Russia, Vladivostok 1990

Vladivostok (8)
Far Eastern Shipping Company.


In November of 1990 we got a call from a friend in Juneau.  Juneau was trying to put together the first US citizen delegation to visit Vladivostok in more than 50 years.  They wanted kids who could spend a week in a Vladivostok English language school and adults who could accompany them to discuss business relations.  Were we interested? Suzi immediately committed the two of us but said she would have to ask the kids.  Our friend, Terry, said “You can commit Rich but not your sons?”  What she didn’t know was that, after our visit to Prague for the final act of the Velvet revolution we had decided that we wanted to change the directions of our lives.  This seemed like an opportunity.

I wrote several radio features about the trip, using sound gathered in Vladivostok.  The stories won an Alaska Press Club award for the best feature reporting of the year.  Unfortunately the stories are on tape and I have nothing that works to play them back on.  I do, however, have notes from the scripts, (the scripts themselves are on floppy discs from an Apple II) and letters to friends.  What follows are cut and paste from my script notes and the letters with a little rewriting.  The pictures are scans of old photos, some of them taken on Soviet film which seem to want to fade to red.


We took off from Anchorage on a chartered Russian TU 154 and headed into a Siberian winter storm.  The flight was scheduled to refuel in Magadan but the Magadan airport was closed.  We landed, instead, in Anadyr, which is a forward Soviet base from which Migs and Bear Bombers take off to fly the Alaska periphery and to play tag with planes from Clear airbase in Alaska.  We saw rows of the planes as we taxied to the terminal.

It was minus 40 outside the terminal and overheated to the mid-80s inside the terminal.  The terminal was full of people stranded by the storm.  Some has been there for 4 days.  The only comfortable place was an unheated stairwell.  Enough heat came in to it from the terminal to make it only a little chilly and we could sit on the steps.  Kevin immediately started trading.  He traded a Northwest Airlines set of playing cards for a red banner.  We had no rubles but vendors were happy to engage in a little black market trade for Yankee dollars.

We were lucky.  Instead of four days we were stranded for only 4 hours.  Magadan opened up and we landed — after customs had closed.  We entered Russia without being stamped in and got back on the plane to Vladivostok.  When we landed officials were perplexed because we had no stamps in our passports and no one had registered our visas.  Vladivostok is a closed city and its civil airport is for domestic flights only.  It has no customs and immigration.  We were bussed to the hotel and told to stay put until someone rousted out an immigration official.  The adults went to bed.  Our kids were taken to the families they were staying with.  In the next week we only saw them at parties and a dinner.


Vladimir Mann:

“I can hardly believe my eyes to greet an American friend from Sitka in the once fortress city of Vladivostok.”

It was the voice of Vladimir Mann greeting me at our hotel in Vladivostok.  Commodore Mann led the Bering ’88 sailing expedition from Vladivostok to Sitka two years before.  His trip retraced the voyages conducted by Vitus Bering and Alexi Cherikov in 1741.  It was an important event opening the bridge across the border that had been closed for more than half a century.

Vladivostok (7)He told me our presence gave him hope but every time we spoke of a real and lasting relationship between Russia and America he was tentative. “If… If it is possible.”

Vladivostok has been closed to foreigners, especially Americans, since 1933. Vladivostok has particular reason to be paranoid about Americans. We occupied the town from 1917 until 1922.  The biggest monument in town is dedicated to the Americans leaving. (There is also a monument to the whales rescued off of Point Barrow by a Russian icebreaker.)

Whale Monument
Whale Monument


The city is, indeed, a fortress.  It is the home of the Pacific or “Red Banner” fleet. The harbor is filled with missile cruisers, frigates, destroyers and their support vessels. A nuclear submarine base sits only 30 KM from downtown.  We saw the subs’ conning towers on the horizon from our hotel.  I am reasonably sure their payloads are not aimed at Kuala Lumpur. The cold war may be over, but we still have to somehow we have to deal with all the arms that are left, on both sides.

