Reflections on Vladivostok

For those of you following me on twitter or elsewhere, you’ll have known that I spent the first half of 2015 in Vladivostok, both improving my Russian language and carrying out some fieldwork for my PhD. This was my third visit to the city, with my first trip being in January of 2009, and the second in June of 2014. On both occasions I stopped by for just a few days, but this time I had a lot longer to really get into everyday life and see what’s going on in the city. You may also remember I wrote about my last visit for the Russian International Affairs Council. (in English, and in Russian) This post may be seen as a quick follow-up, so I’m going to just fire out my thoughts in no particular order.

Instead of a hotel as in previous trips, I stayed in FEFU university accommodation. The university has been more prominent in recent years and a lot of attention was paid to the move onto Russkiy Island, but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to stay there as the language school is one of the few components of the university that’s still located in the centre of the city. (I’ve heard talk that it’ll be moved in the near future, but I’m not sure if a definite moving date has been established.) This makes access to the city a lot more convenient, but a real pain in the bum for getting any sort of paperwork or payment made, as everything has to be done in person on the island. It’s basically an hour each way on the bus. I was also quite surprised at some of the further expectations for foreign students; my Russian was quite poor when I arrived, and some other students arrived with even worse language abilities than I had, but it seemed like we were expected to understand everything that was asked of us from the off. I was greeted at the accommodation by an old woman who only spoke Russian, office staff mostly only spoke Russian, and little help or guidance was given aside from being told where to turn up and at what time. Yes, the purpose of going there is to learn and improve on my Russian language, but it doesn’t seem particularly inviting for staff dealing with foreign nationals to be unable to give much help in those foreign languages, particularly when it comes to registration and visa protocols. I was fortunate in that English was the most common language staff knew, but on a number of occasions I could see new students, who had a very low level of Russian, being given information only in Russian even though they couldn’t understand it. Fellow students were expected to act as translators for those who couldn’t translate important information. Now, this shouldn’t be seen as negative press for the university, but if they want to continue to raise their profile as a welcoming place for foreign students, they must invest as much in their support networks as they do on facilities. A happy student is a lot more likely to recommend the university in future, rather than one who felt too intimidated to really get involved with life in a new city. On the positive side though, I got to see a lot more of the new campus on the island, and as I anticipated it’s a first-class facility in terms of infrastructure and lecture areas. It’s on a par with what you would find in a Western university, and should serve as a great environment for students in the years to come. At the moment FEFU is ranked 25th in Russia, 100th in the BRICS, and 701st in the world. I’m sure their expectations will be to have risen higher than they are presently ranked and as such they’ll be disappointed. It’ll take a lot of continued improvement to climb higher in the tables, but they certainly have the facilities as a solid foundation.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that staying in the language centre brought was that I was living in the same building predominantly with Chinese, Japanese and Korean students. Observing how they related to Russia, and even just how they interact within their own groups, was an interesting experience for me. There are certainly differences between Russians and the various Asian populations, something all parties shouldn’t overlook if there is to be any sort of economic and cultural integration between them. I wrote in the summer that I didn’t see as many foreign nationals as expected, but this time around I noticed a stronger foreign presence, particularly Chinese and Korean. (Not just in the language centre, and no there was no fear of a Chinese invasion) China has become the leader of foreign investment in the city, though almost every car on the road is still Japanese. Asian goods are fairly prominent in shops and supermarkets, from instant noodles, to ice-cream, to beer. There are countless Chinese restaurants, and even a North Korean restaurant. Locals have readily embraced quality goods from these Asian countries, the trick next will be to produce greater quality goods domestically that can stimulate the export market. Economic integration cannot be one-way, or served solely by raw materials. I should note that the business sphere is not restricted to Russians and Asians, and there is a small but confident collection of individuals from the West who have chosen to seek their fortune in the region. Most that I spoke to were very happy with the opportunities available, and problems of corruption or bureaucracy were rare. For those with patience, ambition and a good work ethic, you can likely find success in Vladivostok.

One factor of development that disappointed me however was in the look of the city. In places that are aiming for fast and dynamic development, construction is constant, visible and seemingly everywhere. In Vladivostok, very little appears to change. Yes, the bridges are frequently cited, as are facilities such as the hockey arena or promenade development, but too much of the city centre still looks unkempt and broken down. It seems as if development rhetoric is aimed at big projects and overlooks smaller-scale contributions. For those who buy into the ‘broken windows’ theory, a wee bit of maintenance can go a long way. I spotted a number of apartment blocks where construction appears to have just been abandoned, with nothing happening in the nearly 6 months I was there. I realise that a city built on hills and that faces a bleak winter every year has to substitute some form for functionality, but there is simply a feel about the place that development has either stalled or already come to an end. There is a resigned air about the place, and much work has still to be done to ensure that Vladivostok can truly be a gateway between Russia and Asia.

The stereotypes of higher costs for goods in the region was also partially true; for everyday staples and basic meat like chicken, I noticed little to no difference. For everything else, there was definitely a bit of a difference. Even some of the Russian beers were a few rubles more expensive than in the west of the country. On the other hand, a bus ride at 19 rubles compares very favourably to the prices in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Unfortunately I am not aware of all the utility prices so perhaps there is a difference there worth noting. In terms of wages, I was very surprised at some of the low amounts I heard. At those levels I’m not surprised that people will seek a move to western Russia or going abroad if an offer comes up. Yes, Russia is facing tough economic times due to western sanctions, currency devaluation and low oil prices, but when wages are stagnant and don’t seem particularly high, with people working longer hours just to maintain what they have, it presents another difficulty for development of the region. To attract highly-skilled workers, and even foreign labourers, you have to pay good wages. It’s one of the main problems affecting the region in the near future. So far recent initiatives talk about a free port status for Primorskiy Krai, about free land opportunities outside of the city, areas earmarked for advanced development and investment, the casino gaming zone, and so on…but these grand ideas often don’t come with the fine details worked out in advance, and it seems that big ideas are being floated just to make it seem like real work is being done. It results in the citizens of the region still holding great hope for the future, but mixed in with a sense of resignation that it may well fall short of expectations.

As for my fieldwork…at the moment I’m not ready to go into details about the findings. I managed 20 in-depth interviews, which was okay but I may need more later in the year. I’d have loved to do a lot more, but my Russian language really was at a poor level when I arrived, and it took time to get competent enough to interview people. It took time as well to get to know enough people that I could start trying to source people from different backgrounds who were willing to be interviewed. Perhaps I’ll write a post in the future about fieldwork and I can go into more details about what I learned and maybe offer some advice for anyone else who is doing it for the first time, but needless to say I made some rookie mistakes and there will be room for improvement next time. On the other hand, there was a real breadth of opinion that came out, and it was completely worthwhile for my understanding of local politics and local development. For anyone reading who took part, thanks again for the interviews!