to drive faster rather than slowing down and actually seeing anything.
That said, this book is wonderfully written, has riveting detail, and has some truly brilliant insights into both the Russian psyche and the land that Frazier visited. Worth reading.
Ian Frazier's Travels In Siberia is a lengthy tome about not just Mr. Frazier's travels in Russia but a history of the country including Genghis Khan, the Decembrists, Stalin, Lenin and everyone in between. The book is extremely well written and you can feel Mr. Frazier's genuine love of the country coming through, but I felt a little shorted by the passages on his actual travels in Siberia. The first thing you think about when you think of Siberia is that it is a cold desolate place, but on his first trip he goes in the summer. While he does rectify this by going back and travelling through Siberia in the winter that trip seems more like an afterthought in the book. On his first trip, he spends much of his time sitting back in the camp his two travelling companions set up in various campgrounds, roadsides, etc. while they go out and experience the towns. It would have felt more like a travel book if Mr. Frazier had joined the two on their excursions into town and written about the locals instead of the many museums he visited. That being said, Mr. Frazier deserves credit for an extremely well written book especially his story of how he ended his first journey through Siberia on 9/11/01 and his resulting trip back to his home in New Jersey. It was quite compelling and the most heartfelt portion of the book.
on March 2, 2011
Not by terror but really really good writing. The discouraging part of this book is that I.F. shows us now and again that he can evoke a place or situation brilliantly. For example at the ballet on page 441: "During the last act when the stage lights were bright and spilling out into the audience, I observed the audience's faces and they all were pointed intently at the stage, each with the devout, rapt, out-of-body expression of somebody watching the enactment of a deeply remembered dream."
But precious little of these evocative prose have to do with his two travels through Siberia. Most of that is just as much of a slog for us as it was for him. And, he is such a whiner. I'm all for honesty in travel writing. There's a place for how bad the toilet situation is, but so much of this book details the uncomfortable beds, the poor food, the ragtag breakdown vehicles, the frightening roads. I.F. worries about everything. It's sort of like Woody Allen complaining for 1000s of miles and hundreds of pages. It's funny for a while but gets old fast.
I enjoyed his initial excursion into NE Siberia from Alaska (though I could have done without his days worth of grousing and complaining and the details of awaiting a flight from Nome), but I think I.F.'s mistake was making the book about Siberia. As much as he likes the idea of it, he's obviously more suited to cities. He seems most enthusiastic when he's telling us about St Petersburg.
One thing I really have to thank him for is making me aware of Langston Hughes's I wonder as I wander. I had no idea that L.H. traveled through Central Asia and across the USSR. LH put up with a lot worse than I.F. did but had a lot more fun and wrote a much more readable book about it. I'm half way through that now and would give it 5 stars.
on December 5, 2010
I truly enjoyed reading this book. I am learning Russian and took my own first trip to the country this year; there is so much to learn and discover about Russia and I appreciated Frazier's interesting, concise and occasionally humorous lessons on the country's history, culture and geography. Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud at several passages - a valued experience during a good read for me!
Nonetheless, as much as I appreciate seeing an author's sense of humor and personality shine through a narrative like this, I found parts of Frazier's discourse to be simply grating and tinged with a familiarly uncomfortable, unmistakable East Coast self-importance. As many times as Frazier may call himself a Midwesterner in the text, his worldview is clearly that of an affluent New Yorker. This is perfectly evidenced by his reference to his guide/trip organizer/translator/mechanic throughout Siberia as his `driver'. It took a native Russian teacher later to point out to him that he should call the talented person who shepherded him (and his expensive fishing rods) across thousands of miles of Siberia his `colleague' instead (also worth pointing out that in addition to this man's guide credentials, he's the head of the robotics lab at St. Petersburg State University, hardly a `driver' qualification).
