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Ian Frazier’s Siberian Travels

The New Yorker writer travels across vast Siberia to bring back cold tales of the new Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the foothills of Karatash, near Abakan, the capital of the Khakassia region in Siberia, 2010 (AP)

Siberia is so big, it’s almost more an idea than a place. Eight times zones. Desperate winters. Brutal history. Gulags. In Russia even now, says writer Ian Frazier, Siberia is as much a threat as a destination.

Frazier is a celebrated humorist and writer for The New Yorker. He’s written seriously about other big places – Indian reservation country, the Great Plains.

Now he’s taking on Siberia, in all its grand scale and grubby reality. Kamchatcka. Vladivostok. Ikutsk. Yakutsk.

We head to Siberia with New Yorker writer Ian Frazier.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guest:

Ian Frazier, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book “Travels in Siberia.” You can read an excerpt in PDF format here or at Amazon.com.

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  • Sasha Drugikh

    How did Ian communicate with the locals of Yakutia and other regions? Was Russian used as the lingua franca?

  • http://www.russianlife.com Paul Richardson

    Tom:

    Great to hear you covering Russia. It gets too little coverage of “depth” these days. Look forward to the conversation this morning.

    Paul Richardson
    Editor
    Russian Life magazine
    (based in Montpelier, VT)

  • michael

    Could he see Palins house from there?

  • Paul

    I loved Siberia. Mostly flat with a lot of birch trees. All along the route of the Trans-Siberian railroad, seemingly from end to end, I saw farmers decked out in Adidas track suits. I was there for a few weeks in late June one year – the weather was very mild. Irkutsk and Ulan Ude on Lake Baikal were lovely, although Irkutsk was experiencing the early stages of a heroin epidemic.

  • Dustin

    What vehicle did Ian use?

  • Ben

    Palin never said she could see Russia from her house. Are you guys intentionally trying to play into the anti-NPR stereotype or do you just use SNL for your fact checking? ;)

  • Amy Clapp

    In 2005, I was chosen to work with a science researcher for three weeks through a program called Polar TREC that matches teachers and researchers in the Arctic and Antarctic up, and I was chosen to go to Siberia with a scientist who was taking “footprints” of the major rivers that dump into the Arctic Ocean. I spent three weeks in Zhigansk, a small village on the Lena River. It was an amazing three weeks, that I have brought into my classroom ( I teach fifth grade) in myriad of ways. My students Skyped with students in the elementary school in Zhigansk, and those students sang some songs at our spring concert via Skype. The scientist I worked with develop a program called the PARTNERS project also have shared scientific data, we sampled our local river and students in Zhigansk shared their data and we all compared our data to see how our rivers are different and why. More recently we’ve cored trees in Salisbury, VT, where I teach and are waiting for data from Zhigansk and their tree cores, to see if the advanced warming there can be read in the trees. The partnerships have been an amazing way to bring science research into the classroom, create cultural connections, and personalize global climate change. So in a weird way, Siberia has been a great way to open scientific doors for fifth graders in Vermont.

  • LP

    I read Ian Frazier’s Siberia piece in The New Yorker recently. I was struck with the mood of silence surrounding the old labor camp site. Could you say that quietness pervades Siberia?
    Also, Frazier writes that his Russian companion was nervous about his snooping around the camp. What was he nervous about, I wonder? Are there authorities around who would be tracking a foreigner’s foosteps?

  • Galen

    I spent three weeks in western Siberia in August, and it didn’t take long for me to affirm that the myth that Siberia is always cold is woefully inaccurate. I floated the Yenisei River in 80F temps (meaning many mosquitos), and it was probably 90F when I left the Angara River in late August. The biggest surprise to me was the virtual absence of wildlife. I ate canned corned beef (Tushonka), buckwheat, and stale cookies every day for three weeks and lost 15 pounds!

  • http://none David

    Tom!

    Ask Ian about the screaming mommy columns! Please.

