Siberia, Inside Out: A Land Built For Epics

Guy Raz talks with New Yorker writer Ian Frazier about his two-part article on Siberia. Frazier spent 10 years visiting and researching Siberia, and learned Russian along the way. He joins us to talk about the epic journey that led to his article.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Just north of China lies a vast region that's as much metaphor as it is a place: Siberia, one-twelfth of the world's land mass, winters that plunge to 90 below and swamps in the summer that produce walls of mosquitoes. It's a place synonymous with punishment and exile or even a bad table at a fashionable restaurant. But for writer Ian Frazier, it was an adventure.

He trekked across its eight time zones with a rickety van and a couple of Russian guides. He writes: The land simply stretches on and on. Eventually, you feel you're in the farther, extra-out-of-sight section of the parking lot, where no one in the history of civilization has ever bothered to go. Only on the sea can you travel as far and still be in apparently the same place.

Mr. IAN FRAZIER (Writer): You know, you think of Siberia, and it's more a construct of the mind than it is a place on the map, but it is very much a place on the map. It's just not a specific place. No place is called -officially called Siberia. There's no state called Siberia. But it has always existed as this mythical place, and I've always been fascinated with places that are both mythical and real, that you can go to but also have this mythic component.

RAZ: Now, the Russians colonized Siberia centuries ago. They built cities on the frozen tundra in large part to extract, you know, this enormous mineral wealth that exists there: gold, oil, natural gas, coal, diamonds.

I was surprised, though, that the infrastructure they put in place there, and that still remains there, is relatively primitive.

Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah, I mean, it's a tough place to travel, and they really have never figured out how to build railroads through it. I mean, they have the Trans-Siberian, which is an amazing achievement in itself. It's, like, 5,700 miles long from Moscow to Vladivostok.

RAZ: With trains running on it all the time.

Mr. FRAZIER: Just constantly.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. FRAZIER: If you're by it, it's just - you can't even - like, I would walk on into the tracks sometimes to just do a drawing or just to look down the tracks and see what I could see. It was like trying to stand in a highway or something. The trains were coming so fast, and you just - you had to hop off the tracks, so…

RAZ: You'd be in the middle of nowhere.

Mr. FRAZIER: Right.

RAZ: And these trains would just be barreling down the tracks all the time.

Mr. FRAZIER: Right, yeah.

RAZ: You describe spending some time in a village called Chernyshevsk. Am I pronouncing that right?

Mr. FRAZIER: Chernyshevsk? Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: Tell us about your experience there.

Mr. FRAZIER: Well, Chernyshevsk, when I traveled, you had to put your car on the train to get over that section of Siberia because the road just simply was not drivable.

You put your car on this car-carrier train, and it hauls you some 800 or 900 kilometers, and then you take the car off, and you drive, and it was a very poor town. There were a lot of people begging. You couldn't really stand in one place without people swarming on you. And in the middle of the town - which I don't say in this article that's in the New Yorker - there is a statue of Chernyshevsky who was the person who this is named after, this town. And Chernyshevsky wrote this book called "Chto Delat," "What is to be Done?" And it was Lenin's favorite book, Stalin's favorite book, and all revolutionaries read it. It was kind of the book that they all modeled their lives on, and it is the worst book ever written.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAZIER: It is, like, such a horrible book. And so this town, which is kind of a dystopia, is named after this guy who is responsible, kind of, for the Russian Revolution, who was one of the worst writers who ever lived and who suffered dreadfully for his writing, was sent to Siberia and died young as a result. So it's a kind of a complete sweep of, like, every bad thing you could possibly have as a result of a book, so…

RAZ: Talk a little bit about what Siberia means in the sort of the broader Russian consciousness?

Mr. FRAZIER: They think of it, as we think of it, as a threat. And often when I would talk to people in Moscow or St. Petersburg and tell them I was going to Siberia, they would say, oh, gosh, that's a terrible idea. You know, you're going to get killed, or something terrible is going to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But it also does give Russia a sense of security in that they have the option in any kind of struggle of unlimited retreat, and that's been a tactic that they've used. It's both a threat and a great resource for the country.

RAZ: What were you looking for in Siberia? What were you trying to answer for yourself?

Mr. FRAZIER: Well, I think, I wanted to step out of time. To me, that's the really fascinating thing. You're going somewhere, and you're no longer just in the company of your own contemporaries. You're in the company of everybody that's ever traveled here.

So you can go somewhere, as I do in this particular article, and see the old Siberian tract, the old road that went across Siberia that the exiles marched on it. There's still pieces of it. You can see the ruts. And you can stand there and know travelers went on this, and what were they thinking, you know?

Dostoyevsky was marched to prison in Siberia. He went to Omsk and was imprisoned there. And so you think of all these people that have been there, it's like you have stepped out of your own time into a place that is also out of time. You're in a literary dream. You know, you've read about it, and now you've walked into the pages of the book.

RAZ: Ian Frazier's travels in Siberia will appear in the next two issues of the New Yorker. He spoke with us from New York.

Ian Frazier, thank you for telling us your story.

Mr. FRAZIER: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

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