Vlad in Vlad: Forging Russia’s First Hot City on the Pacific Rim

Posted September 11th, 2012 at 6:24 am (UTC+0)

The upside about an enlightened dictator is the enlightenment part.

With two pylons slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower, Vladivostok’s new $1 billion bridge to Russian Island is the longest cable stay bridge in the world. Opened last month, Vladivostok’s new bridge is already the city’s new symbol, comparable to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Photo: AP

Five years ago, Vladimir Putin took a hard look at Vladivostok, the faraway city founded in 1860 by Czar Alexander II as Russia’s main port on the Pacific.

In 2007, President Putin evidently decided that in the era of Asian tigers, Vladivostok was the Pacific Rim’s ugly duckling.

In that year, the Russian leader lobbied and won the right to host the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. With the most powerful leaders of Asia destined to converge on Vladivostok in September 2012, Russia’s five-year clock was set.

Since then, the Putin team put in place the pieces to make Vladivostok, seven time zones east of Moscow, the Pacific Rim’s new hot city.

And here is the fun part: most of the locals don’t get it yet.

Fireworks explode Saturday night over the city’s second new bridge, this one built over Golden Horn Bay. The $10 million fireworks display was designed to signal to gathered leaders from 21 Pacific Rim nations that Vladivostok is now open for business with Asia. Photo: Reuters

As Alexey Eremenko reported Friday for Ria, the government controlled news agency: “But not one of the dozen Vladivostok residents interviewed by RIA Novosti admitted to having high hopes for the region’s economic future.”

Some quick background.

In November, 1922, after American, Canadian and Japanese interventionist troops withdrew from Vladivostok, the Bolsheviks finally won control of this free-wheeling city on Russia’s eastern edge. The Communists closed Vladivostok to foreigners, a ban that lasted 70 years. In the 1930s, Stalin deported all ethnic Asians, and then closed the entire city to Soviets without permits.

In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev visited San Francisco. The Soviet leader flew home and decided to make Vladivostok, a hilly city overlooking Golden Horn Bay, a Soviet San Francisco.

Visionary: Vladimir Putin inspects airy new terminal for Vladivostok’s International Airport. Built to handle 10 million tourists, seven times last year’s volume, the airport is to handle business visitors and Asian tourists visiting a future mini-Macao of the North — gambling and golf complex to be built 15 kilometers away.Photo: Reuters

That turned out to mean cement box buildings overlooking the Soviet Pacific Fleet. The pearl of Russia’s Pacific remained a Cold War naval base, closed to foreigners. Through the 1980s, foreign tourists traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway never saw the graceful Beaux Arts railroad station, opened in 1912 as the eastern terminus. Instead, Soviet era tourists were shunted to Nakhodka, an industrial port where passenger ferries to Japan competed with freighters stacked with raw logs or filled with dusty coal.

The rollicking, cosmopolitan port that gave the world Yul Brynner, the Russian-American actor, was, in Soviet times, was a paranoid place, closed to Asia.

In 1992, Vladivostok opened to outsiders. Four years later, in 1996, I made my first of what would be many visits. Vladivostok had molted from military city to depressed city, a place of monopolies and scams, a place suspicious of Asia, rather than embracing it.

Visitors arrive last week at Vladivostok’s new international airport. To go to the city, they now have the choice of a new 4-lane highway, or a new red and white painted Aeroexpress train to the 1912 Beaux Arts rail station downtown — also the Pacific terminus of Russia’s 9,289 kilometer long Trans-Siberian Railway. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Since my first visit to Vlad, I worked my way around the Pacific clock, visiting among others: Anchorage, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sydney, Auckland, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai and Seoul.

Of the group, Vladivostok was unique. It was the Pacific Rim city that, as doctors gravely tell parents, was failing to thrive.

The population remained stable at 600,000 – but only because it drew in people from the countryside, replacing ambitious college educated city dwellers. They either migrated west to Moscow or left Russia entirely. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok’s Primorye Region has lost 15 percent of its population. One day, I tracked down Stephanie, my bright and energetic translator from my 1996 reporting trip. She was happily married and working in Brisbane.

How do Putin & Co. plan to turn Vladivostok into a hot city?

For starters, by educating the new generation.

