Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Worries for Vladivostok, Russia

Vladivostok is uniquely and clearly Russian, and yet is quite near North Korea, Japan, and China.

It is five thousand miles from Vladivostok to Moscow.  Vladivostok is an Asian Russian city, whereas Moscow is a European Russian city. This produces some striking differences.

 My husband and I had the very great honor of visiting Vladivostok, Russia and rural areas outside it, in the Winter which occurred just after 9-11.  We were there for a month, and spent time buying medicines and aiding specific orphanages there. Vladivostok, Russia is a remarkable place.  It is five thousand miles East of Moscow, and sits in Asian Russia.  It is the administrative city to Primorskiy Krai, which is a large maritime province which sits on the Sea of Japan. Very loosely translated from Russian, Vladivostok means, "Star of the East".
    Vladivostok was a closed Russian city for many years as it was a primary location for the Russian Navy and the submarine fleet. It was closed because no one from Russia or anywhere else was permitted there to see any of the manufacture of the submarines.    Vladivostok is a remarkable place and remains the home of the Pacific Russian Naval Fleet. . It is a large Russian city, where the forests on the outskirts show some of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen.  Siberian tigers still roam those woods, and the children from the orphanages are told to avoid woodsy areas or collections of trees.   It is an Asian city, and has the flora and fauna of Asia, which in itself, was very interesting to me. I could not identify a great many of the trees and bushes I saw. Vladivostok has a great and rich history which would fill a book, and is too detailed for a simple blog post. Yul Brynner's family were wealthy timberers there, and their large yellow home still exists there. This is a place of many cultural happenings and of great architecture.
       Being there is a great challenge to one's Russian as very few people there speak English.  Although Moscovites learn English in schools, citizens of Vladivostok learn French, not English.   Fortunately, in pharmacies when I ran out of technical Russian vocabulary, I was able to drop into French, and get the items needed for the orphanage.
        Despite the information we received prior to going there, I felt very safe in Vladivostok. Women are well respected there, and if you are an older woman (which I was not at the time) it is the place to be. Older women are highly respected there, and you will find them in key roles, such as prosecutors and judges, etc. Russia is also, in many ways, a matriarchal society, which I found quite different from the American South. The Russians expected me to be smart, whereas in the American South, they seem surprised by it.
       This was an experience I would not have missed for the world.  Although there are numerous orphanages, the partial product of the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the dissolution of the economy which went with that, it is a place of great culture and of hope. The Russian Orthodox church has branches which were allowed to exist there for hundreds of years, even through the Soviet era. It boasts, from a standpoint of interesting sea creatures, one of the best aquariums in the world. It also has a philharmonic hall.  It is an area of great fashion, and an area of excellent food.
       Reading too much about Vladivostok before going there can be anxiety provoking.  Four branches of the Russian mafia are centered there, and this alone can be daunting.  We did meet mafiosi there, and they bought us dinner a couple of nights.  One mob boss told us that they would prefer to do business legally and without the potential drawbacks of periodic prison, but that legal businesses were not possible or lucrative in prior years.  He spent time seeing if we had a legitimate business which could bolster his fledgling legitimate import export businesses.
      It is reputed to be a dangerous city, and for some of the time we were there, we had a bodyguard and driver. Other times, I dressed as a Russian woman, walked to a small grocers and bought my own freshly made bread, butter sold by the pat, and fruits and vegetables.
      Vladivostok also sits just below the Kamchatka peninsula with its frequent seismic activities and volcanic potential.  Although it is Siberian cold in Winter, in Summer, malaria and typhoid can be an issue. Frequent power outages occur, in part because the weather makes this a very difficult place to live.  Citizens of Vladivostok are made of tough stuff.

This is Dwight K. Morit's picture of the Vladivostok port terminal.

        My thoughts have turned to Vladivostok and its people this week as the newest ruler of North Korea seems to have lost his mind. It's one thing to tell the world you wish to be left alone, but quite another to threaten to send a bomb nuclear or not into American or Japanese territories.  I know with the close proximity of Vladivostok to North Korea, that this must be a concern for the 600,000 inhabitants of Vladivostok, some of whom I consider friends.  After a month in Vladivostok, my husband and I headed to Moscow.  He spent a couple of days and had to return to the US, and I remained for slightly longer completing some tasks at the Embassy there.


           To my friends and to the citizens of Vladivostok, I hope you will all remain safe and come through this challenging time, safely and happily.  I think of you all often.

Additional information on Vladivostok, Russia

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