Sunday, January 16, 2011

Travels in Siberia - book

Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y., 2010).

Ian Frazier, the author of this interesting book, admits to a long time fascination with Russia and Siberia, something that I myself admit to, although in my case, having been there only once, only in Moscow, and only for a few days, remains unsatisfied. I might say it has become partly more satisfied by this book. Frazier has traveled to Siberia five times and to Russia the same amount of times. The main part of this work is his account of his incredible trip, with two Russian “guides” (or helpers, or friends) all the way from Moscow on the West to Vladivostok on the east. This was a trip overland of some 9000 kilometers in a diesel-powered Renault van, that often broke down, only to be repaired by the apparent genius of his Russian companions, and over roads, bridges, and the absence of bridges that testify to the same lack of infrastructure maintenance we experience here at home. While this particular trip takes up much of the book there are descriptions of other trips, particularly one undertaken in winter to the very interior of Siberia, as well.

But there is much more to this book than merely the descriptions of his own travels in Russia and Siberia. There is, to begin with, his discussion of previous travelers in this part of the world, particularly the earliest travelers in Siberia. There is also a considerable amount of Russian and Siberian history, especially as it relates to the fate of the” Decemberists” and the prisons of Siberia. As his latest (and shortest) trip was in 2009 you are privy to what living and traveling in Siberia is like, and you also learn a great deal both about Russian scientists and ordinary Russian and Siberian citizens. They are, for the most part, little different from people everywhere, helpful, interested in America and Americans, and friendly. As there are few hotels in the small towns of Siberia, as well as few restaurants, Frazier and his companions most often made camp and slept in tents, seemed to eat an inordinate amount of kielbasa, but also were welcomed into Russian and Siberian homes, fed, and made comfortable. It seems that virtually every town and village has its own Museum with caretakers more than willing to welcome visitors. Frazier was able not only to visit these disparate local Museums but also many businesses and governmental agencies as well. I believe the reader gains a decent understanding and insightful appreciation of life in Siberia at the present time.

Frazier offers two very different views of this incredible part of the world. One of the most striking features of the landscape as described by him, is the trash. It seems that everywhere they camped, and everywhere people had been there were incredible amounts of trash. Either Russians are not disturbed by this or they lack the motivation or the means to deal with it. Similarly, there are apparently many virtually abandoned cities and prisons, acres of crumbling concrete and wooden structures that flourished for a time during the Stalin regime but have now been all but abandoned and forgotten. This is a rather sad and depressing view of the countryside. Russians apparently have no more respect for the environment than we do. At the same time he also described cities of remarkable charm and beauty, fisheries still as rich as ever they were, and wildlife in abundance.

There is also a very different view of a Siberia, a place that represents one twelfth of the land mass of our planet , a land so vast it is virtually impossible to comprehend, a land of huge rivers, swamps, and taiga (boreal forest) that stretches endlessly and still harbors the original and pristine flora and fauna, so pure as to be free from any pollution. And there is that marvelous jewel of the planet, Lake Baikal, the largest body of fresh water on earth, with waters still so pure you can see into great depths. Still living in the interior of Siberia are various tribes that exist by reindeer herding, fishing, and trapping, virtually untouched by the outside world. In his next to last trip to Siberia, deliberately taken in winter to experience the incredible cold, Frazier traveled into this remote frontier and describes it eloquently.

It is almost impossible to believe that during the medieval period the main source of income for Russia was sable fur, and almost as impossible to believe just how many sable furs were involved. For example, in 1586 it is said the Russian treasury received two hundred thousand sable furs, furs that were traded to China and virtually around the world. It is said that fully one third of the Russian economy was based on the fur trade. In fact it was the quest for sable that was largely responsible for the exploration and eventual colonization of Siberia. In addition to sable, Siberia also produced ermine, fox, beaver, and northern gray squirrel furs, traded mostly from Kiev, the most important medieval center of the fur trade at that time. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that mammoth ivory, exported by the tons, was also one of the most important exports that constituted the early Russian economy. Even more incredible (to me actually mind boggling) is the fact that scientists estimate the Siberian permafrost may still hold as many as 150 million mammoths, more than the human population of Russia today. If this doesn’t give one an idea of just how awesomely huge Siberia is I don’t know what might.

Anyway, Travels in Siberia is a wonderfully well written account of Frazier’s travels in that far off and mysterious land, educational and insightful, and well worth reading if you are interested in the contemporary scene and the history of this incredible part of the world. I have not mentioned the incredible natural resources, especially natural gas and oil, that are now so crucially important to the world economy, and who knows what other unexplored resources must exist in this still relatively unexplored wilderness. For me, at least, there is nothing more awesome, mysterious, fascinating or beckoning than “Mother Russia,” still more undeveloped than any other place on the planet.

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