25 September 2021

Vladivostok - history, culture, landscape

The first Euro­p­eans to visit the Golden Horn Bay came off two British war­ships in 1855. Russian and German mer­ch­ants from across Eur­­­ope, plus the Japanese, settled in what later became Vlad­iv­ost­ok (pop now 610,000). The area near the Chinese and North Korean borders was ceded by China to Russia via the Treaties of Aigun 1858 and of Pek­ing 1860

Central Railway Station, Vladivostok
opened in 1905

Military and History Museum of the Pacif­ic Fleet
opened in 1950

In 1860 a military supply ship arrived fully equipped to create the Vladiv­os­tok out­post. To en­c­ourage imp­orts, Vladivostok was made a Free Commer­c­ial Port in 1862. Only 2 years lat­er the Southern Harb­ours Com­mand moved in and a shipbuilding yard was built.

In 1871 the naval port, military governor's residence and Siberian Mil­­itary Flotilla base moved here and the Great Northern Telegraph Co. connected Vlad­ivostok to Nagasaki and Shanghai by under­water cable. The fortifications went up in early 1870s.

The Aigun Treaty had ced­e­d huge lands to Russia, worsening the al­ready cool rel­ations with France and Brit­ain, but the Ger­mans were favoured. Ham­b­urgers merchant Gustav Kunst (1836-1905) and jew­el­ler Gustav Al­b­ers (1838-1911) went into busin­ess together in 1865, form­ing Vlad­ivostok’s first department shop. They used Art Nouveau and Baroq­ue architecture, a successful commer­c­ial structure that Europeans loved.

By the late C19th, Jews were among the pol­it­ical pris­on­ers sent by train for resettlement, establishing the Sib­erian commun­ities of Omsk, Tomsk and Tob­ol­sk. They played a pro­­minent role in cul­t­ural and econ­omic devel­op­ment, especially in the fur trade. By the late C19th, Sib­eria’s Jewish popul­ation stood at 35,000 people, with wooden synag­og­ues and cemeteries in most towns. But the number of Jews who continued on to Vladivostok remained small.

Town status was granted in Ap 1880. In 1885 the Mother of God Catholic Church was a small wooden church. Later a beautiful stone building in a Gothic style was built largely for Poles & Lithuanians. [This was a house of worship that was repurposed, not destroyed by the Soviets].

Mother of God Catholic Church
founded in 1866
Rebuilt as Episcopal See of the Catholic Diocese until 2002.

In May 1891, Grand Duke Nicholas II/later Czar cerem­on­ially opened the start site of the great Trans-Siberian Railway line, built to conn­ect European Rus­s­ia with Vladivostok for econ­om­ic and political reasons.  The handsome Central Railway Station was opened in 1905, to build up Rus­sia’s Pacific defences and to bind Siberia to Russia. The stone building had an iron roof, one-storey in the middle and a two-storey on the edges. Since 1924, decorative elements of the Czarist building began to disappear: the two-headed eagle, mosaic panels with coats of arms, relief images of glazed ceramics on Russian folklore and fairy tales.

Belarusian merch­ant Leon Skidelsky (1845–1916) was contracted in 1895 to build the last Trans-Siberian railway section, from northern Manch­uria to Vlad­ivostok. When Leon settled in Vlad­ivostok, he became a key sponsor of the Amur Reg­­ional Museum, a cult­ural exhibit­ion arr­an­ged by gold producers for Prince Nic­holas Romanov, Russ­ian heir. The museum is hous­ed in Kunst und Alb­ers Trade Co site.

The Nicholas Triumphal Gates were built in 1891 to commemorate Prince Nicholas’ visit, on the spot where the prince’s got off the ship at Admiral’s Wharf. The monu­mental stone and brick arch was designed in the Rus­sian and Byzan­t­ine style, light­ and eleg­ant. The four foun­d­ations and walls were adorned with Old Russian pat­terns and a gilt eagle on top. In 1930, when Bolsh­eviks took over the power, these hated Tsarist symbols were blown up, and restored only in 2003.

 Nicholas Triumphal Gate, 1891

Pokrovskiy Cathed­ral, built 1902, was second biggest church in Vlad­­­iv­­ost­ok and was followed by the neighbouring parochial school. In 1935 the Cathedral passed to the Naval Office and later be­came the site of the Military and History Museum of the Pacif­ic Fleet.