Russia’s California? No, the new campus of the Far Eastern Federal University, across a bay from Vladivostok. Starting next month, 11,000 students will live on the campus and 14,000 will commute from the city. The University will offer some courses in English and is recruiting foreign foreign faculty and students. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Next month, the APEC conference site on Russian Island becomes a campus for 25,000 students. Not only will this draw traffic out of Vladivostok’s clogged streets, but it will move education to what many visitors call the most beautiful university campus in Russia. Curving around Ajaks bay, dormitories and lecture halls look out on parks, trees, tennis courts, and the Sea of Japan.

Saturday evening, Emil Veliev, a smiling, Canadian-trained 29-year-old, told me how he defied skeptics and built the whole campus in 1,000 days.

At least 10 percent of the students are to be Asians, and many courses are to be offered in English. Stephanie Plant, an equally young, Harvard-trained American, told me how, from her office in Vladivostok, she is recruiting international faculty, for the university, Far Eastern Federal University.

Next, inspire the new generation.

From a top floor terrace of the university’s main building, the new park like campus stretches out to Ajaks Bay and the new cable stay bridge to the continent. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Pundits lampoon the new bridge to Russian Island, as “the billion bridge to nowhere.” That clever comment ignores the fact that the bridge now leads to a university built to educate 25,000 of the region’s best and brightest.

It also ignores the bridge’s inspirational power. One month after opening, the bridge, the longest cable stay bridge in the world, is Vladivostok’s new symbol. Postcards, TV reports, and refrigerator magnets are carrying its laser lit image the world over.

Then, make the city livable for the new generation.

The bridge is part of a massive series of construction projects: two other major bridges, a new airport terminal, a cube-shaped new opera and ballet theater, a huge aquarium, and a beautiful parkway that curves through mountains and around Vladivostok, further reducing traffic congestion.

At one end of the new highway system is the city’s new international airport, with a world class terminal. Next year, two new Hyatt hotels are to open with 450 rooms overlooking Golden Horn Bay. Hyatt is the first international chain to open in the Russian Far East. (For APEC, my first hotel reservation in Vladivostok was to be at the 2 star Granit, which offers suites with ‘fool-equipped kitchens.’ I upgraded to the new university campus.)

Less visible, the city is installing a piped gas line that will cut air pollution and a municipal sewage treatment system. After 150 years of dumping sewage into the sea, Vladivostok is now to have waters clean enough for swimming.

On campus: VOA video journalist Austin Malloy ignores the swimmers and zeroes in on The Big Bridge. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Finally, and, most important, create well-paying jobs for the future generation.

At the summit, preliminary agreements were signed with Japanese companies for the construction of a $13 billion liquefied natural gas plant and export terminal near Vladivostok.  Next year, the Russian oil company, Rosneft, starts construction on a $6 billion refinery and petrochemical complex in Nakhodka, currently a two-hour drive east of Vladivostok. At the same time, work is to start on a $500 million rebuilding of the highway to Nakhodka.

In addition to energy, Vladivostok is finally embracing its proximity to China, Japan and Korea for transportation. Billions of dollars are earmarked for upgrading rail and port facilities to allow the Trans-Siberian to carry the mounting volumes of freight from Asian shippers who want to use Russia as a rail bridge to Europe.

At the APEC conference, Salavat Rezbaev, chairman of New Age Capital Partners, walked me through his company’s plan to build a $1 billion port at Troitse, a Primorye port near the Chinese border. It would handle grain, coal, and containers for China. On adjacent land, there are plans for an industrial zone capable of employing 150,000 people.

With the new airport and runway capable of handling 10 million passengers a year, the city is embarking on two international tourism projects.

The new campus has its own artificial waterfall with a continuous, closed circuit flow of water. VOA’s Malloy, with his APEC badge, enjoys the September sun. VOA Photo: James Brooke

 This month, the first tender takes place for investment in Vladivostok’s “Integrated Entertainment Zone,” the only legalized gambling district in Russia’s Far East. With 300 million Asians living within a two hour flight of Vladivostok, the planned $2 billion casino, entertainment and golf complex could emerge as a mini-Macao of the north.

 Closer to the airport, plans are underway for PrimRing, a $200 million motor racing complex designed to draw car aficionados from around Northeast Asia. Already, 20 Asian cities have direct flights to Vladivostok.

Other projects are afoot: expansions of recently installed assembly plants of Japanese and South Korean cars, the construction of a fourth bridge, and the construction of “Sand Star”, a $30 billion satellite city.

Most promising for the future is a sea change in attitudes toward Chinese investment. During the APEC conference, Vladimir Miklushevskiy, the new regional governor appointed by Putin last spring, gave a special news conference for the international press. He gamely answered all my questions. But with one Chinese television reporter after another, he zeroed in again and again on his core message: transparency, clear and fair rules of the game, and a big welcome to Asian investment.