Frazier goes on to display a latent sexism in a passage about the beauty of post-soviet-era Russian women. He marvels at the `beautiful women walking everywhere' in Krasnoyarsk, recalling a negative Cold War American stereotype of Russian female appearance and questioning its origins. In his quest to figure out how Russian women apparently became beautiful, he examines historical male perceptions of Russian women (including that of John Quincy Adams), questions a Russian male friend and then finally agrees with the theory of an American male economist that compares Russian female beauty to a commodity crop. Not once does he ask Russian female friends about this apparent phenomenon; had he taken this simple and evident approach, he might have heard numerous, more logical explanations, including the simple reason of the sudden availability of Western fashions after the fall of Communism.
In general, and as other reviewers on Amazon have pointed out, Frazier's attitude and approach keeps him tied to a high-way or zipped up in a one-man tent for good portion of his travels. As his Russian `drivers' go into towns and villages in the evening and get to know the local people and culture, letting the flow of the journey lead them to new experiences and friends, the author remains a somewhat hesitant observer. His obstinate request to see a Siberian prison causes an obvious cultural disconnect and tension between himself and the Russian guides; once again baring his East Coast mind-set, he seems to believe that the simple act of paying them to show him a prison should override their evident discomfort with exploring this aspect of Russian history.
On the whole, I liked this book. My repeated bouts of irritation with the author's personality, however, chip two stars off of my rating.
on May 17, 2013
Well-written with humor, honesty, and plenty of history, Travels in Siberia encompasses just about everything that could be said about the region. Frazier shares his various voyages to and within Siberia, including a cross-continental road trip in an often-breaking-van, interspersing his narrative with plenty of Russian history.
During his multiple expeditions, the author meets people from all walks of life, battles the elements, has a love-hate relationship with his guides, wrestles with his own nervousness and anxiety-ridden tendencies, is attacked by swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, explores an abandoned prison, rides in all sorts of vehicles on terrains both monotonous and dangerous, and never manages to fall out of love with Russia.
I greatly enjoyed Fraizer's stories. However, I sometimes felt like his history lessons went on for too long. He delves into Russia's bloody history, going back to the time of Genghis Khan, through the tzars, the Decemberists, commuism and Stalinism, post-communism corruption, and into the future (where he describes the effects of global warming on Siberia's permafrost). I did like the recounting of local legends, but the countless Russians named (with their lives described in [often] unnecessary detail) became exhausting. Although it was easy to get swept up in the personal travelogue, Fraizer's history lessons did not always have the same page-turning draw.
on October 25, 2011
As a speaker of Russian, I found the constant mistakes in Mr. Frazier's Russian appalling. Or rather, not the fact that he made them (he admits that his grasp of the language is somewhat basic), but that Farrar, Strauss and Giroux let them be published. In his enthusiasm for his new language, Mr. Frazier tells us the Russian words for a great number of things, getting half of them wrong. "Go with God" is s'Bogom, not s'Bogum. Slippers are tapochki, not tapichki. Silver dew is serebryanaya rosa, not serebrennaya rosa. Russian swearing is mat, not mat' - the latter means "mother." Orlov does not mean "eagle" - it's the surname derived from "eagle," but an eagle is an oryol. Siberian dumplings are pozy, not pozhe - pozhe means "later." Grybii is a bizarre transliteration of the word for "mushrooms", which would make more sense as griby. These complaints may seem nit-picky, but would a book with the same number of English mistakes be issued by this publisher? Does Farrar, Strauss and Giroux not have any Russian-speaking editors?
As for content, other reviews have covered it quite well: it's part history, part travelogue (a strength, in my opinion - he writes history well); his summertime van trip across Siberia is rather boring and almost made me put the book down entirely; the book exists in a weird masculinized world, where women are only love interests, eye candy, or the good wifey waiting at home with the kids (this is a letdown for me, but may not be for others). I thought his best moments were simple descriptions of sensory experiences, which makes sense if we see this as a book written by someone discovering a new country and culture - his raw impressions shine more than his efforts to make sense of things.