There was tremendous curiosity about us.  Several people, including English teachers, said that we were the first native English speakers they had met. (One translator had a particular lilt in her delivery.  She had been a Russian aid worker in India and learned English from an Indian who had learned English from an Irishman.) We were treated with warmth, hospitality and generosity wherever we went.   We shared our hopes and fears, talking together long into the night, like bull sessions in freshman dorms, swapping stories and songs. But underneath all the good fellowship is the knowledge that Vladivostok is still the fortress city.

Vladivostok (9)One night, actually about 12:30 in the morning, a man in a uniform with a lot of brass came to the hotel. He told one of the Russian interpreters that he wanted to meet someone from Sitka. I was still up so we shook hands. He said that he was stationed on a Russian Submarine, and that he has cruised off our town many times. He remembers the view of Mt. Edgecumbe from his periscope.  He just wanted to meet someone from the other side. He told me that someday he wanted to walk the streets of Sitka, like I was walking the streets of Vladivostok. After all, we were neighbors.  “Alaska, so close.”


Newspaper Seller:

Newspaper Office
Newspaper Office

In Vladivostok there is a young and unofficial free press, I can buy papers with names like Svobodnoe Slovo, or “Free Word.” The independent Moscow News carried provocative headlines like “No More Circuses — Bread,” and “The USSR will not wait for Godot”

While doing radio Interviews along Leninskya, the main street in Vladivostok, I encountered two young men wearing peace buttons. One was selling newspapers; the other is speaking into a bull horn. He was talking about political prisoners in the Soviet Union. His paper is called” Academic Sakharov With Us.” It is published by an independent committee.

The paper publishes information, in Sakharov’s memory, about political prisoners still being held in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. It claims that independent human rights organizations have named 140 such political prisoners. The paper says that more are held in insane asylums. He criticizes Gorbachev for accepting the Nobel Peace Prize while such things still happen in the Soviet Union.

I started to do a radio interview with the man selling the paper. We talked for about five minutes. The main message he wanted me to bring back to the U.S. is that Gorbachev is not a believer in democracy, and that Americans should not be lulled into the belief that there are no longer human rights violations in the Soviet Union. He told me of his own experience the month before, of being picked up by the Military Police and threatened. He said that some young women who sold his paper had been threatened with being “hurted.”  These informal arrests were against the new laws on freedom of speech in both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, he claimed. I asked him if he was frightened. He avoided the question and told me he had a job to do.

There are loudspeakers all along Leninskya. After about 5 minutes the two speakers just over us, and only those, came on very loudly, interrupting our conversation.  He tried to tell me, for the tape, that he trusted no politicians who were, or had been, Communists. They were self-serving, including Gorbachev and Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. The radio speakers were too loud. As soon as I left him, the speakers went off.

I gave him my hotel address and he agreed that we could continue the interview in a more private setting. He told me that if he couldn’t make it he would send over some English translations from his paper. I did not see him again. The translations did not reach me at the hotel.


Vladivostok (3)
School 13

One day I arranged for a 16 year old English language student from School 13 to serve as an interpreter and we went out on the street and interviewed people.

Five years ago when I was in Moscow and Leningrad, people were very reluctant to speak frankly to an American, especially in public. I don’t know whether it is because of five years of Glasnost, or because Vladivostok is not used to seeing Americans, but when I went out on Leninskya with a microphone and interpreter people were not only interested in talking to me, they crowded around, anxious to speak. At one point a policeman stuck his head into the crowd listened a while and walked away. His presence did not inhibit the people at all. The discussion started with one simple question, “WilI1991 be better for you than 1990.

People were very uncertain about the future. They didn’t trust Gorbachev, and while they were generally more positive about Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin they mostly thought there would be a “great depression” like the U.S. suffered in the 1930’s. They asked me a lot of questions, and I was amazed at how freely they talked, especially after my attempt to interview the young man selling newspapers just a few minutes before.

We went with several Russians into food stores.  We found plenty of food available but the variety was poor, prices high and lines long.  A mother explained it was difficult for a single woman to feed her children.  My interpreter, Marina, complained that fresh fruit, especially Mandarin oranges, were way too expensive.  One person said that the stores had fish and fruit juice, and nothing else.

