Vladivostok - Impressions of the City

The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Vladivostok was that there seemed to be no traffic laws. Cars veered across multiple lanes, fear-stricken pedestrians sprinted across streets, and many major intersections had no stoplights. Right-of-way was awarded to whoever nosed his vehicle most aggressively into the oncoming traffic. If America once had its "Wild West," this felt like Russia's "Wild East."


Vladivostok, or "Lord of the East" in Russian, is a port city on the far southeastern tip of Russia. (David Hillegas)

We also noticed that the majority of vehicles had steering wheels on the right-hand side. Our driver, Misha, told us that they're second-hand cars from Japan, more reliable and cheaper than Russian-made cars. He gestured to a Honda in front of us. "You can buy that car used for $1,500 here."

He went on to say that Vladivostok is now flooded with Asian goods, from food products to clothes to restaurants. "Everything from China is cheap," he told us. "Russian manufacturers can't compete with them."

This was a refrain we'd hear constantly from Russians we met in Vladivostok: Chinese goods and merchants were taking over the city. Nearly every Russian we met had been at least once to China, and most had been multiple times, often bringing back goods to sell themselves. With the Chinese border just a couple hours' drive away, it was an easy trip.

We were told that Russian citizens can travel to China without a visa for up to three days, so people either hopped in their cars and went, or took tours. Even the price of the tours was cheap -- for $100 you could get transportation there and back, plus all hotel and food costs, for three days.

Vladivostok is a beautiful city, all gentle hills, curving shorelines and shimmering water. The city center overlooks Golden Horn Bay, a finger of water that reaches up from the Straits of Eastern Bosphorus below. As we strolled around downtown, signs were everywhere that the city had grown richer since 1995. Many older buildings had been restored, young women walked around in Dolce & Gabbana jeans, people chatted on tiny cell phones. There was a real bustle to the city, even on the weekend.

Our hosts in Vladivostok, Marina Savchenko and her daughter Masha Pechorina, echoed what others had told us. Marina, 48, is a journalist for the Trud newspaper. She also founded with her husband the Who's Who in the Primorsky Region book (modeled after the similar "Who's Who" books in the United States). Masha, 20, is studying Korean philology at Far Eastern National University. Here's what they told us about how things have changed in the last 10 years, in their own words:

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Marina:
New stores have appeared everywhere. Before, there were shortages. You couldn't find the things you needed -- dresses, clothes, or whatever. Food. Now we have food products from all over the world, from Italy, Spain, Korea. And China. There are a lot of Chinese now in Vladivostok. We get our meat products, and so much of our food, from China. If it wasn't for China we'd die of hunger.


Marina Savchenko, 48, is a journalist at Trud newspaper. Her daughter Masha Pechorina, 20, studies Korean philology at Far Eastern National University. (David Hillegas)

A lot fewer things are being made in Russia now. Even our eggs, people don't want because they're of lower quality. Some fruits and dairy products are ours -- either from here or from Siberia. But meat and dry goods, those are from China.

Masha:
One thing that's different is, people have started paying more attention to how they spend their free time. Now they go to bars and clubs, and to museums.

Marina:
Masha! They had those before.

Masha:
Yes, but the quality is a lot better now.

Marina:
No, no! There were restaurants like that before, too. But now there are Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants. Before, there were only Russian -- now there's a big choice. The cheapest ones are Chinese.

... There are a lot of private businesses now -- things like cafes, hairdressers. In '95 I couldn't even buy pelmeny [Russian meat ravioli]. I had to make them myself. I had to find the meat somewhere, make the dough, and put it all together. But now you can just go out and buy them. You can even buy a salad ready-made -- a Greek salad, with olives, lettuce and all. Why make your own dressing, when you can get it all done for you?

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Ready-made Greek salad -- a symbol of better economic times? I've heard wackier economic theories. At any rate, it seems clear that at least in Vladivostok, the Russian middle class seems to be growing. What remains to be seen is whether that pattern holds true in the other cities we're traveling to.

By Lisa Dickey |  September 5, 2005; 6:53 AM ET
Previous: St. Petersburg to Vladivostok | Next: Vladivostok - A Strange Encounter

Comments

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Enjoy Vlad! It seems to be the wild East in many ways: less orderly for sure, but that also meant less oppressive, more fun, and far from Moscow in every sense, which can be a big plus.

Ilya Lagutenko, lead singer for the popular Russian rock group "Mummy Troll", proudly says he still "has his propiska" there. I like how he reminisces about "a city where you can see the water from every window".

Another good expression regarding the spectacular physical setting and ugly Soviet structures: "What God gave Vladivostok is unbelievable. What the residents did with it is unforgivable."

