Vladivostok was a city forbidden to foreigners until 1991. Located in Russia’s far east, it is, however, a city with a European appearance and feel.
Headquarters of the Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok was a strategic port in the Soviet military power and for that very reason was under lock and key. Even citizens of what is now Russia had to obtain special permission to travel to this capital of the Russian Far East.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the fleet experienced a decline but has since recovered and today remains one of Russia’s main naval forces. Not many ships can be seen in the port of Vladivostok, but unlike in the past, there is even a belvedere overlooking the warships.
Vladivostok was founded in 1859 and its destiny was set from the outset. As the closest city to Korea, China and Japan, its geostrategic importance is obvious.
Indeed, the very name is a list of specifications Vladivostok can be translated as “ruling the East”. The territory was bought by Russia from China in 1858 following the Opium War. This is, incidentally, why if you say Vladivostok in China no one knows what it is about. The Chinese have adopted the transliteration Fúlādíwòsītuōkè, but many still know the city in the Russian Far East by its traditional name: Hǎishēnwǎi, which means “canyons of the sea cucumber”.
These different names are at the root of the immense difficulty I had in the Chinese city of Harbin in arranging means of transport to Vladivostok.
Trans-Siberian terminus station
Vladivostok lies on a peninsula bordering the Zolotoy Rog Bay. In the evening the sun sets over the sea and in the morning it rises over the sea. It is as if east and west merge geographically, with the king star as if to deceive us.
Vladivostok is the terminus of the longest railway line in the world. That’s 9,289 kilometres. Such is the distance between Vladivostok and Moscow by rail, which is covered in the seven full days that the train takes to travel across all of immense Russia. It is the mythical Trans-Siberian.
The station is beautiful, with painted ceilings. The border square is dominated by a statue of Lenin, in the pose of someone giving a speech, finger extended pointing to the future. But to those leaving the station it seems to be pointing the way back. In fact, I bumped into history in Vladivostok.
The symbols of the war and the USSR in Vladivostok
The day after I arrived it marked another anniversary of the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany and I am one more in the small gathering that sees the guard of honour and the former combatants proud of their medals laying a wreath in front of the flame that burns eternally in the monument to the dead.
On the walls are inscribed the names of 17,500 Vladivostok-born men and women who perished in the conflict. At the end of the ceremony, a small group of people do not disperse, unfurl the flag of the CP and briefly display portraits of Lenin and Stalin. But they are very few.
I will see later on my trip through Russia that the symbols of the Soviet Union are everywhere. In buildings, in urban statuary and in the street names themselves. However, 30 years after I visited the country for the first time, I talk to a friend about the differences I find despite the signs that remain. He has the right words to describe the transformations:
– It’s not a different country. It is another world…
Vladivostok: a relaxed city
I’m sitting looking at the bustle of the beautiful gare with painted ceilings. There are couples exchanging a passionate kiss; travellers arriving at the last minute.
I stroll through the historic centre. Despite the bad weather of the last few days, Vladivostok welcomes me with a caressing sun, which makes everyone go out into the street and stroll along the waterfront or enjoy all the bits of beach in the port city.
I visit the Prince Nicholas Arch and the Central Square, with the impressive monument to the soldiers of Soviet power, and I visit the Maritime Museum and the Pacific Fleet Museum.
Vladivostok surprises the traveller by its laid-back character. I expected a more enclosed city of grey buildings, and found a beautiful and pleasant city.