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Visiting Vladivostok

What does the future hold for Russia's most easterly city?

May 14, 2004

What does the future hold for Russia's most easterly city?

In Vladivostok, time proceeds at a different pace. Travelers who only go to Moscow — where more than 80% of Russia's wealth is amassed — have not really experienced Russia.

Located in the same time zone as Tokyo, Vladivostok is only a day-and-a-half ferry trip away from Japan. Traveling from Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway, in contrast, takes over a week.

In Vladivostok, the old wisdom holds true that Russia is large — and the Czar far away. So far, indeed, that one doubts whether he really continues to wield any power.

And it remains unclear where exactly a line is drawn between the urge for autonomy — which is so significant for Russia — and a desire for separatism, which symbolizes the end of the one, indivisible Russia.

In Vladivostok, everything revolves around the automobile: the streets, the port, the classified ads in the paper, the car-theft protection industry, the police that are kept busy by these car thefts — as well as the ambulances that constantly race to the scene of accidents.

The roads — not mended in years — are in dire condition. Still, a continuous stream of traffic gushes across these dilapidated streets. People drive in five or six lanes where there are only four.

Despite official right-hand traffic, most cars' steering wheels are on the left, since the vast majority of vehicles are imported from Japan.

The traffic never lets up. There is no rush-hour or closing-time — because there is no work to be had. Local factories have long shut down, everyone is simply driving at all times and in all directions.

Unlike in other parts of Russia — where cars often indicate wealth and status — in Vladivostok they do not serve as symbols of achievement or upward mobility, simply because everyone somehow owns one.

When traveling to Vladivostok, one is unable to avoid the conspicuous warnings. The city on the Pacific Ocean has a reputation for crime and holds a record level suicide rate. One is not supposed to wander outside after dark.

There are signs of stagnation and deterioration everywhere. The mining industry on the city's outskirts lays dormant. The collective farm system has collapsed.

At the side of the road, women sell potatoes, plums and tomatoes by the buckets — and milk in glasses.

Farmers — who have come here to make a living — gave up after their cattle was stolen and the roofs above their heads set on fire.

The Chinese farmers who could supply the entire area with food are not allowed to buy land — because of the prevailing fear of the "yellow peril." Teenagers earn a little something cleaning cars.

The blue lagoon, visible from the city's hills, is deceptive. Wastewater from the city is dumped into the bay, because the sewage treatment plants stopped functioning quite a while ago.

Swimming is prohibited. Most of the local youth hostels and spas in the city's parks have been shut down.

It takes time before one notices the city itself — even though Vladivostok stretches for miles on a peninsula. From the ridge above the city, one can view the bay extending to either side.

The Golden Cape — a sort of eastern Bosporus and counterpart to the original Dardanelles — is the most spectacular of all bays and was so named by the founder of the city, Duke Nikolai Muravyov-Amursky.

When one goes to the lookout point high above the city center or drives down the steep streets ending right at the Pacific Ocean, one is also reminded of San Francisco.

The typical monotony of the "sleeping soviet cities" is alleviated by the picturesque location of the skyscrapers along the mountains of Vladivostok. But what in the morning looks almost as pretty as Chinese ink drawings, is also the city's misfortune: The port, the heart of Vladivostok, is sitting still.

The Russian Pacific fleet is lying motionlessly at anchor. Besides the occasional ferry carrying passengers from one side of the bay to the other, there is almost no activity in the harbor.

Once or twice a week, a boat leaves from Vladivostok to Pusan or Nagasaki, carrying tourists eager to shop in Japan. From there, they return a few days later with their Hondas or Toyotas — or whatever kind of electronic gadget that is currently desirable.

At the Korean and Chinese markets, life in Vladivostok is at its most animated. But even here, business activity has decreased significantly, largely because of the ups and downs of the ruble-dollar exchange rate.

At the Golden Cape, one can get an impression of what Vladivostok once was — and what, if things go well, it may someday become again: Russia's gate to the Pacific Rim.

Vladivostok is a fairly young city. When sailors and soldiers arrived here in 1860 and founded the city, it was almost unimaginable that this settlement — with its few wooden huts — should one day become "the ruler of the East."

But the soldiers never left, turned civilians and were soon followed by merchants and traders.

In 1891, Vladivostok became the final stop of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The railway's beautifully restored Vladivostok train station serves as an example of how the entire city could look — if only a strong enough governor and mayor could be found and convinced to join forces in restoring Vladivostok.

Many decades ago, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Ottomon Empire and many other countries all had general consulates in Vladivostok.

New Year's used to be celebrated four times a year, according to the Gregorian, Chinese, Japanese and Julian calendars.

At one point, Vladivostok was home to Buddhist and Chinese temples, a synagogue, a cathedral that was blown up in the 1930s — and a Polish and Lutheran church.

But the Vladivostok of this era perished during the tumultuous period of World War I and the subsequent civil war.

The Far East Republic remained non-Bolshevik until 1922 — longer than anywhere else. After 1922, however, Vladivostok's middle class emigrated to Charbin, Shanghai or San Francisco. The merchant city retransformed into its old self: the soldier city.

Political and economic openings that took place during World War II — mostly a result of U.S. lend-and-lease activities — were subsequently reversed during the Cold War.

The strengths that had once made Vladivostok into a cosmopolitan city were now almost overnight exhausted.

Economic activity at Vladivostok's bustling port all but ended. And the city's broad range of merchants, adventurers and local intelligentsia — characterized by its strong independent sentiment and regional self-confidence — left the city.

In essence, Vladivostok forfeited its openness to the world that had once made it into an economic miracle story. For the time being, the "Shanghai of the North" or the "Russian San Francisco" did not materialize.

Now, Vladivostok is once again an open city and has been for the past decade. For the past ten years, diplomats, journalists, Fulbright scholars and businessmen — people who had been barred from Vladivostok for ages — have streamed into the city.

A return of the time when rich residents of Vladivostok vacationed in Nagasaki seems immediate. Numerous consulates have returned to the city.

At the local markets, people speak in a kind of Russian-Chinese pidgin that was popular once before — about 100 years ago.

The building that once belonged to the old Merchants' Society is being renovated by Chinese workers — who are cheaper than their Russian counterparts.

Vladivostok's port is currently being modernized. And in the newspapers, one can follow a heated debate about the importance of a new cargo exchange between Europe and the Pacific Rim, which is supposed to revamp Vladivostok's port.

It is hard to imagine how a city that had to cope with so many traumatic events could gain a sense of perspective again without losing its balance.

But the last decade is proof for Vladivostok's remarkable way of dealing with its unparalleled history.

What makes this story remarkable is not just the struggle with an economic and financial crisis. Rather, it is the transformation of a once closed and off-the-map city and region into an open city and region.

If Vladivostok had a mayor of the strength and determination of Moscow's extraordinary Yuri Lushkov, one would not need to worry about Vladivostok's future for a long time to come.

Adapted from “Promenade in Jalta” by Karl Schlögel. Published with permission of the author and publisher (Hanser, 2001).