In the prologue of Siberian Dawn, author Jeffery Tayler explains his fascination with Russia: "For me, the Soviet Union (and Russia) were the very incarnation of human tragedy." He goes on to write that his solitary travels across Siberia were spurred by a yearning to "enmesh" himself in that tragedy in order to fill "some void within myself." Here is the first tip-off that the author of this "eye on Russia" will have a proclivity to use the vast plains and tundra before him as little more than a flattering mirror.
The upshot is that Tayler decides to travel across the Russian continent, 8,000 miles from Siberia to Poland. "No guidebook existed for my route; no one had ever done it before," trills Tayler. Considering that his journey consisted of highway rides from truckers and trips on planes and trains, it seems probable that his path was better traveled than he presumes. Along the way, he has plenty of annoyances with bureaucrats, witnesses "disgusting drunks" on street corners, endures shabby service at restaurants, and can't find clean hotel rooms. Oh, he also has trouble getting dates with Russian women.
Russia has been undergoing incredible economic and social transition over the past five years. The situation there for the average Siberian worker is dismal and at times beyond comprehension. Many who were lured north by Soviet-era subsidies and offers of higher wages now find themselves marooned in emptying cities, unpaid for months and years on end. But Siberian Dawn reveals exceedingly little about the history or soul of Siberian Russia, long mystified as a place of exile and death. (Interested readers are directed toward Colin Thubron's lyric essay on Siberia in the current issue of Granta.)
Tayler's book concentrates instead on the discomforts of traveling in Russia, and it's stocked with plenty of self-congratulatory detail. "I tried my best to muster an American accent," Tayler writes at one point, even though he is an American and not a native speaker of Russian. On a slow train ride, a miner asks the author what he is reading. Tayler "tossed him the collection of stories of Valentin Rasputin I was reading," noting defensively, "You don't like Rasputin?" Why should Tayler presume that everyone (reader included) would know who Rasputin is? (Rasputin is a contemporary Soviet writer who has analyzed the spirit and wildlife of Siberia.)
At another point, the author describes getting pushed by an elderly drunk with a cane while the two stand in line for train tickets: "There I was in a Russian backwater town, in a fight with a drunk that could easily result in injury or death for either of us." Death? While the reader would never wish this, a few more injuries and insults might perform the worthy service of puncturing this author's pomposity.