As someone who has travelled to Russia and Siberia somewhat often, I looked forward to reading the adventures of a fellow Russophile, and to learn the various experiences and take aways he had.
The book is a travelogue tracing several different journeys the author took to Russia, during a period of time with dramatic changes. He travels through many different cities, ranging from St. Petersburg to eastern Siberia, and discusses the smells, the scenery (including the ever present piles of trash), the people, and the history.
I found the book most enjoyable when discussing the history of the places he was visiting, and some of the smaller towns throughout his travels. He captures well a sense of the chaos, at least to Western eyes, of some of what goes on in Russia, and at the same time how rich and interesting a history and culture it has.
At times though, it feels like the author is either pushing his internal state to try to make the book more interesting -- fears of food poisoning and accidents and so forth -- or really does have a distracting sense of paranoia for someone who is going off on an adventure. As such, I felt like there were many sections that could have been edited down, and other places where perhaps he should have spent more time exploring. For example, he discusses the prison Dostoevsky was put in during exile, but doesn't take the effort to go see it (it is not particularly hard to find, in a somewhat pleasant square, although of course without any markings)
The book also feels, at times, too much like the author is an outsider looking in, and doesn't fully engage with the people and the country the way i would like from a travel writer.
There are a fair share of amusing stories, and many touching sections (my favorite is on the visit to a Gulag camp), but at the same time, I left the book wanting more -- more depth, more exploration, more about the cities and the people -- and at the same time less of the day to day.
on September 1, 2013
A writer with self-professed "Russia Love", Ian Frazier thoroughly documents (complete with background history and any other vignette he finds interesting) his five trips to Siberia - the last in 2009. Luckily for Frazier, I'm a history and interesting fact lover, and so I didn't mind his literary departures from strict travelogue.
For those who love to travel and love to read books about travel, this is a gem. Especially since I doubt I will ever travel to Siberia. After reading Frazier's book, I honestly don't think I'd ever want to. As a North Dakota native, Siberia reminds me of the uglier step-sister of my state. They look alike - they are both endless expanses of plains (although Siberia does have forests), the "mountains" are really just a few hills, it's filled with mosquitoes in the summertime and it's very, very cold in the winter. The people seem nice in both places, but the culture is so very different. Bribes are commonplace in Russia, and efficiency is non-existent. In fact, Frazier's description of Siberian towns reminds me of walking into the late 20th century with a liberal sprinkling of garbage for decoration.
Like North Dakota, eastern Russia is sitting on some huge natural resources. It's oil deposits make it currently the largest oil producer in the world. The last chapter of Travels in Siberia is a fascinating look at how oil production and Vladimir Putin's nationalizing the companies in this industry have made him and Russia a super economic power. Given that these comments were four years old, I just had to do a little research to see how this has changed in light of America's surge in oil production due to fracking. It seems, not surprisingly, that centralized decision making is going to leave Russia's energy-based economy in the dust. They don't modernize, they don't invest, and as of today, their exports are shrinking by double digit percentages. Frazier's story of Russian negotiating tactics (ie, hanging the company representative upside down out of a flying helicopter to get them to sign an agreement favorable to Russia), leaves to me believe that few outside companies will be willing to help Russia come into the 21st century of oil production. That, and the threat of Putin stealing intellectual and real property. It's no wonder the the United States is predicted to be the leader in oil production within the next four years.
Travels in Siberia is a fascinating book about an area of the world we seldom hear about.
on June 8, 2016
I appreciated the pieces of history and literature mixed into Frazier's travel stories. His writing voice blends just enough humility and authority to make reading his work like having a long chat with an intelligent friend. The way he connects historical events to ordinary, yet outstanding people he admires, people I wouldn't have heard of otherwise, makes his look into the past feel more like a memoir.
Having spent some time in Russia, I smiled reading about the discomforts he endured. Frazier is an honest, personable author with a gift for seeing the details in life we overlook and giving them significance. Whether you're hoping to learn something new about our world or just laugh, I recommend reading Travels in Siberia.