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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Existence at Empire's Edge

Vladivostok reflects the summation of Russia's efforts to expand and influence Eastern Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Established on land gained through an unequal treaty with China, Vladivostok became Russia's Pacific hub. The city served as the eastern terminus of important rail lines and was a vital port for trading with China, Korea, and Japan.  Chinese and fishermen, hunters, escaped criminals, and collectors of ginseng and wild sea cucumbers all lived intermittently in the area that would eventually become Vladivostok.  The prevalence of sea cucumbers in the waters surrounding this undeveloped spot in the northeast part of the Manchu region eventually led to it being named “Hǎishēnwǎi” (海參崴) or “Sea Cucumber Cliffs.” This territory had formally acquired Chinese ownership in 1689, where, under the provisions of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Russia agreed to Chinese rule of the whole watershed area of the Amur River in the Manchu region. It would remain under Chinese control until 1858 when the Treaty of Aigun would officially legitimate Vladivostok as a Russian city.


With its new Russian Status, Vladivostok expanded rapidly from its beginnings as a small fishing community.  Investment in the town by both the Russian government and international firms contributed to rapid growth and expansion.  An examination of the accounts of travelers passing through Vladivostok during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries yields several interesting revelations, with one key commonality: Vladivostok also appeared to be under construction.  The port town also seemed to be under construction as new buildings, ports, or other structures were constructed. Once the Trans-Siberian began to operate regularly at the turn of the twentieth century, there was heavy seasonal migration to this city for the purpose of catching the railway to other destinations. The city, though much smaller at first, experienced dramatic growth. In 1878, its population was just under 4,000. By 1880, it had doubled to 7,300. By 1916, the population surges to around 96,000 inhabitants.

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