Snapshots of Russia: Vladivostok
Between 1989 and 2012, I worked in the international pharmaceutical industry (yes, the sometimes murky world in which my thrillers are set). During that time, I travelled all over the world, but gradually more and more of my time was spent in Russia and the Former Soviet Union countries. I met wonderful people, visited incredible places and built a fantastic collection of memories. This occasional series is designed to share some of those memories. Previously, we have visited Moscow, St Petersburg, Kostroma, and Kursk. Today we’re travelling all the way across the country to the far eastern city of Vladivostok.
The city of Vladivostok is on Russia’s Pacific coast, not far from the borders with China and North Korea. The name means ruler of the east, which seems somewhat appropriate for the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet. It is also home to more than six hundred thousand inhabitants.
The settlement that grew into the city was only established in the 1860s after the Treaty of Beijing, in which Russia acquired the region from China. Despite attempts to oust the Chinese completely, communications were initially with their geographic neighbours, rather than with the rest of Russia. A telegraph line with Shanghai and Nagasaki was established in 1871, whereas the Trans-Siberian railway, connecting Vladivostok with Moscow and hence with Europe, was not completed until 1916, just in time for the Russian Revolution. The next few years were turbulent, with the Allies basing their Siberian Intervention there, but from the early 1920s, it was fully under Soviet control and was for decades closed to foreigners. In 1974, it was the location for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between Leonid Brezhnev and Gerald Ford.
I visited Vladivostok just once and in many ways, it was one of the strangest business trips I ever took. For a start, I never met my client, an offshoot of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. I travelled halfway across the world on the basis of a couple of emails and a signed contract. I’m not sure I would do that these days.
Intellectually, I always knew Russia was the largest country in the world, in terms of land mass. But it’s only when planning to cross that land mass, the reality of the distance struck home. From leaving Moscow to arriving at my destination, I crossed seven time zones; and that was in addition to the three hours time difference between London and Moscow. I left home at 6am on Sunday morning and touched down in Vladivostok at 1pm on Monday afternoon. At twenty-one hours actual time, with around two-thirds of it in the air, it’s nowhere near as long as the seven days it would take by train, but it was still one of the longest journeys I ever made.
The city was by far the most modern I had visited thus far in this huge country, as befits a close neighbour of Japan. I got the impression it was separated from European Russia not only by distance, but by history and culture. Certainly the food was more reminiscent of visits to London’s China Town, than anything I had eaten in Moscow or St Petersburg.
The project was a strange little one, typical of the time. A local entrepreneur had applied for funding to convert a bakery into a pharmacy and small manufacturing plant. The financiers wanted technical due diligence done before making a decision. So they flew me all that way to visit a run-down building and a well-intentioned, but completely inexperienced business man. I spent three days investigating an idea which I knew from the start was not going to fly; and my travel time was pretty much as long as my work time.With hindsight, I could have given them my answers with the benefit of a couple of photographs and ten minutes of questions by phone.
But if we’d gone down that route, I wouldn’t have been able to add this fascinating far eastern city to my list of places visited, and I would never have seen the sea in April freeze as the waves rolled on to the beach. And every time I hear a military choir sing the Russian Naval Hymn, it takes me right back there.
Russia is the location for my current work in progress, Corruption! which will be published in September 2018. It is also the setting for my prize-winning novel Gorgito’s Ice Rink. A tale of love, loss and broken promises, it tells the story of one man through the eyes of the people whose lives he touched. You can download your copy now by clicking here.