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Vladivostok is a window into wartime Russia – The Economist – 13.03.24

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is transforming the far eastern city.


In Russia the day begins not in the capital, but in the far east. When Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation” against Ukraine on February 24th 2022, much of Moscow was asleep. But in Vladivostok, on Russia’s eastern coast, they were already having lunch. When Russia votes in presidential elections on March 15th to 17th, Vladivostok’s results will be among the first to be tabulated. Mr Putin will win the ersatz contest. Yet the country he will rule is different from when his current term began.

 

Perched at the very edge of Mr Putin’s would-be empire, some 7,000km from Ukraine, Vladivostok is a good place to observe how the war has changed Russia. One sees neither the economic or political collapse that some Western observers predicted and Ukraine hoped for, nor the triumphant mobilisation that Russian patriots desire. Russia has become more repressive at home, and more isolated abroad. But its economy and society have proven resilient both to pressures from the West and from Russia’s own repressive state, and Vladivostok demonstrates that. As Ilya Lagutenko, the frontman of Mumiy Troll, the city’s most famous rock band, puts it on a recent album, the city has always been one “that made historical zig-zags with the ease of a hitchhiking teenager”.

 

Unflagging patriotism, icy determination

 

Founded in 1860, Vladivostok served as the Russian Empire’s outpost in its vast far-eastern territories, which had once been partly under Chinese control. The city was off-limits to foreigners during the Soviet era, but came to symbolise a new openness after the Soviet Union collapsed. “Vladivostok 2000”, a song by Mumiy Troll from 1997, became a local anthem and captured the national zeitgeist. “We’re leaving, we’re leaving, we’re leaving, purer times are coming,” goes the chorus. Politicians in Moscow and Brussels spoke of a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”.

 

Such talk largely stopped after Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Relations with the West soured and the Kremlin renewed its focus on a “pivot to the east”, in which Vladivostok was to play a key role. “If earlier we spoke of Vladivostok as the country’s outpost in the far east, now we say it is our ‘window to Asia’,” says Vasily Avchenko, one of Vladivostok’s most prominent authors.

 

The latest phase of the war has changed fates across the city. For some, it has been a tragedy. BBC Russia and Mediazona, independent media outlets which monitor Russian casualties, have confirmed 759 deaths so far from the Primorye region—of which Vladivostok is the capital—by combing through funeral announcements. The true toll is likely to be much higher. For others, the war has been an opportunity. Take Vladivostok’s former mayor, who was convicted of taking bribes from an undertaker and sentenced to 16.5 years in prison in 2023.

 

Late last year he was granted early release to serve in the armed forces. Public attitudes towards the conflict vary. Some abhor the idea of fighting Ukraine. “It’s as if everything is happening in a dark dream, people are depressed, they’re afraid,” says one opposition-minded Vladivostok native. Others are defiantly optimistic about their struggle with the West. “The mood is that the West doesn’t understand what it got itself into—it shouldn’t have messed with Russia,” says one Vladivostok-based scholar.

 

After an initial shock, many have returned to their regular rhythms. “Yes, it’s happening, it keeps going, but what can be done?” says one Vladivostok resident. “The city basically lives as it lived.” Russians, as they have done throughout history, have adjusted to their new realities. As the scholar puts it, “Have there ever been easy times in Russia? We’re used to this, we’re adaptive.”

 

To get to know Vladivostok in 2024, The Economist analysed open-source information, crunched numbers, and spoke with residents from across the political spectrum by phone and over the internet. The journey begins where the city itself began.


The gateway to China


On any given day, dozens of ships bob in and around Vladivostok’s port. Many contain coal, minerals and hydrocarbons, heading from Russia’s mines and wells to distant shores. Others are stacked with containers of consumer goods to stock shelves across Russia. The port has become a lifeline for the country as a whole. While the number of container shipments cratered in the year after the invasion, those coming through Vladivostok recovered quickly, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research outfit (see chart). “Many things have to be replaced and they can only be replaced via China,” says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, a think-tank in Berlin. “And it’s the gateway to China.”

 

The port of Vladivostok has been the centre of life along the Golden Horn Bay ever since 1859, when Nikolay Muravyov, the governor of Tsarist-era eastern Siberia, arrived to survey the region aboard a corvette built in New York and dubbed the Amerika. The following year the Russian imperial flag went up above a settlement that Muravyov’s team called Vladivostok, meaning “Rule the East”. (China kept referring to the city by the name Haishenwai, or “Sea Cucumber Cliffs”.) Settlers arrived by ship, including many Ukrainians who boarded steamers from Odessa, enticed by promises of free homesteads. (The free spirit in Vladivostok was strong enough that following the fall of the Romanov dynasty it became the centre of the short-lived independent Far Eastern Republic between 1920 and 1922.)

 

The ships filling the port today demonstrate the growing importance of trade with Asia, a trend that began long before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Current events didn’t start this process, they accelerated it,” says Artyom Lukin of the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. FESCO, the parent company of Vladivostok Port, has long aimed to compete with Russia’s Europe-facing ports. “By the time of the war, everything was ready, everything was laid out—it came in handy in new circumstances,” says one former FESCO executive.

 

Those Asian trade routes have helped the Russian economy weather Western sanctions. Russian businesses, which have plenty of experience working in crisis conditions, found new markets and worked out new logistics quicker than expected, says Natalia Zubarevich, an economist who specialises in Russia’s regions: “The country is big and the world is big, and there are plenty of alternatives out there.” China is the key. Two-way trade with China reached a record high of $240bn last year, up 64% from 2021 (see chart). Russia’s customs service says it added 1,000 staff in the far east to help manage the new flows.


In Vladivostok, China alone accounted for three-quarters of imports through the port. A marquee car factory that once partnered with Japan’s Mazda now pumps out Chinese cars, which are growing in popularity in a city once known for its love for right-hand-drive Japanese vehicles. (Chinese car brands represented five of the six top sellers across Russia last year.) Even the Primorye police force has a new fleet of Chinese-made patrol cars.


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