Tuesday, July 5, 2011

World Party: An ambiguous Siberian tourism endorsement

It's been a long, travel-filled two weeks for me. After spending a week in New Orleans for ALA, then a night in El Paso for more work-related things, I'm now in Nashville for the week before heading to Florida's Gulf Coast on Saturday for REAL vacation.

You know what all of these places have in common with Siberia? NOTHING, because it is cold there. At least, that is the impression I got from Ian Frazier's travelogue, Travels in Siberia, which was my June Russia pick for the World Reading Challenge. Frazier is most well-known as a writer for The New Yorker and has a slew of other travelogues published.

Siberia is an interesting place. Just to put the size in perspective, in Frazier's words: "Three-fourths of Russia today is Sibera. Sibera takes up one-twelfth of all the land on earth. About 39 million Russians and other native peoples inhabit that northern third of Asia. By contrast, the state of New Jersey has about a fifth as many people on about .0015 as much land." That's a big mass of land, one that I know very little about. It just seems so...remote, desolate, and cold. And that's sort of the impression I got from Frazier's notes—a land so rich with resources but so sparsely populated, with living conditions and lifestyle so contingent upon the environment.

Frazier's Travels is Siberia blends his own travel notes with Siberian history to paint the pictures of just how 'out there' Siberia really is. And why it is that, despite Siberia's sad and violent history, it's still so captivating. Some of my favorite, memorable lines or passages (you can skip reading this part if you want):

  • I believe the tropical poster is the most common indoor decoration in Siberia.
  • In Russia, writing is so revered that no one had had the nerve to interrupt me in what might have been an act of literary creation.
  • Beneath a surface layer of unbelief or Orthodox Christianity, Russia is an animist country. Ordinary physical objects are alive in Russia far more than they are in America, and however Russia's religious or political currents flow, this native animism remains strong...In Russia the windshield wiper on your car isn't called a mechanical name--it's a dvornik, a word whose more common meaning is "custodian." What we call a speed bump in America the Russians call lezhashchii politseiskii, which means "lying-down policeman."
  • What struck me then and what still strikes me now was the place's overwhelming aura of absence. The deserted prison camp just sat there--unexcused, un-torn-down, unexplained. During its years of operation it had been a secret, and in some sense it still was. Horrors had happened here, and/or miseries and sufferings and humiliations short of true horrors. "No comment," the site seemed to say. / I thought this camp, and all the others along this road, needed large historical markers in front of them, with names and dates and details; and there should bne ongoing archaeology here, and areas roped off, and painstaking excavation, and well-informed docents in heated kiosks giving talks for visitors. Teams of researchers should be out looking for camp survivors, if any, and for formers guards, and for whoever had baked the bread in the bakery. Extensive delving into KGB or Dalstroi files should be showing who exactly was imprisoned here when, and what they were in for, and what became of them. The zek engineers and builders who made the hand-constructed bridges should be recognized and their photographs placed on monuments beside the road, and the whole Topolinskaya Highway for all its 189 kilometers should be declared a historic district, and the graves, of which there may be many, should be found and marked and given requiem. / The fact that the world has not yet decided what to say about Stalin was the reason these camps were standing with no change or context; the sense of absence here was because of that. / The world more or less knows what it thinks of Hitler. Stalin, though, is still beyond us. As time passes, he seems to be sidling into history as one of those old-timey, soft-focus monsters--like Ivan the Terrible, like Peter the Great--whose true monstrosity softens to resemble that of an ogre in a fairy tale.
  • Thus I was once again convinced that the Russian car is the most reliable in the world, because it is possible under necessity to replace any part in it with a piece of wire or with a nail.
  • I had not flown Aeroflot since the nineties. Now the complete absence of smoking, in accordance with revised policy, made a real change in the airline's tone. Russians not smoking!...Everything about the Boeing 767 we flew in was better than what I remembered of their former planes. Now they had real seats, not lawn chairs. Nothing about the interior looked beat-up or shabby.

The memoir sections are naturally more interesting than the history lessons, but they both serve their purpose. If you like Bill Bryson books, this is probably one you should check out. Frazier has an eye for the little details that make a place what it is. His observations will introduce you to the same culture and make you feel just as awkward as Frazier often felt.

I've always gotten the impression that Russia (and Siberia) is a fascinating place. But I can't confirm that I've ever actually heard a recommendation to plan a visit. I think this book just confirmed that sentiment. Interesting country; spend your vacation days elsewhere.

1 comment:

softdrink said...

I have this on the shelf, so I'm happy to see the comparison to Bryson. I lurve Bryson.