    JA

  • g

    Maybe Russians throw garbage everywhere because there IS NO designated place where to put the garbage! There is no garbage removing services along the roads and garbage removing services in the cities are run by – the government and like all government run organizations there, including post offices and hospitals – they are poorly run, inefficient and overran with bureaucracy.

    There are no rest stops along the roads.
    You have to take enough fuel with you to make it to the next place where there is gas.

    My question is, has Ian seen the infrastructure in the cities, like hospitals and other public places. What is his experience with it?
    I am sure he would have gotten better service than Russians.

  • Ann

    Again! Thanks! Enough MORE to learn about JUST by turning on my radio!

  • g

    And btw, there is always authorities tracking foreigner’s steps in Russia. :) If you came for scientific or government business. Not if you’re a mere visitor.

    The guide was nervous probably because ALL Russian’s are superstitious and places that contained a lot of pain and misery and hurt – where people suffered – and are now abandoned, should be left that way. They shouldn’t be disturbed.

  • http://www.holleywatts.com Holley Watts

    After reading an article on Siberia I wrote this:

    Siberia

    Neither shout nor whistle in Siberia
    for it disrupts the rhythm of the land.
    In all that vast frozen desolation
    awe is best expressed
    while looking into another’s eyes
    in elegant and exquisite…silence.

    ©2005 J. Holley Watts

  • http://www.KenLeslie.net Ken Leslie

    Enjoying your Siberian program. I’ve never travelled there, but I have done numerous Arctic art projects–in Alaska, Iqaluit, Iceland, Svalbard and Arctic Norway and Finland. I couldn’t help wanting to respond about what has been said about trash on the landscape and a lack of environmental awareness in Siberia. From what I’ve seen, this is quite similar in northern Alaska and in northern Canada–sofas, appliances and cars dumped everywhere, even on front lawns, on Baffin Island and Kotzebue Alaska. This is not the case in Scandinavia. Just didn’t want to leave it that only Russians missed the environmental boat!

  • Carrie

    Ian: Spirituality! You were on Lake Baikal and say that you did not go to any sacred spaces? OMG. It is the holiest of the holies in Russia. btw: love the comment about Russia as an abused child. I regularly tell friends that the West oppresses other nations, whereas the Russians oppress themselves.

    Carrie
    Pyatigorsk 91-94
    Moscow 95-98
    Many points in between- including Kachetav 95, Samara 96

  • Michael

    Are there any signs of Chinese trying to settle in the Siberian land?

  • Sally Renata

    My best friend was in Siberia, working on homeopathic labs there. She was distraught because all of her dogs seemed to be disappearing. She called hysterical when someone came to her door for help – wearing the hide of one of her dogs as a hat- and she knew

  • Diana Pangonis

    I just wanted to share my fond memories of taking a seven-day journey on the Trans-Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow as an eight-year-old in July 1977. They include the beautiful compartment I shared with my younger sister, having tea with the staff on the train, hearing the soldiers footsteps on top of the train in the middle of the night, the ice along Lake Bakal and the beautiful trees along the way.

    Thanks for bringing those memories back to me!

  • g

    The moss is used for weathering the log cabins.

  • http://none Ilze Choi

    My grandfather was shipped to the Gulag from Latvia. He was sentenced to hard labor and died there. In the 1980′s I heard he was “pardoned”.
    I do not hold hard feelings towards Russian people, however, since my grandfather’s wife, my mother’s mother, was Russian. It was a creation of Totalitarianism not Russians.
    Ilze Choi

  • D

    What do the Siberians think of how Siberia has been portrayed in Western culture? Are they even aware of the stereotype? Specifically, the song, “Siberia” from the movie “Silk Stockings”?

    Thanks for a great program.

  • g

    The majority of the people in the gulag were Russians themselves.
    What Americans don’t realize is that more people were killed in gulag camps than in all of WWII.
    All, by Stalin and his regime.

