Travels in Siberia. After all the dispiriting reading about Russia I've indulged in lately (see this and that) this gentle, humorous, thoughtful book was a pleasant reminder of other facets of that huge opaque country.
The inescapable theme of Frazier's five journeys through Siberia is the incomprehensible extent of Russia's massive stepchild region. Stretching over nine times zones, comprising nine percent of the earth's land area, and home to only 40 million people, this is truly the "back of beyond." Terrible sub-zero cold dominates the usual image of the place, but Frazier's summer drive across the region was hot, dusty and mosquito-plagued, quite a different set of hardships. Tzars and commissars dispatched their enemies to Siberia to die; contemporary oligarchs treat the land and its people as a great open pit mine for oil, gas and minerals. And yet some of the least disturbed land on the planet remains in the harsh environs north of the Arctic circle. Frazier is a beautiful narrator of both horrors and delights, such as this description of a night camping by Lake Baikal:
Frazier's one-over-lightly survey of Russian history aims to capture what made the nation seem so unlike either Europe or its Asian neighbors. Until modern times, Russia was subject to a series of invasions from fierce tribes from the remote steppe, repeated waves of murder and pillage. He suggests:
Among historical Russians, he holds up the aristocratic insurrectionists, the Decembrists, who tried to overthrow the tzar and bring Russia into Europe in 1825; those who survived the failure of their coup were exiled to Siberia. He ponders what their story can suggest to people in the US.
I don't think that goes for all of us, but perhaps it is true for too many. The Cheato is probably curing many of any respect they may have had for wisdom signaled by possession of great wealth.
Frazier's opus is a worthy "long read". Siberia (and Russia in general) is too large for facile description or certainly facile conclusions. Highly recommended.