Revelations

The time: November 1995 The place: Hobart, Tasmania The man: Vitali Vitaliev, journalist and writer
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I had the misfortune to be born in the largest cage in the world. It had limits which you couldn't cross, and that's what I thought would be my fate. Until I was 35, I was dead sure that I would never travel outside the Soviet Union, and I was a typical armchair buccaneer. I collected train schedules and guide books and I knew the map of Paris - I could wander around vicariously. I was fluent in English by the age of 12; it was all an internal challenge to the system.

Then suddenly, when I was already a well-known journalist in Moscow, I started having these problems with the KGB and I chose to defect. I became a citizen of the so-called free world and I started travelling. And I couldn't stop.

In November 1995, living in London, I found myself in crisis, and decided I had to look back at my life, at what had happened to me in the past seven years, which was like a condensed life in its own right, with birth, youth, maturity, adulthood.

It was a crisis on all fronts - on the personal front, I had just split up with my girlfriend. I had been living in Australia but was missing Europe so much I had come back to London. But now I was missing my son in Australia - he was 13, a very dangerous age, and he had started getting into a bit of trouble, mixing with the wrong sort of crowd, smoking a bit of dope, and I decided at that point I had to be near him. So I packed my books and went off to Australia.

But after five months in Australia I started feeling so tremendously isolated and nostalgic again that by the time my poor books arrived by sea to Melbourne, I was on my way back. So without unpacking them I sent them back to London, which again is crazy. I came back, but since I had resigned from my job in London, my telephone was dead. I had to remind everyone I was back. And moving to Australia had completely devastated my finances, so I was here with no money.

Anyway, I reached this crisis point and I decided I had to look back, and for that I had to go to Tasmania, my spiritual home. When I lived in Australia, I loved Tasmania - I was missing Europe very much, and when I discovered Tasmania I persuaded myself that that was my substitute, because it does look very European. It has European nature and lots of history, which is unusual for Australia.

In my crisis I went and just hired a car and started driving around. And one night I found myself in this little bed-and-breakfast in the Huon Valley, close to Hobart, owned by an Italian couple. The owner was showing me around, and it was very plush in a sort of a Tasmanian way, very eclectic. And I said, 'What a lovely couch you have there. It looks like it's Biedermeier style, turn of the century'. And he said, 'Well actually, it's a bit earlier, it's probably mid-19th century, but it's Biedermeier indeed. And you know what? It used to belong to Hitler.'

I said, 'Come on, are you sure it was Hitler and not Alexander the Great or maybe Tamerlane?' And he said, 'No, no, I'm serious, this used to belong to Hitler, because the chap who used to be a curator of Hitler's furnishings and paintings fled not to South America but to Tasmania, and brought quite a lot of stuff with him. And he died not so long ago, and there was an auction of all his loot and we bought this couch.'

And I thought, how interesting - it's a case of complete and extreme displacement. Whether it belonged to Hitler or not, it was not supposed to be at the end of the world in Tasmania. Then I thought, am I supposed to be in Tasmania? Someone who was born in Ukraine, brought up on Russian culture, has an Australian passport and lives in London. Now in Tasmania, facing a couch that used to belong to Hitler. It's a complete case of displacement, wooden and human.

I asked if I could spend the night on this couch - for some reason it was important. What mattered was that it was displaced and I was displaced. And I did sleep on this couch. I'm a very active, intense dreamer, and I had some dreams, I don't quite remember what sort, and in the morning when I woke up I finally had some perspective on what had happened to me in the past few years.

That's when the idea of a book was born. It is my seventh in seven years, but I think this book is special. I tried to find as much as I could about Hitler's curator, who led a very secretive life. He had lots to hide - that's why he fled to Tasmania. In the book I say I can't guarantee that everything I wrote about him was true, because this book is not strictly a non-fiction book, it is more like a collection of dreams.

This is a book about freedom, the other side of freedom that I thought didn't exist. In a free society you are free to make it but you are also free to fail, so freedom is as much about responsibilities as it is about choices, but I didn't realise that.

When I came to the West I thought freedom was about being able to travel where you wanted, and I've done that - I've been to more than 50 countries; about the ability to read all the newspapers. But suddenly, in Australia, I also realised that apart from the tyranny of political dogma under which I lived for 35 years there was also the tyranny of distance, which was no less cruel, because Australia is so isolated. There was another iron curtain there, made of dollars. Many Australians only travel abroad once, because it's so expensive.

But I don't regret it. Unless you go through hardships, unless you know what it's like to live with no money and the only thing you've got is your belief in yourself, unless you've got that, you will fail ... and it can be fatal.

I think I have survived this and I think I'm going to be OK, because I was born a fighter. None of the merits are mine, it just happened like that. I was born exactly 37 years after the Bolshevik Revolution and exactly 37 years before the Soviet Union collapsed. That's why I was probably destined to have a fractured life"n

'Dreams on Hitler's Couch' is published by Richard Cohen Books, price pounds 12.99

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