To be fair, the store we were in had fresh fish, canned fish, turnips, apples, Mandarin oranges, powdered soup, fruit juice, tea, salt and bread.  But that was it.  It was not anywhere near the choice available in an Alaska convenience store.  Yet this was one of the major food stores in Vladivostok.  When I visited the same food store the next day they had gotten in more food and had added fresh pineapples and grapefruit, crab legs which were the cause of the biggest line in the store, ice cream, pickled cabbage, pickled apples and pastries.  In other stores I found chicken on one day and meat on another.  In one store I found eggs, but there was a very long line.  Some rationed items were available in the rationed amounts.  Those items included tea, flour, sugar and noodles.  The Mandarin oranges which Marina found so expensive were 7 rubles a kilo, or in US money, $.57 a pound, not a bad price by our standards, (In Sitka they are about $1.73 a pound) but very expensive for Russians.

Russian Fur Coat on a Bride.
Russian Fur Coat on a Bride.

(While food may have been a problem, many of the women we saw in Vladivostok wore luxurious fur coats that would have been the envy of any non PETA member in Alaska.  And the men had warm fur hats.)

One man I interviewed said you could buy anything you wanted in Vladivostok, but “in another way.”  He offered to sell me his Red Army watch for American dollars so he could buy those things “in another way.”  Many people thought that either the city government, national government, or federation government (take your choice) had food, but was holding it for either special people or worse times (take your choice.)

The next day I went to dinner at the home our younger son, Kevin, was staying at.  Between vodka toasts (Uncle Valery had always wanted to get drunk with an American) they gave us fresh pineapple, potatoes with meat, lots of tea with sugar, and other things I had seen people either standing on line for or complaining that were not available.  Having seen the lines the day before I felt guilty eating so much but it was no use to refuse.  The generosity was overwhelming.

After dinner, when we were fully stuffed, we were offered even more food at a final party for the Americans and their hosts held at the hotel.  As a farewell, a group of Russian ladies sang an Elvis song.  ‘Love me Tender.’


Doing Business in Russia:

Many American’s in the delegation came away with the feeling that “they are so friendly, just people, like us.” The Russians are people, but they are not like us.  For 73 years the Russians have been living in a producer based economy, not a consumer based economy. In the U.S. a firm looks at the market, determines what the people want, and makes it. The price is set by supply and demand.

Vladivostok (1)This is a completely alien concept in the Soviet Union. A factory is told what to make, how to make it, how many to make and what the price will be, all based on a central plan. The product is offered to the people whether they want it or not. When I visited with some businessman it became clear that we not only did not speak the same language, we did not even think the same way.

Several different groups are trying to establish commercial television in Vladivostok. Each wanted investors and they wanted us to act as agents in Alaska, selling ads to Alaskan companies hoping to do business in Vladivostok. The TV producers were very clear about what they wanted to put on the air, but when we asked them how many viewers they hoped to reach, what were their characteristics, what did those viewers want, or did they even have television sets, the TV people looked at us like we were from Mars. “You give us the money, we will put on the programs, of course they will watch.” There was no concept of marketing, either to the viewers, or to potential investors or advertisers. Producing the programs was important, the viewers were not.

I was at a meeting with some geologists and they were talking to someone trying to interest them in investing western technology (and money) in a granite quarry. The Soviets knew a lot about the qualities of the granite, and how nice it was, but didn’t have the foggiest idea of how to get it from the mine to a port where it could be delivered to world markets. They were miners; transport was someone else’s problem. Why did we ask them such questions? This is a producer based economy.

Even if our businessmen can learn to talk the same language there is the problem of money. Russian Rubles are not convertible into dollars. They have no value. For an American to make a profit on an investment, some of what is sold from a joint venture has to be sold to a country with a convertible currency. Several Alaska fishermen wasted a lot of time trying to enter into a joint fishing venture with the Soviets.  Because of the food shortage in Russia it is now against the law to export food, including fish. If the joint venture can’t market some of its fish on the world market, there is no hard currency to pay off the American partners.

