I’m a sitting duck for things like Ian Frazier’s mammoth account of his road trip across Siberia in the current New Yorker (subscription required to read article, but there’s also a free podcast about his trip). For one thing, I’m morbidly obsessed with the gulag – Russia’s infamous penal colony system – and once spent a year reading gulag-related literature to the exclusion of almost everything else. Second, I can never get enough of hearing how big Siberia is, always couched in different exciting terms: 8 time zones! One-twelfth the land mass on earth! etc.
Then, perhaps most of all, there’s the sheer haplessness of the place and the stories of persistence of the human spirit in this environment that are equal parts pathetic and touching. Consider, for example, this toss-off line in Frazier’s piece:
Phillip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swede captured by Peter the Great’s army at the Battle of Poltava, in 1709, and sent with other Swedish prisoners to Siberia, wrote that the region had six species of deer, including the great stag, the roe deer, the musk deer, the fallow deer, and the reindeer. He also mentioned a special kind of bird whose nests were so soft that they were used for socks.
Just when you think you’re all gulag-ed out, along comes the heart-breaking image of an exiled Swede dutifully cataloging the wildlife while trudging around in his bird nest socks. I’m sufficiently inspired to have already gotten a beat on my Phillip Johann van Strahlenberg Halloween costume for this year.