Meandering Through an Emigre's Life

As a teenager in the Soviet Union, Vitali Vitaliev had a friend who wanted to avoid the draft by feigning a rare psychiatric disorder that he had discovered in a medical journal: dromomania, the irrepressible passion for aimless travel. This young man arrived at the recruitment office clutching a tattered map of the world, and began mumbling about his need to explore the coastline between Melbourne and Sydney. He was promptly pronounced unfit to serve.


Years later, in a post-Soviet twist of fate, the friend in question was still living in Russia, having traveled no further than to the bottom of a vodka bottle, while Vitaliev was living in Melbourne, Australia, with a full-blown case of dromomania. The proud owner of "the world's largest collection of Qantas socks," he was spending most of his time roaming through Europe and Australia not only because his job as a journalist demanded it, but because he felt a physical need to move. The endless travels were a quest to come to grips with the elusive and confusing thing called "freedom" that had prompted his flight from the Soviet Union in 1990.


An investigative journalist in Soviet Russia, Vitaliev had made a name for himself in the West even before his defection, as a Moscow regular on the British satirical television show, Saturday Night Clive.


After he defected from Russia with his wife and son, Vitaliev managed to combine careers as a television documentary filmmaker and newspaper columnist while writing books in English. His command of the language is impressive, although his style is sometimes awkward. His first two books -- "Special Correspondent" and "Dateline Freedom" -- chronicled his life in, and defection from, the Soviet Union, while "Little is the Light" described his travels around the tiny, mini-states of Europe.


As a Soviet refugee in the early '90s, Vitaliev would probably have achieved celebrity status wherever he had gone, but in Australia his fame was assured. Mazda Australia even gave him a new car for six months along with an instructor to teach him to drive.


In his latest book, Dreams on Hitler's Couch, Vitaliev returns to his favorite subject: himself. Ostensibly the book is about his adventures around the world in the six years since he left Russia. We are given his views on elections in Tasmania, Vietnamese refugees in Norway and aborigines on Palm Island. However, Vitaliev has little of particular profundity to say about socio-political events. He is much more impassioned when it comes to writing about himself.


Vitaliev embraces the dictum of his favorite Russian writer, Konstantin Paustovsky, who believed that no matter what you write about, always write about yourself, since this is the only thing in the world that you can claim some knowledge of. This wise and humble notion can make for some pretty self-absorbed writing. The sentimental self-indulgence here (and there is certainly plenty of it) is tempered by Vitaliev's wit and endearing honesty about his foibles. Among this is his account of the first night he spent in a Western hotel, when he assumed that the mini-bar, like breakfast, was included in the price of his room:


"So when it was time to go, I thought it would be a shame to leave behind all those nice-looking compact mini-bottles and, after some hesitation, relocated all of them into my suitcase.


'Have you used anything from your mini-bar, sir?' a reception clerk asked me when I was checking out.


'Yes,' I answered. I was a bit surprised by such intrusion of my privacy.


'What did you use?'


'Er ... everything actually ... .'


... I suddenly realized that I had done something wrong. I could feel my face acquiring the color of the cherry brandy contained in one of the mini-bottles in my suitcase."


In Australia, Vitaliev encountered the unexpected complications of freedom. He was free to buy a house with an indoor swimming pool, and free to discover that this was a bad investment. He was free to acquire credit cards, and free to go into debt. He became a "freedom bulimic," and gorged on catalogue shopping for useless items. And though he finally had freedom to travel, he learned that freedom does not get you far if you do not have the necessary amount of money for an airline ticket.


Once he adapted to Australia's ways -- from the friendly strangers who greeted him on the street, saying "Hi, Vitali! Welcome to Australia!" to the humidity and spiders -- Vitaliev felt the "spiritual heartburn" that friends had warned would afflict him in Australia.


Soon enough he was back to his old Soviet late-night routine of listening to BBC broadcasts about the world outside and subscribing to foreign periodicals which arrived late. He grew frustrated with Australians' cultural inferiority complex -- the perpetual feeling that the party was going on elsewhere -- and decided to move back to Europe.


In chronicling these events, as well as the dissolution of his marriage and his relationship with his teenage son, Vitaliev tackles the eternal emigr? dilemma of trying to find a home away from home. His experiences in Tasmania and in London jar with his romantic Soviet-era expectations. More prone to questioning than to giving answers, Vitaliev's style is to muse on the surprising coincidences of life -- such as his dromomaniac friend's connection to his own path -- and to wonder what they might mean -- if, that is, they mean anything.


The central symbol of Vitaliev's fate is a Biedermeier couch that once belonged to Hitler and which Vitaliev came upon in a bed and breakfast in Tasmania. "The Austrian-made and Italian-owned Hitler's couch did not belong in Tasmania. No more than a Ukrainian-born Russian with an Australian passport living in London. Neither of us was supposed to be there, but both of us were, there was little doubt about it. Two lost souls -- human and wooden -- in the end of the world."





"Dreams on Hitler's Couch," by Vitali Vitaliev. Richard Cohen Books, London, 277 pages, ?12.99.