Post-October Revolution 1917, Bolsheviks controlled Vlad­­iv­os­tok and the Trans-Siberian Railway. During the long Russian Civ­il War they were over­thrown by the White-allied Czechoslovak Leg­ion, who dec­lared the city an Allied Protectorate. The White Army regime was eventually defeated; in Ap 1920, Vladivostok was ruled by the Soviet-backed Far Eastern Rep­ub­lic, a buffer state between the Soviets and Jap­an. It became the cap­it­al of the Japanese-backed Pro­vis­ional Gov­ern­­ment, after a White Army coup in May 1921. Withdrawal of Japanese forces and the arrival of Soviet rule in Oct 1922 marked the change in Siber­ia. Vlad­iv­ostok was becoming Russia’s largest Pacific port city.

The Great Purge (1936) revealed ex­treme Stal­inist opp­res­s­ion. While previous Stalinist pur­ges per­secuted wealthy kulaks, pea­s­ants, clerics and small manufact­urers, the Great Purge saw im­pris­on­ments & execut­ions of Com­munists, Red Army men and acad­emics. After a decade of anti-rel­igious prop­aganda in the 1920s, most prayer houses were closed in the 1930s or were changed into Sov­iet administr­at­­ion sites.

Monument to Soldiers of Soviet Power in the Far East
in Vladivostok's central square, 1961.

The Monument to Soldiers of Soviet Power in the Far East was built in 1961 to commemorate the Russian Revolutions, and placed in the city’s central square. It is the largest monum­ent in the Far East.

Vladivostok's synagogue, taken by Com­mun­ist auth­orit­ies in the 1930s, was given back to the community, renovated in Dec 2005 and launched by Russ­ian PM Medvedev. Pokrovsky Cath­ed­ral, de­s­troyed in the Revol­ution, was renovated and modernised in 2007. And its school!

Vladivostok Synagogue 

Russky Bridge is a cable-bridge that connects Russky Island and the Amursky Peninsula across the Eastern Bosphorus. Its central span of 1,104 ms, built to serve the 2012 Asia-Pacific Eco­n­omic Coop­eration con­ference on Russky Island, was launched by Med­vedev. Russky Island was a fully militarised zone for the past 150 years, now rein­vented as a centre for Far Eastern Federal Un­iv­ersity and Ocean­ar­ium.

Russky Bridge, 2012
linking over to Russky Island


Train Man said...

We took the train from Irkutsk to Vladivostok and lived very comfortably. The views are amazing and the lectures were fascinating, but it was a bit long for me. Couples should make sure you get a two-bunk room, not a four-bunk room.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, You mentioned that several buildings were destroyed and restored, for instance the Mother of God Catholic Church, and the Nicholas Triumphant Gates. Were these reconstructed from ruins or refashioned existing buildings, and so partly old, or were they new buildings based on the old designs?

Rachel Phillips said...

Interesting, thanks for the history. I was there in 2016. It is not like anywhere else in Russia. I loved it. It is a great hotchpotch of Russia meets Japan and South Korea and endless traffic jams, left hand drive and right hand drive cars all mixed up together.

Andrew said...

It is a city that's always fascinated me. A neighbour a couple of years ago recounted great stories of her visit. A guest on the late Tim Fisher's Great Train Show told of her visit there before catching the Trans Siberian. My sister and myself used to laugh so much when each of us used to mention the name, sometimes calling it Bloodyvostok. Thanks for putting together some information. I've read more than I remember about the place. Btw, my sister M was on ABC TV hard Quiz last Wednesday night. She didn't win 😢

Hels said...

Train Man

many thanks, I know you love your long distance trips.

Spouse and I travelled around India in a train trip and also had a great time, but we were in a 4 bunk cabin and lost a sense of privacy. Fortunately I can see that the Trans-Siberian Railway has plenty of overnight stays in interesting places. And lectures and Russian lessons!

Hels said...


As you would expect from a new city, most of the important buildings were built between 1860-1917.

Alas post-WW1 there were struggles, battles and wars tucked into the corner of Russia, China, Korea and Japan so it was inevitable that Vladivostok was going to be hit by armies and navies from all directions. After the Russian Revolution, the number of invaders, defenders, new controlling governments made a mess of the city; even the Stalinists in the mid 30s brought chaos. But the largely intact buildings were repurposed, not torn down.

Hels said...


I agree. There were so many Chinese, Koreans, Japanese living alongside the Russians that we can expect the culture, cuisine and history of Vladivostok to reflect their different contributions. And not just decades ago. Today people come in to Vladivostok as seasonal workers or merchants, or to play in multi national sports competitions.

