Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Frazier admits to “Russia love,” which by his description is comparable to the passion of ardent Francophiles or civil war re-enactors. Caught up in a love of country that is not his own, he writes that during his time of research he “had been to Siberia five times, to western Russia five or six times.” To prove his point he gives future historians a book over 500 hundred pages that ambles like the love story it is where even the faults of the beloved are tinged with imagined glamour.
Approximately two-thirds of the book was a summer’s road trip from Moscow to the far eastern city of Vladivostok. Traveling by car with his guide Sergei and assistant Volodya, Frazier takes copious notes on subjects as different as fishing, museums and beautiful women with periodic digressions into Russian history, geography and politics.
There is an overview of Ghengis Khan, leader of the Mongols who
is reported to have said his enjoyment was “to cut my enemies in pieces, drive them before me, seize their possessions, witness the tears of those who are dear to them and to embrace their wives and daughters.” To support the embracing of wives and daughters, Frazier reports Khan’s DNA is believed to have come down through the generations to “one-half of 1 percent of the world’s entire male population.”
Far to the north in a country of near unfathomable distances where life is defined by work, cold, and hunger under the control
of despots, Russia has historically been isolated and forgotten by the rest of the world. Its history is replete with cruelty and subsistence living under leaders like Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, the Romanovs, Stalin and Lenin while the rest of Europe was experiencing the growth of commerce, scientific advancements, and artistic freedom. After explaining this Frazier promotes a theory that he believes Russia was so mistreated as a child that she should be recognized as an abused child that needs allowances in getting up to speed in today’s political world and economic structure.
Frazier pesters his reluctant traveling guides to show him the real lives and history of Russia. He sees the now empty sanitariums, gulags, and prisons. They camp along rivers and in woods like other Russian travelers. They stay in hotels where men are in one room and women in another. They strike up conversations with strangers, eat what others eat and visit quaint museums of one or two rooms that are run by characters from a Chekov story.
There isn’t a unifying theme in the book. Like any love story it is
written by the lover who will write about what he wants. From his childhood Frazier has gauzy memories of the Russian Sputnik being praised by his father, the glamor of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and the drama of the Cold War. Intellectually he is enamored with Russian history, particularly the brave rebel Decembrists who revolted against Nicholas I in December 1825. Their history is sprinkled throughout the book but he concludes what makes them dearest to him is, “Their lives were noble, epic, partly finished sketches, backlit and sanctified by suffering.”