A Party to remember: fireworks light up Vladivostok’s port — and a portent of the future: a construction crane. Photo: Reuters

The young college students and recent graduates I talked to in Vladivostok get it. They plan to look for work in Vladivostok.

But the older, Soviet generation still struggles with the new world. Time and again, during the APEC conference, security guards tried to block VOA from filming – first, the new $200 million airport terminal, then the $1 billion bridge, and then, joggers on the new university campus.

While President Putin installs the hardware in Vladivostok for a hot Pacific Rim city, it will take time to install the software.

And that represents a core challenge for Vlad in Vlad: can an authoritarian leader erase a deeply ingrained ‘culture of nyet’?

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

5 responses to “Vlad in Vlad: Forging Russia’s First Hot City on the Pacific Rim”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. Recently State Secretary Hilary Clinton pointed out that the USA government would wish to promote and booster business relations with Russia.
    But it takes two to tango.
    Is Russia under Mr. Putin really ready to meet half way? I’m in doubt.
    As an inhabitant of European Russia, I agree with Vladivostok’s residents interviewed by state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency. High hopes for the region’s economic future can’t justified. Mr. Putin’s regime hasn’t changed a bit and isn’t willing to.
    2. The omnipotent state machine is turned to the advantage of few and is unaccountable, basic human rights for citizens are denied, property rights are violated and often unobserved, business climate is appalling, rule of law is arbitrary, police brutality is overwhelming. To start business in Putin’s Russia is almost mission impossible. The cost of any project two times exceeds its usual price. At any moment any business maybe blocked, raided or simply put offline. How can Vladivostok project flourish when the regime has already failed to solve demographic crisis, crisis in education and healthcare?
    3. With Mr. Putin installing “the hardware” in Vladivostok Russian Treasury spent 20 billion $ for the upgrade, the sum earned for selling-off natural resources.
    But the “software” in the city is non-existent and isn’t expected soon. For two last decades the city was losing its brightest and the most capable citizens for Moscow, the USA and Canada.
    Who will fill up auditoriums in the new University? The enlisted students lag far behind their peers from China and South Korea who are at the top of PISA test. Russia fails in public education http://www.oecd.org/pisa/. In 2009 in PISA tests Russia was 38-th in Maths, 39-th in Sciences and 42-th in Reading http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programme_for_International_Student_Assessment#2009
    And where the university’s undergraduates will find jobs, as the city is plagued by unemployment?
    Who will teach 25,000 of the region’s best and brightest in the university as Russia experiences acute shortage of capable tutors and professors even in European part of the country? The majority of nowadays tutors and professors are under qualified or simply are retirees. Where will undergraduates sharpen their skills?
    4. I’m in doubt that Vladivostok will be tourists’ attraction with inevitable souring prices (remember Moscow’s prices), clumsy services, brutal police and poor entertainment industry. Just casinos, gambling and golf won’t do the trick for millions tourists and everybody’s satisfaction.
    5. How can the new governor promise transparency, clear and fair rules of the game for Asian investors when billions $ of foreign money has fled Russia in last years, and nobody forgot Magnitsky case? I’m in doubt that Asian investors will be treated otherwise than their Western counterparts.

  2. Malek Muhammad Towghi (Baluch) says:

    Why can’t we have the same trade relations with Russia that we have with China? Is Russia more authoritarian than China and Saudi Arabia?? Let us do away with the Cold War time trade and cultural restrictions … and everything will be all right. Only with the Russian partnership, the civilized world can successfully confront the Islamic fanaticism and the Chinese imperialism. Let us dream for a NAPTO, North Atlantic-Pacific Treaty Organization, including Russia & Japan, replacing the Cold War -time NATO. Yes, Putin will move more than half way as long as we don’t treat Russia as a banana republic. Russia will continue to refine.

  3. Oksana says:

    Despite the complicated economic situation Vladivostok is a beautiful Russian city which is worth seeing!
    Look for the russian train tickets on the website:

  4. Gennady says:

    To Oksana:
    You should be joking to advertise train tickets to week long train journey to Vladivostok from your website.
    It will be such a bore in the Russian “express”.
    Explain, what specific tourist attraction are worth seeing in the decades neglected city with looming brutal Vladivostok police ready to interrupt your fun at any moment by planting such trifles as drugs into your belongings?

  5. Kevin Strom says:

    Let us hope that the new Vladivostok will continue to preserve its European heritage — both genetic and cultural.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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