  • http://www.pbase.com/dimitrisokolenko/siberia&page=2 Ella

    Please check this site for great pictures of Siberia.
    I was born in Surgut( western part of Siberia) and moved out to main land when I was 7 years old.

    It’s amazing place with amazing people leaving there.

    http://www.pbase.com/dimitrisokolenko/siberia&page=2

  • Robin

    My daughter’s best friend and her brother were adopted from Siberia through an American church. The church actually chooses the child/children for the adoptive parents. My daughters friend’s parents adopted her and her brother at 6 monts and 3 years respectively. They flew to Siberia once and came home with a daughter and son and started a family. Many years have passed and I have enjoyed watching the children grow, my daughter’s friend an amazing athlete and student with ice blue eyes and her blue-eyed brother, autistic, but growing into a competent, curious, loving young man. I still remember the description, seared in my memory, of the poverty and the overcrowded orphanage they came from with ratios of 30 to 1 and children who lacked a daily hug and I marvel at my luck in having a connection to kindness that reached so far and brought so much good into out lives.

  • jeffe

    I’d like to ship Glenn Beck to Siberia…

  • http://yahoo John Borneman

    Tom.
    Vitus Bering crossed Siberia from St. Petersburg to the Sea of Okhosst (The Pacific Ocean) from 1725-30, 1733-43.
    His entourage included hios wife, servants, formal dress-ware , silverware and porcelain table service!
    (BERING by Orcutt Frost, Yale University Press. 2003)
    Great Show!

    John Borneman

  • Rebecca

    I really enjoyed listening to this story today. I spent two months on Kamchatka this past summer and loved hearing other people’s stories about their experiences in Siberia. I especially loved the story about the ambulance with the plastic chair bolted to the floor. I can perfectly picture that.

  • Zinovy Vayman

    To Carrie:

    It is a catchy phrase “the West oppresses other people but Russians oppress themselves” but it is utterly wrong.
    Russia was also oppressed by the Germanic cohorts who were running Russia since Peter the Great.
    In a way it was not an oppression but the concerted effort to modernize (read “Germanize” Rus).

    To Ian Frazier:

    Rus did become a vassal of Tataro-Mongols who formed not only a very advanced Muslim state of the Golden Horde on most of the Volga River but also organized a flourishing Crimean Muslim state. Russian ruling monarchs and villagers married Tatars and became a cross between the Turkish and Mongol nomads and the Indo-European Scythians mixed a bit with the Byzantine Greeks and their culture and religion.
    It is difficult to Germanize Russians.

    Many years ago there was another broadcast about Siberia:

    Religion sustained a Siberian family hiding from mankind.
    This review is from: In Siberia (Paperback)
    Haibun for WBUR–90.9 FM, Boston. With Colin Thubron. His book about Siberia.

    My breakfast of dull porridge is accompanied by the radio program CONNECTION with
    Christopher Lydon and invited British author
    Colin Thubron who has written a new book “In Siberia”.
    In Russia we call Siberia [See`beer'].
    As a child I lived in Novosibirsk:

    howling wind
    turning the corner
    I walk backwards

    After half an hour dialog between Chris and Colin callers are allowed live on air.
    A Russian one !
    Andrei talks almost without accent, much better than me and he is much younger too.
    Oops! He makes a blunder. “Semipalatinsk is not in Siberia, Andryusha. It is in Kazakhstan.
    And do not throw the name Dostoyevsky in vain!”
    I am lucky to get through in five minutes.
    Chris Lydon’s screener deals with me and declines to let my truth and accuracy-driven statement to be broadcast. I try to ram it through but he is probably guided by no negativity rules and I change my spiel.
    I suggested to talk about a Siberian family who
    were so successful in hiding from authorities in taiga that they lived there without knowledge that the Great October Socialist Revolution
    or the Second World War took place.
    But when I get on air I talk about a strategic importance of the Jewish Autonomous Region tucked in between Siberian permafrost and Chinese loess. This region is much larger than Israel but almost completely Judenrein.
    Locals are not hostile to Jews.
    Population does not exceed 200,000.
    Agrreable Mr. Thubron approves my ramblings as he did with Andrei.
    I return to my cold breakfast and recall that there was time when the Jewish settlement
    in the region was supposed to be a buffer
    between the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Japanese Army stationed in Manchuria across the great river Amur.
    Seebeer’, Seebeer’…

