Out of Siberia: Lord of the East staggers into new era

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The Independent Online
VLADIVOSTOK - On the Tarmac at Vladivostok airport a striking woman in a silver-fox fur coat watched the passengers from Japan disembarking. She was, it seemed, in charge.

Then she was gone, and all that was left was dull Russian officialdom. We waited half an hour to have our passports checked in immigration control in an unheated tin shed with the floor frozen over. The two officials scrutinised our documents agonisingly slowly as the sun sank below the horizon into another Siberian night.

This kind of experience kept repeating itself in Vladivostok, which means 'Lord of the East', home to Russia's once-mighty Pacific Fleet and until two years ago closed to outsiders. A brief flourish of style, then a tantalising echo of Vladivostok's glamorous pre-Revolutionary past is quickly obscured by the monotony of everyday Russian life, the search for food and cheap goods, the queues, the grey slush, the contradictions of Third World misery in a First World culture.

Last year the city was scandalised when it was revealed that four sailors in the fleet had starved to death. And yet in the casino of the newly-renovated Versailles hotel, on a hill overlooking the sea, local mafiosi wager hundreds of dollars on each spin of the roulette wheel. They have made their money from importing second-hand cars from Japan, from prostitution and protection rackets. The more sophisticated are even involved in the stock market and property speculation.

Apart from the odd statue of Lenin that no one has got around to dismantling, the centre of Vladivostok still has the same turn-of-the- century charm for which it was once famous: stately German architecture and trolley cars trundling up the hills that overlook the Golden Horn harbour.

In the days before Lenin, when it was a free port and home to British, French, German and Japanese traders, 'the perfect formula was: a Russian wife, a Japanese mistress and a Chinese cook', a friend told me. Today the formula would be more like: American dollars, a Japanese car and a Chinese coat.

Or Korean ice-cream. For some reason it is more profitable to import ice-cream by ship from South Korea, 400 miles away, than to make it locally. It was selling for 1,000 roubles - about 30p - and seemed popular in the sub-zero temperatures. 'People are glad their bodies are warmer than the ice-cream,' said my friend, with a twist of humour.

But there is little to laugh about in Vladivostok. Starved of funds from Moscow, the Pacific Fleet and the defence contractors that supplied it are on their last legs. Last month an admiral and two of his officers were prosecuted for selling navy fuel on the black market. And after four months of receiving no salary, the workers at the Zvezda nuclear- submarine plant began a protest, threatening to leave the factory's nuclear reactors unattended. 'It's hard to work on an empty stomach. Did I just tighten the wrong bolt?' a disgruntled worker told the local newspaper.

I walked to the beach. The sea was frozen to a depth of about two feet, and people were walking out on the ice. They carried large drills to bore holes in the ice, through which they could fish. One man, who had been taking medicinal doses of vodka against the cold, wanted to demonstrate a dance. Redfaced and still holding his fishing line, he lurched over the ice and ended up flat on his back.

The feeling that everything was verging on the surreal was reinforced late one Saturday night on the way home from a party. An ambulance with siren blaring pulled up by the side of the road. The driver opened the door and yelled out 'party'. Inside were a group of young punks, drinking beer and listening to rock music. The ambulance had been stripped of everything except two benches to sit on. This mobile party went on until 4am.

Later, in the hotel dining room, a group of crew-cut hoods were drinking beer and vodka for breakfast. It was only 9.30 on a Sunday morning. They had got the waitress to put on some loud disco music. Then one of the youths started performing ballet steps to a techno-funk record. Clearly he had been well coached in classical ballet from the graceful way he held himself.

But one of his friends began to imitate him with a can of beer in his hand, lurching drunkenly and slopping beer. Everyone roared at the vaudeville, and another young buck took down his trousers to get a few more laughs.

Vladivostok, say the city fathers, should become like Singapore or Hong Kong, a centre for shipping and investment in East Asia. If any of these top officials actually visit Hong Kong or Singapore and see how those cities are run, they might share this nagging feeling of the surreal when they return to the Lord of the East.