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Travels in Siberia

I used to love the work of the New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, especially his 1989 book Great Plains (some of which I had read earlier as shorter pieces in the New Yorker) and his 1994 autobiographical volume Family. (I also have his next book, On the Rez, from 2000, and enjoyed what I read of it, but never finished it.)

Today I read a short article of his in the current New Yorker about a visit in 2005 to the site of a former gulag in northern Siberia. It’s superb. Read it if you can (but you won’t be able to read it online without access to the New Yorker’s archive). An excerpt:

Prisoners who suffered the terrible fate of being sentenced to work in the gold-mining camps of the lower Kolyma, in the far north, where the river empties into the Arctic Ocean, went by train to Vladivostok, and there or in the neighboring port of Nakhodka boarded slave ships that could carry thousands of prisoners for the long voyage northward along Siberia’s Pacific coast, through the Bering Strait, and westward along the Arctic coast to the Kolyma River delta. These ships sailed with their decks battened down, few lights showing, and the prisoners kept below, in conditions that survivors described as something out of Dante.

Frazier, by the way, is yet another of my many talented college classmates whom I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing at the time but would come to admire later. His book Travels in Siberia is due out on October 12. I’ll be looking for it.

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