The events and the journey recounted in "Night Train to Kaliningrad" begin with the following incidence of boredom and whimsy:
"The outline of my itinerary through Eastern Europe, Russia, and Siberia developed gradually, but the seed was planted ten years ago at the Berlin Main Train Station. My family and I were there to see off my brother-in-law. The Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a glass-vaulted structure occupying the grounds of the old Lehrter Bahnhof which was once the last dark blip before crossing the Wall to the Friedrichstraße Station in East Berlin. Like the glass-walled Kanzleramt and the glass-domed Reichstag, the Main Station symbolizes the new transparency which is supposed to have supplanted the old reign of barriers and darkness. As we waited on the platform, I noticed that the destination of the train on the next track over was Kaliningrad. This is the Russian name for what was once Königsberg, home of Immanuel Kant and capital of East Prussia but after 1945 a Soviet enclave wedged between Lithuania, Poland, and the Baltic. During the Cold War, it was embedded in the East Bloc. Now it’s referred to as an 'exclave,' an anomalous island cut off from the Russian Federation by the altered course of history. Bored and curious, I fantasized about taking a night train to a city I associated with the tanks and ruins of black-and-white war films. The romantic in me misses the perception of otherness from my student days in Europe. I don’t miss tanks, ruins, or guarded borders. I miss the foreignness of the countries the borders once separated. I never forgot my fantasy of taking the night train to Kaliningrad. While I was convalescing, it evolved into an elaborate plan for celebrating my recovery and retirement."
This hand-illustrated book is the memoir of a journey across the Eurasian landmass undertaken to regain confidence after a draconian cancer treatment. The first third consists of reflections and memories prior to departure, while the latter two thirds recount experiences, encounters, and observations in the cities of Austria, the Baltic states, Russia, and Siberia. The author is a scholar of German literature whose area of specialization is the writings of the early modern German mystics and dissenters, but whose adolescent love of Russian literature resurfaces and motivates him to visit cities from Vienna to Vladivostok and Kaliningrad to Kamchatka.
His memoir incorporates reflections on German mysticism, Russian and German literature and philosophy, history and politics, as well as immediate observations of people and places. The cities visited include Salzburg, Vienna, Gdańsk, Kaliningrad, Svetlogorsk, Vilnius, Riga, St. Petersburg, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Vladivostok, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski. During his travel, people including not least of all the street poor attract as much attention as museums and monuments. The authors reflected upon include Jacob Boehme, Goethe, Kant, Herder, Marx, Schopenhauer, Thomas Mann, Grass, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Berdyaev, Rasputin, Gumilev, Tolstaya, Alexievich, Lomasko, Petrushevskaya, and Ulitskaya. Yerofeyev's Moscow - Petushki, read during the journey, insinuates a counterpoint of literary derelicts and invisibly warring angels and demons.
Travel across the Russian Federation becomes the occasion for reflecting on life and death, convalescence and retirement, the threatened culture of reading, the role of literature in society, and the comparative study of national character. In the process of preparing for his journey, details of his personal life and family history come to mind which subsequently confirm forgotten interconnections of Russia and America during his travels. He imagines that he is following in the footsteps of Siberian explorers and sea-faring Cossacks, Chekhov and the Decembrists, the nineteenth-century Siberia traveler George Kennan and the turn-of-the century American resident of Vladivostok, Eleanor Lord Pray. Notations of everyday obstacles and fortunate encounters accompany thoughts concerning ideas and history.