Hels said...


I had relatives all around Russia, including countries that have since become independent eg Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. But there was no-one in Far Eastern Russia, and so no family reunions were ever held there. Nonetheless I too would love to visit, via the Trans Siberian Railway.

Well done for your sister getting to the Hard Quiz. Most potential participants don't even get that far.

Rachel Phillips said...

I preferred the 4 bunk cabins. I met Russian people that way and travelling alone I felt safer sharing with three others rather than just one other. Privacy was never an issue. There are unwritten rules of etiquette on these trains.

Joe said...

Helen, I don't know if the readers will find this book helpful.

Vladivostok: A Short History of Russian Rule in the East by Josh Wilson

Under the Soviets, growth and development continued with industrial, military, communication and transportation infrastructure being built. Vladivostok was declared a closed city in 1958 and only reopened in 1991. One of only 4 major seaports serving a gigantic country, Vladivostok has become a major commercial hub, mainly for goods brought from China, Japan and Korea, especially automobiles and ship building.

Hels said...


totally understood. I was used to the Ghan, the Indian Pacific and Al Andalus Railways, where couples have a cabin to themselves. If we can ever travel again after covid, I will really be looking forward to booking on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

DUTA said...

Vladivostok (meaning - the Lord/Ruler of the East) and the Trans Siberian railway are a never- ending source of interest for many reasons.It's remote, It's Siberia, it's russian territory close to China and Japan; it offers something for anyone historically, geographically,culturally, politically.

Hels said...


many thanks for the reference. I had been particularly interested in Vladivostok's architecture, religious centres, immigration patterns etc. But that seems a bit limited, since the city was particularly important as a major industrial and commercial Pacific centre.

Hels said...


I agree with you totally. Vladivostok's location and roles were unique, so even if a person is quite familiar with Russian and Chinese cities, they will find this coastal city fascinating.
I was already rapt in Harbin and Shanghai:
https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2012/01/harbin-chinas-paris-of-orient.html and
but my goodness, I had a lot to learn :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I've never been, but always wanted to visit - thanks for the tour and some of its history. It's a part of the world I'll need to read about and to see vicariously now - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


I say that all the time... "it's a part of the world I'll need to read about and see". But I find that in 50 years of travelling, I end up each year in the same places. Not that is terrible, mind you; you cannot over-visit London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Prague, Tel Aviv, New Delhi etc. However if it wasn't for blogging, I don't think Vladivostok would have appeared on my wish list.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde minha querida amiga. Parabéns pelo seu trabalho e matéria. As fotos são incríveis e da vontade de ir nessa maravilhosa cidade. Bom início de semana.

mem said...

I once had a friend who was a naval officer in Vladivostok . She is now nearly 80 an can't believe the changes that have happened going from a very secret militaristic base to a fairly open place . I understand that the Kamchatka Peninsula is an amazingly diverse area and not too far from Vladivostok,

Hels said...


before Covid limited overseas travel, did you enjoy travelling to other continents? I hope you get to Vladivostok and surrounding cities.... post-pandemic.

Hels said...


I wish I met your ex-naval officer friend before writing this post. Personal insights are usually very helpful.

It would be a pleasure to visit the Kamchatka Peninsula, 2500 ks to the north of Vladivostok, if you value arctic tundra landscapes, exotic wildlife and geological activity. But note that there is no direct transport option from Vladivostok.

mem said...

MM she tends to be a rather taciturn character . I remember once years ago we were eating lunch on a Saturday and there was a James Bond movie on the TV that the kids were watching . She sat for a while watching it then slammed down her cup of tea on the table and yelled "Bloddy Americans" at the top of her voice and stormed out of the house. She has been an interesting experience for our family as she had SUCH a different life in Communist USSR . I get the impression that life was very tough for many and that "weakness" was not tolerated.
Good thing that Kamchatka is so far from everywhere . Lets hop there aren't and mineral reserves there !!

Hels said...


yes! I love older peoples' personal memories but sometimes those memories can produce pain... and brutal memories can burst forth. My mother in law left Europe in 1951 and did not revisit for decades. In 1993 she was looking at the Danube River in Budapest and suddenly she "saw" streams of human blood turn the Danube bright red. In horror, she fled Budapest that very day, remembering her parents' and siblings' slaughter as if it happened in 1993.