    straw mattress…
    in my corner of the ceiling
    shiny hoarfrost

  • http://onpointradio.org Denny Kayser

    That first piece of music was beautiful! I’d like to get some information on it.

  • Al Dorman

    @Denny
    “The Great Gate of Kiev” by Modest Mussorgsky, the finale of his ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ set.

  • http://desolationtravel.blogspot.com jane keeler

    I am so thrilled that my friend Joanna – my travel companion to Siberia – was able to make it onto the show. If you’re interested in seeing photographs of the motorcycle ride across the melting ice of Lake Baikal that she discussed, please visit desolationtravel.com/siberia.html !

  • Robert Davis

    While listening to Ian Frazier, he stated that he was unaware of any museums or statues dedicated to gulags in Russia.
    Our son married a Russian woman from the seaport city of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Siberia. During the days preceeding the wedding, my wife and I had the opportunity of meeting many Russian people who helped us explore the region. They took us to a gulag museum and concentration camp where the political and criminal prisoners were interned. Also, there is a large(approx. three to four story high) statue of a Russian head(representing mother Russia) with tears of people streaming down her cheeks. This was an extremely moving portrait of the difficult times these people endured.

  • Pablo

    I absolutely, agree with a point that Carrie made. I also appreciate Ilze Choi’s wisdom to look past national characteristics and into the root of the problems- TOTALITARIAN system. Many people from many nations (and, mostly, Russians), have died in Gulag system. And, though, it’s a huge tragedy, no nation on this planet would love to be constantly reminded of it’s horrific moments. That’s where (I am speculating), guide’s uneasiness to show the place comes from. Would Americans love to see crowds of foreigners visiting slave’s selling spots in the South of the country? Or only have tourists interested in the place, where Hiroshima’s atomic bomb was manufactured? (ignoring, in the process, Grand Canyon, Big Apple, YellowStone N. Park)?
    All nations have their proud and not-so-proud moments. What one chooses to focus on (and what he chooses to ignore)- will tell you where his/her heart is.
    In conclusion, many non-Western countries have problems with trash, health-care system and general infrastracture. When I go to Egypt, for example, I don’t let it ruine my appreciation of the country. If it bothers me, instead of criticizing, I recommend- get involve (donate money, time, efforts- to change the situation). And, be humble in the process. God knows, West nations don’t have it all made, when it comes to the environment (think energy-spent per capita, USA). People that only see rest-stops on a country’s map, deserve my pity.

  • JacFlasche

    “The majority of the people in the gulag were Russians themselves.
    What Americans don’t realize is that more people were killed in gulag camps than in all of WWII.
    All, by Stalin and his regime.*
    Posted by g, on October 22nd, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    Are you ready for your dose of historical irony for the day? (a day gone by) The Gulag consisted of work camps, until Stalins’s deputy in charge of them, Frankel, came up with the brilliant idea that Stalin could stop the firing squads and he could just turn the work camps into death camps, assuring Stalin that he could kill men and women in a few weeks of exposure, beatings, lack of nutrition and brutal physical tasks. Thus Frankel was the first bright-boy to institute concentration camps who’s purpose was the wholesale murder of human beings. The irony? Frankel was a Jew.

