Grand tours: Petersburg to Berlin in Dostoyevsky's footsteps

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

It is a long trip from Petersburg to Berlin ­ almost two days ­ and so I took along two pamphlets and a few newspapers just in case. And I truly meant "just in case", because I have always been afraid of being left in a crowd of strange Russians of our educated class, wherever it may be ­ in a railway carriage, a steamship, or in any kind of public gathering.

I admit this is a weakness and blame it, above all, on my own suspicious nature. When I am abroad among foreigners I always feel more at ease: there, when some foreigner wants to get somewhere he heads straight to his destination, but our Russian goes on looking around the whole time, thinking, "What will people say about me?" He may look decisive and unshakeable, but in fact no one is more uncertain and lacking in self-confidence.

If a Russian stranger begins a conversation with you, it is always in an extremely confidential and friendly manner; but from the first word he utters you can see his deep mistrust and even his underlying suspicious irritation, which will burst out in the form of some biting or even downright rude remark the moment he finds something not to his liking, this despite all his "good upbringing".

This can happen for the very slightest of reasons. Every one of these people seems to want to avenge himself on someone else for his own insignificance, yet he may not be an insignificant person at all ­ sometimes just the reverse. There is no person who will say oftener than a Russian: "What do I care what people say about me?" or "I don't worry a bit about public opinion." And there is no person who is more afraid than a Russian (again, I mean a civilised Russian) who has more fear and trepidation of public opinion and of what people will say or think of him.

This comes precisely from his deep-seated lack of self-respect, which, of course, is concealed behind his boundless egotism and vanity. These two opposing factors are always present in almost every educated Russian, and he is also the first to find them intolerable, so that each one of them bears his own "hell" in his soul, as it were.

It is especially awkward to meet a Russian stranger abroad somewhere, face to face (shut up with him in a railway car, for instance), so that there is no possibility of running away should something disastrous happen. And yet, it would seem, "It's so nice to meet a fellow countryman on foreign shores." And the conversation almost always begins with that very phrase. Once he's found out that you're a Russian, your fellow countryman will be certain to begin: "So you're Russian? How nice to meet a fellow countryman on foreign shores. I'm here as well ..." But don't be misled by the manner: although your compatriot may be smiling, he already has his suspicions of you, and that's obvious from his eyes, from the little lisp he has when he speaks, and from the careful way he stresses his words. He's sizing you up; he's certainly afraid of you already; he already wants to tell you some lies.

Best of all is an encounter with a Russian general. The Russian general abroad is most concerned with ensuring that none of the Russians he meets venture to address him in a manner inappropriate to his rank, trying to take advantage by assuming that "we're abroad, and so we're all equal". And so, for instance, when he's travelling, he sinks into a stern, marmoreal silence from the very beginning. So much the better: he doesn't disturb anyone. But in any case, keeping a book or a newspaper on a journey is a great help, particularly to ward off Russians: it tells them, "I'm reading; leave me alone".

Extract is taken from "The Picador Book of Journeys", edited by Robyn Davidson (Picador, £16).

Follow in the footsteps of Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The rail thing

It is possible to retrace Dostoyevsky's route from St Petersburg to Berlin via Warsaw. Call Deutsch Bahn (0870 243 5363). If you are starting your journey in St Petersburg, you may have to reserve the sleeper berth there. Trains leave from Vitebsk station at 23.36 daily. You'll arrive at Lichtenberg station in Berlin 38 hours later, beating Dostoyevsky's journey time by 10 hours. A one-way fare costs £107.60. UK travellers will require a double-entry visa. The Thomas Cook European Timetable contains rail and bus timetables for European Russia and costs £9.50 from any branch of Thomas Cook.

Rented history

Dostoyevsky spent 28 years in St Petersburg and rented many apartments, using the areas as the backdrops for his novels. The Dostoyevsky Museum-Flat, where he died, has been restored and provides details of city walking tours and screenings of films based on his work. (00 7 812 311 4031).

City of the Tsar

St Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great. Peter himself is buried in splendour in the Peter and Paul Cathedral but while his spectacular city was being built, he lived in a modest cottage, now a museum. Another of his legacies was Russia's first museum, the Hermitage. (www.hermitagemuseum.org).

Idiot's guide

The city-centre Idiot Café is a hang-out for any literary enthusiast and serves both English and Russian food. Naberezhnaia Moiki 82 (007 812 315 1675).

By Andrea Jones

Comments