Love in a Cold Climate

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Gueorgui Pinkhassov / MAGNUM

Big is beautiful For travelers, Siberia's vast expanses hold potent allure

Siberia: the very name is an icy susurration of sorrow and snow. Think of a famous Russian writer or revolutionary — Dostoyevsky, Mandelstam, goateed Ulyanov (a.k.a. Lenin, after the Lena River) — and likely he spent time there in exile, hungry, lonely and bound in irons. But Siberia (the word) also "whispers of deepest Asia," Ian Frazier writes in his encyclopedic new Travels in Siberia, a nearly 500-page blizzard of both surprising and unsurprising boreal facts and autobiographical episodes that will freeze even the most stalwart, vodka-fortified of Russophiles in their tracks. Si ("water") and birr ("a wild, unpopulated land"), Frazier tells us, are not Russian but Turkic in origin. Combined in Russian, Sibir ("pure onomatopoeia") first appeared in writing in the 13th century, in the epic The Secret History of the Mongols.

Today, typical visitors to Siberia are neither Golden Hordes (1200s) nor Cossacks like Yermak (1500s) nor imperial ice-breakers like Vitus Bering (1700s) nor anonymous Trans-Siberian engineers (late 1800s, early 1900s), nor "fat" — as one cackling babushka in northeastern Siberia calls him — American writers like Frazier (1993-2009). They tend instead to be adventure tourists or those enamored of Siberia's natural gifts. Geologists, seismologists, paleontologists, astronomers: they poke its coastlines and scour its pelagic plateaus mostly for abundant coal, iron ore, petroleum and natural-gas deposits but also in search of pristine skies and mummified woolly mammoths. Preserved in permafrost, their ivory tusks have been prized since the 19th century but especially since a 1989 global ban on the elephant-ivory trade.

Frazier first traveled to Siberia on a lark, an offshoot of a trip to Moscow in 1993 with artist friends who had fled the Iron Curtain and were returning for the first time since perestroika. The trip left him stricken, in awe, a "sufferer of the dread Russia-love." And dread is the right word when viewing Russia, the "greatest horrible country in the world," through Frazier's irritable eyes. He bumps about Siberia's expanses over the course of 16 years on five separate trips, along every imaginable path (highways, railways, frozen lakes, log bridges, rutted traces of the Sibirskii Trakt, the old Siberian road along which Chinese tea caravans and political outcasts would travel) and to all kinds of locales (ailing Pacific ports, salmon-fishing camps, an abandoned gulag, city and regional museums), in all extremes of weather (Siberia can get very dusty and sweaty).

A married, middle-aged father, Frazier loves Siberia obsessively and spent years learning Russian. His all-encompassing travelogue isn't specifically a work of historical or literary criticism, nor a naturalist's field guide nor trendy culinary ramble, though elements of all are there. He also recounts innumerable past voyages to Siberia, like that of Ohioan George Kennan, who grew up in the same town as some of Frazier's ancestors and whose book Tent Life in Siberia (1870) partly inspired Frazier's own travels. There is humor too. Just outside Neudachino, Frazier throws up a meal of raisin bread overloaded with oily mackerel made by his guide Sergei. The 60-something churl's inept relations with the equally surly Frazier on a very long drive from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok in a bum Renault van give Travels in Siberia a wry levity. It counterbalances joyless visits like those made to homes-in-exile of failed Decembrists and to the Yekaterinberg cellar, now filled in, where the Romanovs were snuffed out. So do the lemon's frequent, unexplainable breakdowns, which make Frazier think of the poet Tyutchev, who claimed that "Russia cannot be understood by the mind" and so "all you can do is believe in her."

At the end of Frazier's tome, you feel like you know everything there is to know about Siberia. Yet you realize you know nothing and must either go yourself or else heed Tyutchev and take Siberia on faith in order to accept what it is: an imponderable vastness beyond even Frazier's monumental scope.