Posted by: Mark | September 6, 2005 11:42 AM

This blog is a great idea. I've long been fascinated by Russia and Russian culture, but have never had the chance to go there. I thought I'd mention, as a point of historical interest, that Vladivostok--along with much of what is now Primorskiy Krai--were in the territory of the Chinese Qing Dynasty until the Treaty of Aigun in 1858, and were then known as Haishenwei. So the Chinese (a fortiori, Manchu) influence actually goes back further than the recent influx resulting from the opening of borders and the post-Soviet Sino-Russian detente. Only now, it's a Russian town with a Russian name. I suppose the cultural and demographic situation there is sort of like what we have in our border region with Mexico, except in their case, unlike ours, the southern neighbor is the more powerful of the two.

Posted by: Sean | September 6, 2005 12:58 PM

Happy to see you on the road! Thanks to Post.com, as your Dad said...the site is good, though I agree about the pix. I am glad you survived the theft and the airport picture-taking.
Excellent writing brings me right there with you and I cannot wait to hear about what you find.

It is good to see you face!

Posted by: Andrea Evers | September 6, 2005 03:16 PM

Glad to hear that things seem to have gotten better over the last 10 years. Has the plight of the older people improved any or are they still having a hard time living on their small pensions?

Posted by: Harv | September 6, 2005 03:31 PM

I was amazed, when I realized I had the chance to follow your trip trough Russia, specially Siberia. And now I keep myself busy reading the Road Stories from 1995 to have a real time confrontation of how things changed, with your frequent reports.
Great trip and good luck tracking down the lighthouse keeper.

Posted by: JP | September 6, 2005 03:38 PM

It is interesting to see the forces of modernization unfold in a different place. Somethings must seem very different. Alas, many seem the same. More pictures, please.

Posted by: Helena | September 6, 2005 04:23 PM

two pics? that's it???

Posted by: oleg | September 7, 2005 11:08 PM

We'll have one or two pictures with each daily blog posting, and more for the 10-years-later "Road Stories." Check out the "Lighthouse Keepers" story for a gallery of David's photos.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | September 7, 2005 11:47 PM

Really interesting to read about your time in Vladivostok! I have long been fascinated by this city, enough that I ended up writing an entire dissertation on its history, with special focus on the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese populations in the late tsarist era. It's intriguing to see many of the same issues that were so prominent in the minds of Russians 100 years ago now returning to the fore, after a long hiatus. Perhaps if you go back in 2015 you can interview a Chinese entrepreneur living in Vladivostok and gain what would certainly be a very different perpsective on life in the city! Having talked to many Russians about this issue during my time living in the city, I know that many of them are less than enthusiastic about the growing Chinese presence among them...

Posted by: David Habecker | September 9, 2005 04:41 PM

I enjoyed reading your description of Vladivostok in 2005, 10 years after you were first there. I am an American who lived there for 10 months from mid-1993 until the end of 1994. I wrote about those experiences in an award-winning travel book, THE OTHER SIDE OF RUSSIA: A SLICE OF LIFE IN SIBERIA AND THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST (published in 2003, 2004). Some of your descriptions of Vladivostok are very similar to what I observed in the early post-Soviet era; your other observations indicate that Vladivostok has changed in many ways. Perhaps the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Posted by: Sharon Hudgins | September 15, 2005 12:14 PM

My wife and I adoped a little boy from Birobidjan nearly two years ago. It was a beautiful area and I remember the walks on the frozen Bira River in
February watching people ice fish. The cold really was more refreshing than bothersome, it was a dry cold so it did not penetrate. The orphanage and its children are a memory now. Located not far from the train station in one of your pictures. By the way, the impression we had was that the children were well cared for despite the hardships. Their faces will always stay, particulary one called Michael, an older boy around 10 who would spy us playing with our new son. He would just watch us silently without any sense of envy but interest and joy for another who was finding a home. He would run off whenever I tried to get him to join us. Finally I cornered him and gave him what I could: a smile, asked him for his name and then handed him a Hershey chocolate bar.

Posted by: Jim Murray | September 18, 2005 11:46 AM

Sean (seanchu@gmail.com) is right saying that Vladivostok (Haishenwai) is very close to China to be influenced by Zhongguo demographically. It's a weak position of Moscow (they concider us as a peripheral territory) that led to granting China several islands in Amur river and letting Chinese fill the Primorsky territory with crowds of NLAC soldiers, camouflaged like construction workers and traders.
But it'a question who's more powerful. Some people say we've got to put Russian Orthodoxal churches along the border - it would frighten our "younger brothers" ;)

Posted by: Vistor Ivanchenko | September 19, 2005 01:29 AM

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