Letter from: Russia on the Pacific

Vladivostok may be Russia's answer to San Francisco. But it's increasingly looking to Asia for inspiration, not the west

13 October 2014

I sucked in the warm, humid air so heavy with memories of the tropics and wondered if for some mysterious reason the plane had been rerouted to Hong Kong. But my fellow passengers on the flight from Moscow to Vladivostok seemed unflustered as they squeezed into the bus to the terminal. It was taking some time to sink in that after an eight-hour flight I had not left Russia, but landed on the Far Eastern periphery of this vast country, with the Pacific Ocean swaying just a few miles away.

Here one is easily reminded of this country’s precarious balancing act between east and west. And although the newlyweds posing for pictures near the monument slab at the city gateway were as tipsy as such an occasion would demand in any other part of Russia, Vladivostok carried itself in a peculiarly non-Russian manner, with its streets running up and down the hills, the whitecaps churning in the distance over the vast expanse of the Amur Bay and the traffic jams featuring right-hand-drive Japanese cars and second-hand Korean city buses that still had their prior destinations marked in hieroglyphs. Red lanterns marked entrances to Chinese restaurants serving chow mein and borscht to the 620,000 Russian inhabitants and tens of thousands of Chinese aliens, legally and illegally employed in the city's construction industry. I encountered the pinnacle of culinary aberration the next morning at the hotel buffet when a plate of marinated ginger peacefully co-existed with such traditional Russian breakfast staples as tvorog (cottage cheese) and smetana (sour cream).

Vladivostok is the capital of the Russian province of Primorye, bordering China and North Korea and looking over the Sea of Japan to the Land of the Rising Sun. It is thus much closer to the booming economies of Asia than to Moscow, a whopping 6,140 miles away by rail. Twelve years ago the governor of Primorye announced Vladivostok as the venue of the Pacific Meridian International Film Festival. It was a smart move: the city was placed back on the cultural map of the world having been closed to foreigners and non-resident Russians alike from 1958 until 1992 in order to keep a major Soviet naval base away from prying eyes. With a growing interest in bold Asian cinema, the geopolitical importance that Vladivostok had always held for Russia (its name actually means “Rule the East”) came in handy and since then, Pacific Meridian has turned into an event of international note, warranting the attendance of Adrien Brody and Stephen Baldwin with Michael Madsen taking part in the festival jury.

Unlike most Russian provincial cities, due to its location and setting, Vladivostok does not have the drab, backward feel that sets in as soon as you drive 50 kilometers away from Moscow or St Petersburg. Even the boring Soviet-era apartment buildings terraced on the hills (called sopkas in this part of Russia) look inviting. The port gives the city a dynamic business appeal. The proximity of China allows the residents of “Vladik”, as the city is endearingly called by locals, to travel across the border for a long weekend of cheap nightclubs, booze and carnal fun for ridiculously small amounts of money. The caveat: each of the trippers is given a load of Chinese goods to bring back, thus saving merchants the customs duty. Be it timber, fishing or trade, the waves of Asia’s accelerating growth reach here, judging by private housing construction sites popping up everywhere.

Be it timber, fishing or trade, the waves of Asia’s accelerating growth reach here

Attending screenings in this Russian San Francisco (yes, Vladivostok has its own cable car, too) proved challenging, as the balmy sunny weather often lured me away from indoors. Apparently, August and September are the best months here: the fog of June and July is gone and the ocean is swimming-friendly all the way into October. I was happy to wash off jetlag on a clean city beach in front of the Hotel Vladivostok, surprisingly crowded on weekdays during office hours. Vladivostok is hardly known as a seaside resort destination so it was the locals taking in the ultraviolet.

Svetlanskaya Street, the main drag of Vladivostok where the city disposes of its newly acquired wealth with panache at flashy shops and restaurants, was also crowded throughout the day. It runs along the Golden Horn Bay — a long natural harbor that reminded the Governor-General of Siberia who claimed this area for Russia in 1859 of the one in Istanbul: thus the same name. The protected bay used to be a naval asset but now cuts the city in half and creates traffic jams that rival those of Moscow. Matters are made worse by the influx of used Japanese cars that can be cheaply brought in by sea. I stopped for lunch at a rooftop restaurant of the marine terminal and watched hundreds of them being unloaded and driven off by new owners in less than an hour.

“Statistically each resident of Vladivostok has four cars,” boasted the cabbie who took me to Russia's largest used car market. It was an impressive vista: three large hills turned into one parking lot. The cabbie drove like a maniac, negotiating the hairpin turns and narrow potholed streets. Coming from the airport I had counted four ghastly accidents; I asked him why Vladivostok drivers seemed to be touched by insanity. “Because the cars are cheap,” was his answer. “What Russian does not like to drive fast?” asked – rhetorically – Nikolai Gogol in Dead Souls. The answer: the one armed with Japanese technology.

With plenty of sailors and students in its seven universities, Vladivostok feels rather testosterone-heavy, but male attention is benevolently received by the local socialites of the opposite sex strutting their stuff at zany nightclubs in the risqué and nonchalant fashion Russian women have mastered so well. Looking for a cultural infusion I popped into the city's Philharmonic for an evening of classical music. A friend of a friend belonging to the local “Diggers’ Club” took me on a tour of the underground passages and tunnels that still connect parts of the old military fortifications. Having surfaced I dived into a WWII submarine-turned-museum on the waterfront. Bumping my head against torpedo machinery in the narrow quarters made me feel more claustrophobic than underground. The next day the festival organizers came up with a perfect remedy: a 15-minute helicopter ride put me in the midst of pristine taiga forest where no humans have roamed before.

A 15-minute helicopter ride put me in the midst of pristine taiga forest where no humans have roamed before

As the festival awards were being announced (Still the Water, a Japanese film by Naomi Kawase about two teenagers coming of age, took the Grand Prix) I was thinking that the two-headed eagle on the Russian coat of arms had one head looking west and the other, east. In the west we are somewhat aware of the thinking process in the west-looking head, but are oblivious even to the existence of the east-looking one, which is no less significant, may have a mind of its own and stares Sarah Palin straight in the eye across the Pacific. And while the festival editor of Variety had no idea what Pacific Meridian stood for, Vladivostok’s connection to Hollywood goes way back: Yul Brynner, the city’s most famous prodigal son and the only actor of Russian origin ever to receive an Oscar, was born here in 1920 in the beautiful art nouveau mansion that still stands to this day.

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