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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 14:26 GMT
Vladivostok at the crossroads
Vladivostok's Trans-Siberian rail terminus
Gateway to Asia: The Trans-Siberian rail terminus
In a series of special reports from Russia's Far East, BBC East Asia Today reporter Francis Markus examines the identity, the problems and the potential of this unique region.

"I am Asian, my grandparents moved to the Russian Far East in 1908 from the Ukraine, my parents were born here, and I'm going to die here... it's not like we are Russians, we are Asians."


This region is rich in terms of potential and yet has progressed the least of all the areas of Russia

Joan Agerholm, Eurasia Foundation
Luba Khobotneva is a tall woman in her 50s with curly blond hair and glasses perched on her nose.

She is the first Russian I talk to on this trip.

Actually our conversation begins on a flight from Seoul. She is coming from Alaska, where she has been studying nature reserves. She herself works on a reserve, about 12 hours drive north of Vladivostok.

Westward looking

During my week in the city, I meet local people who say they are "Far Easterners"; those who say they like Asian food; but I do not hear any more affirmations of Asian-ness such as Luba's.

Vladivostok building
Vladivostok's architecture underlines its European heritage
And when I repeat her comments, they are even met with some disbelief.

"I've never met Russians who would say that they feel like Asians, I think it's very rare," says Evgenia Boutenina, a Vladivostok born-and-bred graduate student, researching Asian-American writers.

"We think that Russian culture is a European culture not an Asian one," she says.

"Asian culture is very strange and we don't understand it. It's a different world. We are close to it but we don't want to assimilate into it."

Changing landscape

Clunking its way towards the legendary Trans-Siberian rail terminus by the port in Vladivostok is the train from Moscow. The Russian capital is about a week's journey away and seven time zones earlier.

"This region has had the most in terms of potential, in terms of natural resources, and yet has progressed the least of all the areas of Russia," says Joan Agerholm, regional representative of the Eurasia Foundation, which helps promote small business and civic society.

This port city and home of the now decaying Pacific fleet, was a closed area until the collapse of Soviet communism a decade ago.

Now, the bumpy transition towards a free-market economy has pushed the Russian Far East closer into the embrace of its Asian neighbours.

Market forces

Among the most obvious signs are that more than 90% of the cars on the road are right-hand drive imports from Japan.

At the used-car market on a hill outside the city centre, I ask one man selling a 1995 Toyota, whether anybody here still wants to buy Russian-made cars.


In Russia, the customer has always been grateful to the shop assistant for having something to buy

Businessman Andrei Lurchin
"Only people who live near Moscow, because the parts for them are cheap there," he replies.

Similarly in another market, not far away, selling mostly clothes and household goods, the vast bulk of the merchandise is from China.

But inter-action at a deeper level between Russia and its east-Asian neighbours is more problematic.

Vladivostok-based businessman Andrei Lurchin has for the last few years been importing panels from South Korea to make the street kiosks, from which Russians are used to buying cigarettes, snacks and fruit.

Asked whether he thinks it is feasible to import ways of doing business from the Koreans, he chuckles as he tries to explain the legacy left by seven decades of Soviet communism.

"In South Korea, the shop assistant is grateful to the customer if he buys something, because it helps his business," he says

"But in Russia, the customer has always been grateful to the shop assistant for having something to buy."


You can listen to Francis Markus' reports in full at the pages of BBC East Asia Today.

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