There is a sense, as you stroll easily about what has been described as “one of Russia’s greatest wandering cities”, that you, indeed we all, know so very little about Vladivostok. Its skyline is not familiar in films, it does not appear in novels of note (though Colin Thurbon’s In Siberia travel tome does have him wash up there at the end of a particularly long wander), anecdotes are not bandied about where travellers cross paths.
For a very long time that was entirely intentional. During the Soviet era (a phrase uttered often by its citizens to excuse everything from potholes to ugly architecture) it was, as the headquarters of the USSR’s Pacific Fleet, a “closed city”. Not only were foreigners not allowed but Soviets needed permission to visit and so generally didn’t. After all, it is a nine hour flight from Moscow and tenth of the vast nation’s eleven time zones. Most of those who did set foot in the far eastern city were – and still are – weary souls alighting from a week on the Trans-Siberian Railway, all 9289 kilometres of it.
The fleet is still there; in fact, it has been said that were you to get much closer to it as you poked about the historically-layered town you would have to enlist. Now you can pretty much line up and have your photo taken with a crew of a destroyer back from a six month deployment off Somalia warding off pirates. Jump on one of the ferries zig-zagging across Golden Horn Bay and you can sun yourself on the beaches of islands once restricted to navy folk.
Over days of investigating ornate Russian orthodox churches, stone fortresses, the Art Deco house where actor Yul Brynner was born and raised, cobbled courtyards, a tiny funicular railway near a beguiling Pushkin statue, a silver Neptune head spilling out over a park, a Maxim Gorky Theatre, Siberian tiger, mermaid and war warrior statues, a GUM department store with preserved architecture, the odd surviving hammer’n’sicle emblems, spectacular views of bays, harbours, inlets and peninsulas, family-thronged parks, impromptu sun bathing platforms where near-nakeds loll by slabs of melting ice, and vivid sunsets over bays, viewed through birch trees – you come to realise that nobody cares much where you nose about. Security guards and other uniformed spoilsports don’t dot the landscape here. The western world’s obsession over private property doesn’t carry over to a realm where, for a very long time, there was no such thing.
Leaving the Arsenyev Museum after trawling through the entrails of the natural, military, social and cultural history of Eastern Russia and Siberia, admiring everything from a giant black bear to savage swords to the gowns and pumps of a famous ballerina, I couldn’t help but fall down Alice’s wonderland hole through a basement door, to nobody’s particular concern, and there come upon a dusty tumble of giant marble busts of Soviet heroes – Lenin, Stalin and even cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Once venerated, they are now remnants of a past that cannot be entirely left behind.
It is the lack of familiarity, it is the one surprise atop another and it is the sheer improbability of pure Russia where, really, it should not be, that renders Vladivostok so appealing – and, for Australians, it is the proximity and ease of access. Just as going to outer Mongolia is no harder than flying to Seoul and walking off one wide-bodied jet onto another for a further three-hour leg, visiting Vladivostok is nothing more complex than taking a Qantas flight to Tokyo and settling into an S7 Airbus at Narita for a little over two hours. When you get there, you are almost close enough to smell the Chinese city of Harbin and the North Korean border. Within not much more than a couple of hour’s air reach is 200-300 million people, all of them Asian. Yet, apart from the smattering of Chinese workers who are replacing the 5,000 or so locals who move west each year, you could be in St. Petersburg (or San Francisco to which it was compared by none other than Nikita Khrushchev).
Had it not been for China being able to defend the region after being defeated by Britain in the Opium War and some nimble movement by the Russians, you would not be encountering the palette of vodka, mini-skirts, borscht, anguished literature and some suspicious-looking characters in black Volgas and recycled Mercs.
Vladivostok’s aspirations to be a hot Pacific Rim city were boosted considerably in September 2012 when twenty heads of government came to town for an APEC meeting. A hundred million dollars of development projects are on the board, including a vast casino complex being dubbed as a “Northern Macau”. The Japanese are already assembling Mazdas there. A couple of hours out of town, you can encounter safari parks of Siberian tigers – somebody knows that tourists are coming.
© 2014 Glenn A. Baker – words and photos. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.