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In Russia's Far East, A Frayed Link To Moscow

Compared to many of the dynamic economies in Asia, development is Russia's Far East is limited. Here, men wait for a ferry to take them to Russky Island just off Vladivostok, on Russia's Pacific Coast. In the background, a bridge to the island is being built.
David Gilkey
Compared to many of the dynamic economies in Asia, development is Russia's Far East is limited. Here, men wait for a ferry to take them to Russky Island just off Vladivostok, on Russia's Pacific Coast. In the background, a bridge to the island is being built.

After a train journey of nearly 6,000 miles from Moscow, the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok can feel like a different country. The people and the language are still Russian, but the strong Asian influence is undeniable. And many residents say the bond to the rest of Russia has been growing weaker, while the ties to Asia have been growing stronger since the Soviet breakup two decades ago. NPR's David Greene has this report as he wraps up his journey on the Trans-Siberian railway.

The last of three stories

"Russia, where are you going?" The question was posed nearly two centuries ago by novelist Nikolai Gogol.

Last month, Russians I spoke with during my journey aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad can't fully address that question, or predict their country's future. And after traveling across all of Russia, I can see why.

This is a country in transition, just two decades removed from the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union and still coping with rapid changes. It is a country in search of an identity — no longer a communist state, but not a democracy either.

And the farther east I traveled, the more apparent it became that there's not much holding the country together. In the U.S., if you asked someone what it means to be an American, most people would have an answer, even if it's not always positive. But you'd likely hear phrases such as "freedom," "democracy" or "land of opportunity."

Many Russians don't seem to have a sense of what defines them as a nation. The former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has overseen a system that has made a few people very wealthy with a national economy based on energy and minerals. But much of Russia feels no connection to that; in fact, they feel little sense of pride or identity about their country at all.

That sense of detachment is strong in Siberia, a vast frontier of wilderness, industrial towns, timber and mining production, and tragic history. For most people, Siberia conjures an image of an icy wasteland where exiles and political prisoners were sent to live out their days during tsarist and Soviet times.

The view out the train windows confirms the bleak view: the same repeated scene, a snow-covered landscape with the occasional village whirring by. On the short whistle-stops made by the train, conductors chop accumulated ice off the bottom of the rail cars.

A Land Of Exiles

Deep in Siberia, north of the border with Mongolia, the Lake Baikal region is an important landmark in Russian history. People were exiled here — political activists, dissidents, religious minorities. They would stop at the shore and wait for the dead of winter for the water to freeze, so they could cross the lake on horseback.

I lost my faith in this government, and I lost my faith in our youth. We do not have a replacement, [there's] no worthy replacement for us.

It's a beautiful but unforgiving landscape, especially in winter, and it binds the residents.

"Here, it's very cold. And they have to help each other," says Alisa Sukneva, one of many descendants of Soviet-era exiles still living in the area. Her grandmother's family was forced to start over in this region in the 1930s.

Sukneva works as a tour guide here. Asked about her thoughts of Moscow and the people running Russia, she says: "I'm not really sure the connection with Moscow is very close."

Lyudmila Nazarova is a member of a religious community whose forebears were exiled here in the 1600s, when they broke with the Russian Orthodox Church. Her feelings on Moscow echoed Alisa's.

"Moscow is just a city," she told me. "It's just a capital, but that's about it."

It wasn't always this way, though. During Soviet times, for better or worse, there was an identity.

Nostalgia For Soviet Times

On a brief stop on the train platform in the city of Amazar, I met a fellow passenger, 62-year-old Inna Khariv. She worked on a mink farm in Soviet times, and now lives on a pension of $300 a month. She is one of many Russians who feel nostalgia about the Soviet era, when many Russians felt a common national purpose, and a welfare state provided employment and health care, however modest compared with Western standards.

"You can argue with me, but this is what we had — we lived with it — we had one faith, one goal," she says. Today, "nothing holds us together." She doesn't like Putin, and she's also disappointed that no other inspiring political figure has emerged.

"I lost my faith in this government, and I lost my faith in our youth," she explains. "We do not have a replacement, [there's] no worthy replacement for us."

Looking To Asia

As their trust in the government has faltered, Russians have begun looking away from their country for opportunities elsewhere — especially in Russia's Far East, where Tokyo and Beijing are literally much closer than Moscow. In this region, Asia is a logical choice.

In Russia's eastern port city of Vladivostok — home to almost 600,000 people and the Russian Pacific fleet — cars have steering wheels on the right-hand side and come from Japan and South Korea. There are almost no Russian-made cars on the roads.

China, especially, has become a huge source of wealth and opportunity.

As one professor put it, "China is our everything." But there's a feeling that some of those opportunities are being missed. For many, the Russian government's historic distrust of China is holding this region back.

Dmitry Granovsky and his wife, Olga, both 37, live in Vladivostok with their four children. They see Russia as too centralized and express hope that a new political system might develop — a federation of states, or something resembling the European Union or the United States.

They don't fear their government, as Russian citizens in the past have, but they are disappointed in how little the government does to provide opportunities for its citizens.

The couple see leaders in Moscow as clinging to the carcass of Soviet times, trying to make it work in a modern era. They express a sense that the current system will collapse.

"Our society is sick," says Olga. "It's ill. It's not healthy. We have no society."

The two of them dream of taking their family to another country, to live and work somewhere that's not so hard. Like so many Russians, they're disappointed with their country, and they're ready for change. But their patience seems as long as the train trip from Moscow to Vladivostok. They are willing to wait for the better system they want so much.

On Vladivostok's Golden Horn Bay, two huge bridges are being built. They are supposed to be finished in time for Vladivostok to host the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The structures under construction are awe-inspiring, but they're still incomplete. They seem to be a metaphor for a country that has spent the past 20 years, since the end of Soviet times, trying to build something new — but not quite getting there yet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.