To Russia, with laughs
Ian Frazier takes us deep into Siberia.
Though best known for his humor writing in The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has also carved out a career with big, heartfelt books about forgotten places. For his new book, Travels in Siberia (FSG, $28), he spent years coursing through the Russian hinterland. He spoke to us on the phone from his home in New York City, to school us on Siberia and how Stalin was like Lady Gaga.
Where did the root of this new book come from?
It’s connected to my book Great Plains. There’s a lot of stuff in that book about Russia and about things that influenced the Great Plains that came from Russia, like hard red winter wheat and the missile silos. And then in my book Family, there’s a walk-on character working as a telegraph operator during the Civil War in the town that my family came from: Norwalk, Ohio. He’s the guy that compiles the list of casualties after these gruesome battles, and became this dreaded figure because he had the power to bring horribly bad news. Later on, he becomes an employee of Western Union who goes to Siberia to survey a telegraph line. He writes a book about it called Tent Life in Siberia, and he becomes the most famous Siberian traveler of the 19th century. His name was George Kennan. His book was a bible for Russian revolutionaries. And yet he came from this small town in Ohio—that was another connection to Siberia. But to answer your question honestly, I just love Russia. It’s always been a subject that has interested me. I wanted to do a bigger geographic area than the Great Plains and a bigger book, too. Rightfully so: A 12th of the Earth is Siberia.
You’re a humor writer part of the time. Was it hard for you to find humor in such a bleak landscape?
Russia is like slapstick, except you actually die. It’s extreme humor. It very much appeals to me, having done humor in America for 35 years. It’s a quasar level of humor that is really appealing to me. Even some stories about the horrible treatment by the gulag, there are just sublime tidbits, the kind of humor that you don’t necessarily stop to laugh at. But it’s certainly funny.
There are so many historical nuggets throughout the book; for instance, you point out how Lenin and Stalin, both of whom spent time in Siberian prison camps, changed their name.
I don’t know why Stalin changed his names, but many revolutionaries, including Lenin, did take a nom de guerre. It was like becoming Lady Gaga. It was a way of elevating yourself, making yourself something new, making yourself unforgettable. It was a try at immortality.
You started traveling to Russia in 1993. What has been the biggest cultural change you’ve noticed on your trips?
When I went first in 1993, there was an optimism and enthusiasm in general. To see them fall back into this sense that it’s going to be the same-old, same-old—you lose that sense of optimism. And so that was a big change and a painful change. I think there is still optimism in Russia—don’t get me wrong—but that was a giddy time. People still didn’t know how things were going to shake out. People had largely favorable feelings about Americans. And frankly, back then, I was naive about Russia; a lot of my fellow travelers took a protective attitude about me. The postcards changed. I got really bummed out about that. I loved those old Soviet postcards. They were pictures of the Animal Husbandry Industry or something like that—superboring postcards. Now it’s just like anything you’d get at Disney World.
Frazier reads Monday 25.