  • JacFlasche

    “The majority of the people in the gulag were Russians themselves.
    What Americans don’t realize is that more people were killed in gulag camps than in all of WWII.
    All, by Stalin and his regime.*
    Posted by g, on October 22nd, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    Are you ready for your dose of historical irony for the day? (a day gone by) The Gulag consisted of work camps, until Stalin’s deputy in charge of them, Frankel, came up with the brilliant idea that Stalin could stop the firing squads and he could just turn the work camps into death camps, assuring Stalin that he could kill men and women in a few weeks of exposure, beatings, lack of nutrition and brutal physical tasks. Thus Frankel was the first bright-boy to institute concentration camps who’s purpose was the wholesale murder of human beings. The irony? Frankel was a Jew.

  • http://profiles.google.com/alaina13 Alaina Wermers

    As much as I don’t like her Sarah Palin never said she could she Russia from her house.

    http://newsbusters.org/blogs/brad-wilmouth/2009/11/18/abc-brings-i-can-see-russia-my-backyard-palin-interview

    • Rover704

      I had the very same thought.  I also dislike Sarah Palin but I think its funny that Mr. Frazier attributes that quote to her and makes fun of her for saying it.  So why is Mr. Frazier accepted as a credible author?  It’s amazing to me that people do all this work and never research the material that they write about.

  • Ethanlima

    Has anyone seen “Long Way Around” with the 2 actors riding around on adventure bikes and ride down the road of bones and then go to a local russian’s house and the homeowner shows off his fire arms ……..?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

    Tom made the analogy with Aushwitz, and rightly so, but the judge and jailers sending people to the Gulags were in large part jewish. 

    Its well known and readily accessible information that Stalins secret police (Cheka)were overwhelmingly jewish, or married to jewish women.  Their was clearly a jewish-club phenomenon to the Soviet leadership, which is why Stalin’s atrocities were ignored, but rather he showed up on Time magazine covers 11 times as a great western ally.

     

  • Lnalle

    Sorry, new here. Are there links to the segue music?

  • Dr.P

    Ian is a bit misinformed about Siberia. He stated that the region was ‘totally closed’ to foreigners during the Soviet periood. Not true as my honeymoon in the late 1960s included Irkutsk, Novosibirsk and Lake Baikal.  I also a few years earlier had driven with a friend from Moscow to Rostov-na-Donu in the south crossing into Turkey at Kars. No problems. Yes, military areas and special scientific areas such as Akademgorodok south of Novosibirsk were closed but many cities were open.

    He also knows little about ‘spiritual places’ in Siberia [a caller asked about them]. There are several in Tuva [south of Abakan on the Eneisei River] and more among the ‘malyi liudei’ [minorities] in the Far North.

    He seemed think Russians view Siberia as a single area. No, they don’t: Eastern Siberia [Vladivostok to Khabarovsk] is called the Far East [Dal'nyi Vostok] and Chukotiia is the Far North [Krainyi Sever]. It is true most Russian care little about remote areas in Siberia and almost never travel there but this can be easily explained by the fact that they now for the first time in their lives can easily visit Western Europe and Asia. Why go to Tomsk or Omsk when Paris is at hand?

    He might have mentioned the Siberian minorities some of whom are quite interesting especially the Chukchi who have a wierd sense of humor. By the way it is in Chukotiia where Abramovich made his first billion rubles.

      A most exhilarating trip is top take the bus from Krasnoiarsk south to Abakan: George Kennan made the same trip in 1889 [tho' in a tarantass] and his description in Siberia and the Exile System is still very true: 300 miles of rolling hills, forests as far as the eye can see, some grain fields, few if any villages and absolutely no fences anywhere. It’s quite an experience for a traveller to journey through a land that is so far away from the world in 2011.

  • Dr.P

    He was not ‘pardoned’; he was ‘rehabilitated’ which is somewhat more subtle as any property that was confiscated from your grandfather would not have to be restored. It’s all a total farce to Westerners but the Khrushchev regime which started the rehabilitations (and they have gone on until the 1980s) wanted to make some attempt to atone for Stalin’s crimes.

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