Although I did not invest in a Russian radio or television station, several of us did seriously discuss setting up a long distance satellite company to deliver international telephone, telex and fax service to Vladivostok. We figured that since it would be an international common carrier at least half of the customers would have real money. That may actually happen, although with the likelihood of crippling bureaucratic roadblocks I am not making any bets. The military wants to keep Vladivostok closed and us out.  Civilian Perestroika advocates want foreign investment.  Right now Vladivostok, a city of 650,000, can only handle 15 international calls a day! There is the market, but is there the will to open it up? If there is I may become a capitalist in a communist country. Don’t hold your breath.


Christmas Parties:Father Frost

School 14 is one of five magnate schools in Vladivostok that specialize in English instruction. Eight students from Alaska participated in programs sponsored by the School during the week we were in the city. On Friday evening the parents of the Alaska children were invited to a Christmas party at School 14. The party was secular and included many Russian Christmas season traditions. There was traditional food, including Christmas pancakes, baked goods, and fruits. There was singing and dancing, (arranged by our older son Brian’s “mother” who was a music teacher) including a visit from masked visitors in sheep skins who travel from door to door in a tradition much like English Wassailing. At one point we had a visit from “De-et Mor-ose” or Grandfather Frost, a thin Santa Claus. He brought a tree which we were all encouraged to dance around, and distributed gifts to the American children.

It was sensory overload, vivid costumes for the eye, food for the palate, music for the ear, aromas from the kitchen, and the firm hand of a Russian student pulling you up to dance. And, unlike Alaska public schools, there was vodka.

Terri Tibbet in School 13
Terri Tibbet in School 13

The Christmas celebration in School 14 was for our benefit. However, we got a chance to visit School 13, another English language magnate school, which was next to our hotel.  Some students came to the hotel and invited us to the English language Christmas program. The teachers were surprised by our visit.  They hadn’t expected 15 Americans to show up. The program was more sedate than the party at School 14. It included the presentation of two English language Christmas plays, one written by the students.

This was one of two Christmas programs at School 13. An English teacher told me that there would be another program on Christmas day, which would not be a holiday, but a school day. Two 10th form students assured me that they did not celebrate Christmas on their own, but celebrated in school as a way of better understanding the culture whose language they were learning.

The students sang Jingle Bells and asked to sing a Christmas song.  We sang “Silent night,” followed by “Joy to the World” and ending with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”


Flying Home:

We almost didn’t make it back to Sitka for Christmas.  On the plane back, while Suzi, Kevin and Brian shared a row of three seats, I sat next to a man from Western Alaska who ran a reindeer slaughter house and was talking about marketing reindeer sausage as a US-Soviet joint venture.  Perhaps it was the heresy of discussing butchering and eating reindeer on Christmas Eve that caused the weather to keep our plane from landing in Anchorage.  We sat on the ground in Fairbanks for four hours, not able to leave because there was no customs to clear us, so we missed our connection.  This was particularly frustrating for members of the delegation from Fairbanks, who could not get off the plane, but had to fly back to Anchorage just to fly home to Fairbanks.  Before we took off the flight attendant announced.  “Good news, the weather in Anchorage has improved and we will take off as soon as we have deiced.”  A minute later she announced “More good news, the captain has declined de-icing, so we are taking off now.”  I wanted to scream “Get me off of this airplane.”  But as we taxied to the runway the ice came off the plane in sheets.  The TU 154 has capillaries under the wing’s skin that direct heat from the engine to the wings.  The plane is self-de-icing.  This is a great feature for aircraft flying in Siberia and for Alaska as well.  I am amazed Aeroflot talked the authorities in Fairbanks into letting us take off.

When we landed I ran to the Alaska Airlines counter to rebook our missed flight to Sitka while Suzi collected our bags.  I got the last seats on the plane and we just made the last flight to Sitka before Christmas. We got back in time for me to do my Christmas Eve program on Raven Radio.  Several of the Alaska delegation, not so quick out of customs, didn’t make it home for Christmas.


There are followup posts for Vladivostok in 1991 and 1995.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.