Daleko – Operation: Far Out
Operation: Far Out
Words and Photography by Alexey Lapin
Even for Russians themselves, accustomed to the vast distances of their own country, Vladivostok is very far. A direct flight from Moscow would take eight and a half hours. By train, of course, there’s another option – the famous Trans-Siberian railway (the longest railway in the world), which would take you almost a full week. It’s no surprise that skaters from the European part of the country rarely visit these parts, so it was doubly desirable to be in Vladivostok with the Russian adidas Skateboarding team filming their new team video clip.
Vladivostok was founded by the Russian military 260 years ago, in 1860. Tsarist generals have long been looking for a suitable bay on the Pacific coast to deploy their military and merchant fleets, and the local Golden Horn Bay with a convenient sheltered harbour, close to the main Asian trade routes, was optimally suited for these purposes. It was here that the first military settlement with the ambitious name ‘Vladivostok’ was laid by the hands of Russian sailors. ‘Vladet Vostokom’ (Russian for ‘Own the East’) – this is how the Russian imperial family consolidated its claim to this region, and so this city was destined to become the Pacific Gate of our country, a pearl on the crown of the Russian Empire in the Far East.
During its first fifty years, Vladivostok developed very rapidly, almost immediately becoming a port of international trade and an international city with populous foreign communities. At the beginning of the last century, many Chinese, Koreans and Japanese lived here. In pre-Soviet times, it even had its own Chinatown. The district was called ‘Millionka’ and was one of the most luscious places in the city: you could smoke opium, gamble or visit an ethnic brothel with Asian courtesans. But with the emergence of the USSR and the strengthening of Soviet power, almost all of the national minorities living in the city were slowly deported. Moreover, after the Second World War, the city, which had strategic military significance, was completely ‘closed’ to foreigners. Only forty years later, with the beginning of Perestroika, Gorbachev signed a decree allowing foreign guests to stay here.
The wild 90s hit the city hard. After the collapse of the USSR, Vladivostok became a centre for smuggling used cars, illegal fishing, and, in general, rampant organised crime, which is normally the case in port cities where criminal traditions are strong. The unfolding battlefield behind the import flows of second-hand Toyota and Mitsubishi cars and the export of Kamchatka crabs and scallops squandered a considerable number of ruddy, physically healthy young athletes. They fought with such frenzy that once they even blew up a five-storey residential building. The story is worse than any action movie: some bandits decided to blow up the leader of a rival gang. They monitored his apartment for a month, then lowered a bucket of TNT from the roof of the house on a rope, rocked it and threw it into the apartment window while the enemy was asleep. The killer lit the fuse; the hut blew to smithereens. The neighbours died, as did the pregnant wife. As for ‘the man of the hour’: not a bruise. Ten years later, by the way, they tried to blow it up once more – and again to no avail. In fact, organised crime still decides a lot in Vladivostok, only nowadays it has been ennobled, overgrown with police connections and penetrated by the authorities. For example, just a couple of years ago one of the last mayors of Vladivostok was accused of corruption and is serving a fifteen-year sentence in a maximum-security colony.
The first thing that catches your eye after a day of stay in Vladik is the brokenness of the city. The majority of Vladivostok’s urban infrastructure is in very feeble condition. Sure, a couple of central streets are still in a somewhat restored and repaired state, but should you literally walk a couple of blocks inland or take a look into the courtyards you get instantly teleported to Abkhazia, or remote areas of Kyrgyzstan or to African Somalia – everything’s just so broken and beat down – the adjoining territories, entrances, facades of houses, playgrounds, etc. Almost the entire city today requires major repairs. The historical buildings of the pre-Soviet period suffer especially severely without a caring hand. All the while the city officials don’t even try to restore it, preferring to simply demolish everything as soon as possible in order to erect multi-storey commercial housing on the vacated area. In addition to the above, every new building being built is done so poorly, inaccurately, and using such low-quality materials that they also begin to fall apart after a couple of years. The accelerated destruction of Vladivostok is also facilitated by the regular coming of typhoons from the Pacific Ocean, eroding the highways and sidewalks, tearing trees to the root and destroying roofs of houses and buildings. Destruction of the like requires continuous extra financing for repairs. Apparently, the city doesn’t have such funds. That being said, maybe if they weren’t so corrupt…
The second sweeping problem of Vladivostok is the oversupply of vehicles on the streets. The proximity of Japan with its ridiculous prices on used cars played a key role in further mutilating this once beautiful city. Today Vladivostok is probably the most automotive city in Russia. The whole city is, word for word, flooded with cars. Legitimately, this place is just one large parking lot. I would call it: ‘Car Terror.’ Under each bush, under each bump, on each empty space, you find personal or municipal vehicles. All sidewalks, porches and back alleys are filled with cars. Meanwhile, the city infrastructure is clearly not suited for such a copious amount of transport; the city has constant traffic jams and traffic problems during rush hour.
