Two magazine writers plumb the depths of grass-roots politics and Russia's outer limits
Published: November 3, 2010
By Ari Berman
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Travels in Siberia
By Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
That the magazine—glossy, rectangular, stapled, intrinsically dead-tree—is a dying breed is no secret. Over the last several years, as audiences have gravitated in ever-larger numbers to free online content, magazine formats have been revamped drastically (Newsweek), folded into other magazines (YM becoming a subset of Teen Vogue), or perished outright (the print versions of Vibe and Blender). Two recent books that collate unpublished material and stories that originally appeared as magazine excerpts make the case for the magazine’s continued survival, assuming it continues to support the work that lead to accounts such as these.
In Herding Donkeys (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), The Nation political correspondent Ari Berman tells the story of how grass-roots volunteers returned presidential and congressional power to the Democratic Party for the first time in a generation. New Yorker contributing writer Ian Frazier spends Travels in Siberia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) shining a reportorial spotlight on a region that, despite being “one-twelfth of the land on earth,” is mostly understood as shorthand for “the section of less-desirable tables given to customers whom the maître d’ does not especially like.”
Donkeys begins in Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night 2008, as Barack Obama prepares to speak in public for the first time as a presumptive president-elect; the book ends with an Obama White House in poll-number chaos as Tea Party upstarts, Republicans, and liberal activists batter the administration for any number of perceived mistakes and sins of omission. In between, Berman diagrams Howard Dean’s grassroots, internet-savvy—yet DOA—2004 presidential campaign, demonstrates how the Obama campaign improved and capitalized upon the formula to win the White House four years later, and introduces readers to some of the tactics that helped wrest campaigning power away from entrenched, interest-beholden party fat cats: championing millions of small donations over a handful of huge, strings-attached contributions, the brick-by-brick construction of in-state grassroots units in hopelessly “red states” as part of a coherent 50-state strategy, and a political ignition of hostile or disengaged populations as a fortunate byproduct of community activism.
Berman approaches his subject with a measured objectivity, digging into local political divides and peculiarities with a gumshoe’s just-the-facts approach. He’s less interested in scoring ideological points than in telling a story, or a particular series of stories. Overshadowing Donkeys’ rah-rah optimism, up-with-disenfrancished-people brio, and underdog spirit—the book also spills a great deal of ink on Dean’s unlikely, fractious run as Democratic National Committee chair and the Obama administration’s subsequent cabinet-secretary snub—is the awareness that the coalition that elected the first African-American president was destined to collapse, as centrist Clinton loyalists take over for insurgent Obama insiders in a changing of the guard that’s as dispiriting as it was inevitable.
The title Travels in Siberia should be taken quite literally. Unlike many of the explorers whose Siberian travelogues helped inspire Frazier to traverse vast, largely under-populated expanses north of the former Soviet Union, his book actually covers three Siberian journeys—a road-trip summer journey in 2001 (west-to-east), a rail-based winter sojourn in 2005 (east-to-west), and a 2009 mop-up jaunt in which he visited sites and locales that he missed during the first two trips. On a trip to Moscow in 1993—the first of several—Frazier fell in love with the sense of decay, disarray, and randomness governing modern Russia: “Love, with an assist from novelty, had blindsided me. I had been overcome, lost permanently.” Brief stays, as part of the same trip, in Siberian cities like Ulan-Ude (home of “the largest head of Lenin in the world”) and Barguzin begat Russian language lessons, a fascination with Siberian iconography and Russian literature generally, and a great many hair-raising culture shocks. His Russian friends assured him that he was “crazy and if I went I would be robbed or killed.”
Frazier, whose New Yorker contributions generally betray a wry, desiccated sense of humor, leavens his juxtapositions of first-person observation and textual spelunking with winks that suggest he’s as aware as the reader that his obsessions—with gulags, with dying Russian metropolises, with houses where Decemberist figureheads eked out their Siberian exile, with the sable wing of Saks Fifth Avenue—are perhaps beyond the pale, but he just can’t help himself, and his fascination is as infectious as his scattered, rough-hewn sketches of vistas and riverfronts are transporting. On why gulags were worse than death at the hand of Mongols: “The Mongols killed the body but generally left the soul alone.” On differences between ravens and crows in America and Russia: “In America, ravens and crows have a shifty, raffish, troublemaking quality; they’re always looking for an easy score. The crows and ravens of Russia, by contrast, are somehow more grave. Like buzzards, they appear ruminative, as if they know that all things will come to them in time.” Of the “uncheerfulness” of Tulun: “Close to where we pulled over, a train station stood on a hill, and people drained of all expression were walking down its dusty slope like souls in the underworld.”
The Siberia Frazier reveals looks and feels, from a Westerner’s perspective, like the end of the world: no hotels, trash-buried rest-stops, vicious and plentiful mosquitoes, gratuitous swamps, food vendors and prostitutes haunting barren roadsides in the middle of nowhere, rag-tag gangs of kids who swarm foreigners, begging for rubles. Frazier and his tour guides Sergie Mikhailovich Lunev and Vladmir “Lolodya” Chumek bathe in rivers, camp in tents, and dine constantly on cottage cheese. The American author is an endless source of fascination, and finds himself swept along on tours of manufacturing plants and into friendly, probing exchanges with powerful strangers. At the point where Vladimirskaya Bay meets the Pacific Ocean, Frazier reports:
On the ocean-facing side of a big rock, someone had spray painted the NY logo of the New York Yankees and the LA logo of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Also in big white letters on the rock was the word RAP.
Travels’ most emotionally intense moments arrive during the segment that covers the 2005 trip, when Frazier’s guide consents, overcoming reservations, to explore a gulag’s frozen ruins outside of Topolinoe. Struck silent by the cruel solemnity of the site, Frazier is convinced that “this camp, and all the others along this road, needed large historical markers in front of them, with names and dates and details . . . Teams of researchers should be out looking for camp survivors, if any, and for former guards, and for whoever had baked the bread in the bakery.”