When acclaimed Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov reached Vladivostok in 1890, he portrayed it as a part of Europe bursting with Asia’s flavors. The most European city of Asia for the past 130 years has seen its share of historical crossroads — transitioning from the openness of the Tsarist era to garrison life during the Soviet reign, and, most recently, dwelling in the post-USSR criminal saturnalia. Nowadays, it hosts the Eastern Economic Forum, featuring the leaders of neighboring Japan and South Korea; Vladivostok had metamorphosed into the Kremlin’s trump card for reaching out to the Pacific.
The naval port city was founded in the mid-19th century because the Tsar, thousands of miles away in Saint Petersburg, coveted the further expansion of his vast Eurasian empire. The name in Russian is literally translated as “the ruler of the East,” with the city initially coming to life as a stronghold overseeing the Amur Bay.
The city survived the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 and was turned into a major Imperial naval base on the Pacific. During World War II it became a bastion for supplying the Red Army’s offensive against Japanese forces. Shortly thereafter, in 1948, the Soviets turned it into a secret military base, meanwhile militarizing the territory with soldiers, tanks, and warships.
Before submerging into the Soviet garrison life, Vladivostok was known for being a “sin city” of the Russian East. Its geographic importance greased the wheels for expansion and the city grew rapidly after being linked to Moscow, almost 6,000 miles away, by the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903. The streets were packed with Chinese and Japanese sailors, as well as smugglers and runaways of all sorts who stored their wealth, hid from persecution, and spent money in local pubs. Some streets reeked with the smoke of Chinese opium and were saturated with vodka and red caviar.
With Vladivostok known for its openness, merchants from all over the Russian Far East traveled for hundreds of miles to trade fur, diamonds, gold, and other natural wonders. The major street used to be named “Amerikanskaya,” and indeed the port was open to everybody, including Americans, who made fortunes while stockpiling ships’ holds with products and reselling in the United States.
The city’s unique character is still manifested in its architecture, which merges together European and Asian worlds. To this day, Vladivostok’s center has preserved zelenie kirpichiki — a building constructed by a German architect with materials supplied directly from his home country. The center of Millionka, the local Chinatown, is currently in decline but used to be a gathering spot for Chinese who settled down and brought along their traditions and customs.
Vladivostok’s openness was nearly wiped out by the Soviets when 70 years of being a Red Army bastion in the Pacific led to disaster. The estranged planned economy and lack of knowledge about free market principles drove local residents into a literal wilderness and lawlessness that later gave rise to the criminal capitalism of the 1990s.
By then, Vladivostok, an ideal merchant paradise located at the crossroads of trading routes, was rediscovering its identity once again. Along with the seafood trade, the illegal transfer of used and inexpensive Japanese cars to the mainland became a profitable business, with the mafia heavily augmenting financial flows. Decades of rampant corruption turned the city into a criminal capital of the Russian East. During this period, Vladivostok was a Russian Juarez, with daily murders near bars and restaurants part of a grim normality.
The wounds of corruption still trouble the city. Every single mayor who governed in Vladivostok since 1991 has faced corruption charges. Most recently, Igor Pushkarev, who had been in charge since 2008, was arrested in June amid bribery allegations; he was escorted to the court in Moscow.
However, Vladivostok has experienced a renaissance for the past several years. The Far Eastern region encompasses more than a third of Russia’s vast landmass and some of the country’s largest deposits of natural resources. In contrast, it is home to only 7.2 million people, with almost 110 million Chinese living in the three neighboring provinces of Manchuria. As the Kremlin feels the threat of Sinification, it has started pouring money into regional development with the unofficial capital at Vladivostok becoming a stage for displaying Moscow’s ambitions.
The Kremlin has erected countless roads, theaters, and even a new oceanarium, as well as two large bridges constructed for the city’s breakthrough in 2012: it’s hosting of the APEC Russia summit. Local residents immediately started calling the two bridges “boy” and “girl” due to their X and Y shaped structures.
One of the bridges overlooks picturesque Golden Horn Bay, where gray battleships of the Russian Pacific Fleet are carefully parked flank-to-flank, reminders of the city’s military past. Another bridge features the world’s largest Russian tricolor flag and links the city to the Russky Island. This formerly abandoned territory, home to scenic Tobizin Cape, now hosts a hi-tech campus of Far Eastern Federal University.
The Kremlin further promises to modernize the city, having recently announced plans to turn it into a free port that could be accessed freely without visas. The strategy is expected to boost trade and drive local development independently from federal funding in the long term. Once again, Vladivostok is expected to rise from the ashes and restore the century-old Tsarist vision in the 21st century.
These efforts have been paying off so far. Vladivostok boasts the region’s largest fertility rate growth and has seen the lowest outflow of people to central Russia over the past 20 years. The city’s streets are now bursting with expensive shops and cars, with restaurants’ prices surpassing those of Moscow.
While Vladivostok readies to embrace another landmark role, however, residents continue to live in both the historical splendor and the misery of the Russian Far Eastern capital. Decades of negligence and Soviet militarism complicated a sudden embrace of the long-forgotten openness, and healing the ingrained corruption will not happen overnight. Besides, it is evident to everybody that the current rebirth took place because of Moscow’s funding and strict patronage, meaning the future might change overnight if the Kremlin’s leadership decides to ply its ambitions elsewhere.
On the way from the city’s airport, the election posters of local political parties along the road enthusiastically demand the restoration of the Soviet borders and gulags. And despite Moscow’s plans, local residents are not keen to welcome foreigners and tourists; racial tensions have been boiling up for some time. In particular, thousands of migrant workers from Central Asia who came to work at Vladivostok’s construction sites and earn the Kremlin’s money have sparked local discontent and blatant racism.
It is unclear whether the Kremlin’s efforts can bring back the city that James Joyce referenced in his novel Ulysses. As the Russian economy continues its downturn, money might stop pouring in at any time, with the city’s budget remaining unsustainable without massive subsidies. Yet nobody knows what could happen here as Vladivostok silently embraces another historical transformation.
Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a Moscow-based writer. His writings have been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, Huffington Post and others. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.