Known for his humorous writing in The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has also spent years coursing through the Russian hinterland. He tells us more about his latest release…
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 from Russia that influenced the American Great Plains, such as 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 becomes an employee of Western Union who goes to Siberia to survey a telegraph line; he becomes the most famous Siberian traveller of the 19th century. His name was George Kennan. And yet he came from this small town in Ohio. But to answer the question honestly, I just love Russia. I wanted to do a bigger geographic area than the Great Plains and a bigger book, too. Rightfully so: one twelfth of the Earth is Siberia.
Was it hard for you to find humour in such a bleak landscape?
Russia is like slapstick, except you actually die. It’s extreme humour. It very much appeals to me, having done humour in America for 35 years. It’s a quasar level of humour that is really appealing to me. Even some stories about the horrible treatment by the gulag, there are just sublime tidbits, the kind of humour that you don’t necessarily stop to laugh at. But it’s certainly funny.
There are many historical nuggets in the book: 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 name, 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 first went to Russia in 1993. What the biggest cultural change you’ve noticed on your trips?
When I first went, there was an optimism and enthusiasm. 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. That was a big, 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. And frankly, back then, I was naive about Russia; my fellow travellers took a protective attitude about me. Also, 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 –
super-boring postcards. Now it’s just like anything you’d get at Disney World.