Vladivostok returns to its wicked ways: Shut off for 70 years, Russia's gateway to Asia opens its arms again - to a life of crime. Terry McCarthy reports

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The Independent Online
IN THE lobby of the Hotel Vladivostok a cleaning lady shuffles back and forth. She looks old enough to remember the high- rolling days of Vladivostok as a thriving free port, before it was closed down by the communists in 1922. Wearing a black and gold tigerskin dress, a rakish chiffon scarf tossed around her neck and carpet slippers, this ageing diva waltzes slowly around the grimy lobby, pushing a broom and humming to herself in another world.

Closed completely to foreigners since 1958 and Foreign of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok itself seems to belong to another world. Foreigners have been officially welcome since January, but it is a strange welcome.

At first sight, Vladivostok has a turn-of-the-century charm. Clustered on hills around the port, it seems to be designed for panoramic postcard views. Along Svetlanskaya Street (temporarily renamed Lenin Street for the past 70 years), the grand old houses built by the German, Italian, French and British traders 100 years ago are still standing. Trams clank up and down the hills.

In the centre is Vladivostok railway station, a green-turreted building whose first stone was laid by Tsar Nicholas II. It is the end of the great Trans-Siberian railway, and a plaque on Platform One says the railway, completed in 1912, is 9,288km from Moscow. In the old days the Vladivostok- Paris 'Express' took 12 days. Like Shanghai, a thousand miles to the south on the coast of China, Vladivostok was a bustling merchant's paradise, where fortunes were made and lost overnight. 'A Russian wife, a Chinese cook and a Japanese geisha' was the motto of the old European pioneers.

When the communists arrived, they quickly put an end to the city's free-wheeling nature. Now that their rule has ended, Vladivostok is rediscovering its old sins with a vengeance.

Sitting around the lobby of the Hotel Vladivostok are a motley group of gangsters, wearing leather jackets and tracksuits, the elite of the city's growing underworld. One day last week an American tourist was beaten up by two of these thugs in the restaurant - they stole his wallet and strolled out, and no one batted an eyelid. They pimp for the prostitutes looking for hard currency from foreigners, deal in black-market foreign exchange, and above all they talk about cars - second- hand Japanese cars.

Irene, the key-lady on the hotel's fourth floor, told me with an innocent smile that I could bring anything to my room 'except explosives'. This seemed to be a joke until the next evening, when police, armed with sub-machine- guns, conducted a room-by-room search, demanding to see passports and asking whether anyone had guns or explosives.

In the hotel car park a black wreath has been nailed to a tree. It marks the spot where two weeks ago a driver for one of the mafia gangs was shot dead. 'From the brotherhood to a brother,' reads the inscription.

Opening the city after it had been cut off from the rest of Russia and the world for more than 30 years has been like opening the doors of a zoo and watching the law of the jungle take over. Local officials say the graceful city, with its old European buildings and tramways up and down the hills, could be a Russian San Francisco. But at the moment it is little more than a Russian South-Central Los Angeles, with mafia warfare and street crime, verging on a complete breakdown of law and order.

The principal reason for the sudden upsurge in crime is the highly profitable business of importing second-hand cars shipped across the Sea of Japan. From the port they are transported by road, rail and even by air across Russia and the former Soviet republics, earning the middlemen substantial profits. To corner these profits, an array of mafia gangs have sprung up, some local, some from other parts of Russia, and others from Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

Relations between the mafia groups were uneasy from the beginning, but when 'Panin', an infamous godfather, was found shot dead in a burnt-out car last year, gang warfare broke out. The police say they now find about eight bullet-riddled corpses a week.

When they are not shooting at each other, the mafiosi spend their time drinking vodka and listening to loud music in the new restaurants. A favourite is the North Korean restaurant, where men from the workers' paradise bustle around with their Kim Il Sung badges, showing a keen appreciation of the capitalist spirit.

Everyone is on the make in Vladivostok these days, from female students who turn to prostitution to supplement the student grant of less than 50p per month, to the once-mighty Pacific Fleet, which is running out of Moscow funding.

According to Captain Viktor Ryzhkov of the Fleet's headquarters, there are around 300 ships, including 75 submarines, two aircraft carriers, a cruiser and 40 battleships, based in Vladivostok. But they hardly leave port now because of fuel shortages. The aircraft carrier Minsk, moored off the coast, does not have enough fuel even to power its own generators: once a day a helicopter flies from shore with hot meals for the sailors. 'Of course we have enough fuel to defend our area if necessary,' Capt Ryzhkov insists.

In the city, military fuel tankers are filled with water and used to provide private car-washes. The civil defence force is leasing its underground bunkers as storage space to local merchants. Ageing submarines and rusty ships are being sold off to South Korea as scrap. This was the fleet that once threatened the balance of power in the Pacific.

It took the city administration four years and much lobbying to get Moscow to agree to open up Vladivostok, after Mikhail Gorbachev's promise to open Russia up to Asia when he visited the city in 1986. Now some are having second thoughts. 'Things have got worse in some ways since the city was opened,' says Nikolai Zaika, president of the local journalists' association. 'Many people have written to the papers asking the authorities to close the city again.'

(Photograph omitted)