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Travels in Siberia

Forget everything you know about Siberia.

Honestly. Set aside all knowledge of Baikal, the Lena river, Chukotka, the travels of George Kennan, the Trans-Siberian. Forget all of it.

Then pick up this book and revel in Frazier bringing it all back to you. Frazier is the perfect armchair travel companion. He loves Russia with a strange, inexplicable love, one driven by equal parts self-loathing, guilt, awe and fascination. And he has fought against it mightily for over two decades, share his agony in the pages of the New Yorker, and now collected in fullest form in this new book.

The bulk of the book is comprised of an eye-opening van trip east across Siberia, filled with camping, mosquitoes, questionable dietary choices and countless phlegmatic observations that are as insightful as they are entertaining (though he does seem to obsess over much about the beauty of Russian women). In fact, Frazier’s two page observation on the men’s room at the Omsk airport may be some of the funniest, most profound travel writing on Russia ever committed to ink.

Frazier brings an American’s practical sensibility to the insensate pleasures of this ultimate road trip. Thus we hear a lot about roadside trash, airborne filth and we empathize with his mostly vain attempts to persuade his hosts to help him see a prison, to let him linger at a GULAG monument.

But what is best about Frazier’s book is not the recounting of his five forays into and across the length and breadth of Siberia. It is the discursions his adventures allow into all aspects of Russian his- tory and culture. He is particularly fascinated by the Decembrists and by George Kennan’s travels, but he also considers everything from the metaphorical significance of Siberia, to the Mongols, to Russian America, Baikal and the GULAG – and always with a depth and balance that demonstrates he has spent a lot of time researching and thinking about these issues.

“Travel, like much else in life,” Frazier writes, “can be more fun to read about than to do.” And relearning all you ever knew about Siberia – and surely much else you did not – does not get more fun than reading Frazier.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2011