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!

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Once More to Vladivostok

After a few months of preparation and paperwork, I finally said goodbye to Scotland and flew out to Vladivostok on the 26th of December for a 5.5 month stay. It took almost a day and three flights to get there, and on the 27th I touched down in the city and headed to my accomodation at the university. My stay here is for two reasons: the first is to take Russian language lessons at the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), or Дальневосточный федеральный университет (ДВФУ) as it’s written in Russian, and the second reason is to later do research and fieldwork for my PhD. Some of you may already know that the university was moved onto Russkiy Island over the past couple of years to take advantage of the facilities built for the 2012 APEC conference, but there are still a couple of departments located in the centre of the city, one of which is the Centre for Russian Language and Culture. This is where I’ll be taking language lessons, and for now at least I’m staying in the obshezhite attached to the language centre. The dorm is home to all the foreign students taking language lessons, so compared to the traditional image of a Russian dorm the standards are a bit higher, as you can see from my room in the pictures below. I’ve got a room to myself with my own bathroom, fridge and TV; the furnishings are a bit below that of the campus on Russkiy Island, but it’s still comfortable enough. For those curious about the cost of lessons, accomodation, visa, insurance etc at the university until mid-June, it comes to about 130,000 rubles all in, give or take a few thousand depending on circumstances.

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First world problems, I know, but the most frustrating part of staying in the city centre is the admin side of things. Almost anything important has to be done at the offices on Russkiy Island, but only one bus goes there three times an hour. You take an hour’s journey, spend five minutes paying a bill (if you’re lucky, as they have two cash desks for the entire university) or getting yourself registered, and then an hour back. I’ve no idea why they can’t deal with the admin here, most of it is on their computer system, so it’s really a waste of an afternoon.

Most of the students here are from China, Japan and South Korea, but you get a few students like myself from further afield, and I’ve heard there are a few North Korean students as well. The school itself looks a bit spartan from the outset, and some of the textbooks were either written in the Soviet era or early in the 90s. It shouldn’t make too much difference as long as the lessons are effective, but I’ll tell you when I leave if my Russian language benefitted from the old-school feel. In saying that, they do have wi-fi throughout the building, modern audio-visual equipment and even a free gym, so it’s not all old. There’s a small cafe on one of the floors, though I generally make my own meals so I haven’t tried it. I get on average 3 hours of instruction a day, and with the classes being held in the same large building as the dorm you don’t have to go far. In general it’s self-contained and you even get a view out onto the sea from the rooms.

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And what of the city itself? Not much has changed since the summer. You can walk down the high streets, see modern buildings and nice interiors, then turn into a street and see plenty that is in need of repair. The Asian presence in the city is perhaps more obvious now that I’ve been here longer, from the long-standing connections with the Japanese second-hand car industry, the availability of food and drink from East Asia (especially beer, sauces and instant noodles), and the Chinese market at Sportivnaya selling fresh foods and domestic goods. The only thing I couldn’t find was a decent wok, which was a real disappointment. There are plenty of Chinese and Korean restaurants dotted around the city, and a complete absence of more famous fast-food and beer outlets such as McDonalds, KFC/Rostiks, Burger King, Teremok, Kroshka Kartoshka and Kruzhka. Republic is probably the closest thing to a chain cafe/bar in the city. Prices have apparently risen a few percentage points in the last few months, though as a foreign student being paid in pounds, it’s not something I really have to worry about. Off the top of my head, I can get a kg of chicken drumsticks for about 250 rubles, standard Russian cheese for about 520 rubles a kg, 500ml of natural yoghurt for about 65 rubles, sukhariki for about 20 rubles, brocolli at about 80 rubles a kg, 6 jazz apples for about 150 rubles…and so on. On the other hand, I’ve seen 2 more exotic fruits for several hundred rubles, and an imported beer from Scotland is about 280 rubles, so if you want foreign goods you’re going to have to pay through the teeth for them. These are supermarket prices by the way, so it’s likely you can get everyday goods slightly cheaper in smaller outlets or in markets.

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I’ve not spoken too much with people about the economy or political issues. With the holiday period and then getting settled into the routine of classes, I’ve been taking it easy. It does seem like people are a bit more concerned about how they spend their money compared to six months ago though, and a few have mentioned they won’t be going abroad on holiday now. With the ruble weakening and prices for the holidays almost doubling in many cases, it’s simply too much for many to afford. I’ve barely heard a comment about the civil war in Ukraine. There’s still a desire to move away to Europe or the USA, one person I knew here even decided on a whim to just leave and move to St. Petersburg to try their luck after they lost their job.

In short, first impressions are that the government’s dream of a Russian economic stronghold in the East is not yet threatening to turn into a reality.

Back in Business

It’s been a while since I wrote an article for the blog, way too long infact. I started out with the aim of writing articles about developments in the Russian Far East, and it all faded away after I returned from my summer trip there. I got caught up with a lot of work through the end of 2014, but it’s no excuse really. Now that I’ve arrived here in Vladivostok to spend six months living in the city, it’s time to be far more regular with my output. I’ll have a post up over the next couple of days to give my impressions after a month in the city, and I’ve got some other posts planned after that, mostly contemporary stuff but also some historical stuff from time to time to mix it up and give you an idea of how the region has developed over the past 150 or so years. The past several months has seen a lot of attention given to Russia, with a lot of negative and gleeful coverage provided by the western media due to the civil war in Ukraine and the massive devaluation of the ruble. But in terms of the east, the relationship with China has dominated headlines, and for those of us who focus on these eastern regions it’s interesting to see just how far the economic relationship will go between the two powers, and how the overall development of the region will progress with tighter budgets and changing priorities. In short there will be plenty to talk about it in the articles to come.