Wherever you go, there will be cars, cars, and cars again. That also means an increased content of harmful substances in the atmosphere. The environmental situation in Vladivostok in general is, frankly speaking, appalling. The city has big problems with municipal solid waste. The incinerator is closed, garbage is sorted with very low efficiency and landfills are growing day by day. The water area in the bay within the city is also heavily polluted. The place was historically developed as a city without high-end waste management systems and facilities – urban sewage and other sewage were simply dumped directly into the ocean without any moral remorse. Today, the city’s administration is trying to somehow improve the situation by putting into operation new complexes of treatment facilities, but the problem with the environment on water, land and in the air is still very acute in the city.
Keeping all this in mind, the devastation, traffic jams and poor ecology, Vladivostok is still a very expensive city; even for a person from downtown Moscow. This applies to food, prices of household goods, prices in cafes, restaurants and housing. Prices here are sometimes even higher than in Moscow, which causes obvious bewilderment due to the significantly lower level of wages (the average monthly salary is in the region is 350-500 euros).
No wonder that life in such conditions brings little joy to local residents, and doesn’t make them the most cheerful and outgoing crowd. Living in a world of permanent destruction all around, losing any stable and unchanging orientations and realising its often desperate situation, the Vladivostok population is probably struck by a whole bunch of latent anxiety and stagnant paranoia, looking for a way out of this negative field of energy through aggressive behaviour. I don’t recall a city in Russia from all my years of travel, where our skateboarding would cause so much negativity from the surrounding citizens. Absolutely at every spot, wherever we found ourselves, even at the most seedy and long forgotten places, someone tried to drive us away with varying degrees of perseverance or made remarks that we were doing something reprehensible. By the end of the trip, it felt like even if we were in the most deserted wasteland of Vladivostok, and began to ride there on the most rusty abandoned piece of railing, even then, after some time, someone would come out of nowhere and swear us off.
Moreover, not only our skating, but even our appearance caused certain discontent from the locals. In general, Russia is a country of an incredible number of beautiful women and at the same time, paradoxically, quite unattractive men. The average Russian man cuts his hair bald or short to look like a representative of some kind of military structure, a criminal, or a prisoner, dressing preferably in dark colours and sport style. Since the days of communal peasant life and the egalitarian socialist system – standing out from the crowd appearance-wise is considered to be an unworthy thing here – everyone should be alike. And the farther you find yourself in the provinces, the stronger are the ‘staples’ of this kind in society. To this day, in provincial Russian cities, even the more populated ones, the appearance of a man with long hair can cause ridicule, latent aggression and even accusation of homosexuality among other representatives of the stronger sex. Our variegated gang of metropolitan fashionistas was completely out of all the established and generally accepted ’dress code’ standards. Among us were not just people with long hair, but (oh, the horror) with dyed hair and nose piercings!!! So a fair number of slanting glances flew in our direction regularly. On one of the spots a quite nice elder woman, passing by our group, burst out with a serenade of exhortations addressed to Gosha, begging him to ‘get a haircut, get decent clothes and not mutilate himself.’ Then, glancing at Dima Rodionov, she added: ‘I’m not going to even start about this animal.’ Dima even got thrown out of a nightclub because he allegedly ‘urinated on the dance floor.’ The hostility of the ‘proper lads’ was very high in relation to Dima’s image, but there was basically nothing to complain about, so the guards came up with such an absurd reason. Vladivostok was also the only city in all the years of my travels where I had a fight with locals, on both of my visits.
However, by and large, all these ‘annoyances’ could not spoil our positive impression of the trip. Despite all its brutality, Vladivostok is still one of the most beautiful Russian cities. Its trump card is the incredibly advantageous geographical position of the city. The city is scattered on picturesque hills – mounds, descending to the sea carved in coves and bays. The horizon is filled with visible islands, the largest of which is Russky Island, where the modern campus of the Far Eastern Federal University is located. By the way, Vladivostok is often called ‘Russian San Francisco’ for a similar landscape and terrain and a ‘port dominant’ urban life. It seems that this comparison also flatters the residents themselves. Even the main bridge of the city, built here across the bay in 2012, is called Golden by analogy with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Every day we skated loads of interesting spots and we’d constantly find new ones, but still we couldn’t even fully explore all its areas, despite searching down new streets all the time. Since Vladivostok is located on a hilly area, there are a huge number of downhills in the city, with which we are generally not too spoiled in Russia. We often found ourselves thinking that it would be a blast to get the guys from GX100 here.
In addition, we were very lucky with the weather. Calendar autumn begins here later, and September in these parts turned out to be an incredibly comfortable season. The sun warmed up to 23-25 degrees during the day – the most comfortable temperature for skating, when you are not at all cold in a T-shirt, but also never too hot, even when the sun is at its peak.Also, one of the fondest memories of our entire trip was a cultural boat ride along the bay with elements of sea fishing on our ‘day off’.
Every evening after a busy day of skating, we ended the day on Tsesarevich embankment in the city centre, the main local spot, where we filmed lines, drank beer, listened to some music, talked and just enjoyed the fact that at the same time the temperature in Moscow and St. Petersburg was already approaching zero. You must admit that even this fact alone is enough to forget about all the negative feelings. It’s great when you get an opportunity to extend the short Russian summer for another couple of weeks. A priceless gift!