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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Pathway to Prominence

Growth of the City:

Valdivostok 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: Vladiostok also appeared to be under construction.  The port town also seemed to be under construction as new buildings, ports, or other structures were constructed.  One foreign traveler, Bonham Ward Bax, provided an account of several of the early aspects of this rapid growth during a 1781 visit to the town:

Vladivostok, also called the Golden Horn, can be entered from either end of the channel called the Eastern Bosphorous, and is a deep and safe harbor, well fitted for defense and to become the principal naval station in Eastern Siberia. […] The Russians have already established a dockyard and building slip for small vessels, and […] it will be a very good and useful naval port.  Several war vessels are stationed here, the crews of which are landed in the winter, and quartered in fine barricades of wood.  There was a garrison of about 400 soldiers who also had good barracks.  I was informed that the harbor is rarely sufficiently frozen to interrupt communication entirely for any length of time except in very severe winters.  When we were in the harbour there were three Russian war vessels present, a government tug, and several steam launches belonging to the dockyard.

There was not much cultivation in the neighborhood, although the soil appeared very fertile, and wherever vegetables had been planted in the gardens they were growing luxuriantly.

The church belongs to the Greek Christians, and is built of wood; the houses of the officials are also made of wood, and are kept whitewashed, which causes them to show out well from the water against the green country behind.  There was only one English merchant living here, who kept a small store. […] The climate in the summer is very pleasant, although it is dreary and cold in the winter.  There is a curious little kiosk on the top of the hill overlooking the harbor; the people have built a good bathing house in the harbor, to enjoy the excellent sea bathing.[1]

Another traveler, American scholar Jeremiah Curtin, noticed an increase in activity and constuction during a visit to Vladivostok in October of 1900.  He reported that:

Vladivostok […] looks as though [it were] built, not on seven hills, but on twenty-seven. […] The town is picturesque in location, but there was so much building going on and so many streets under repair that it gave one an impression of great disorder and discomfort.  I was surprised to find such a multitude of Orientals in a Russian City.  Chinaman […] are servants in hotels, water-carriers, wood-cutters shopkeepers, and road-makers. China women on the streets looked as if they had walked off of tea chests. […] There was an excellent market in the city in spite of the fact that the food in the hotels and restaurants was vile. [2]

Passing through the port the next year, another traveler made similar observations.  Pairing descriptions of the natural beauty of the locale with a sense of the rugged and unfinished nature of the town:

Vladivostok is a picturesque town with a first-rate natural harbor, enclosed by two peninsulas, sheltering the inner waters, and forming a doorway which leads to an open sea.  Several islands lay outside the harbor, which is sufficiently deep for the largest ocean steamers.  Unfortunately, though Vladivostok lies in the same latitude as Venice, the port, owing to the severe climate, is frozen from the middle of December to the end of March, and all traffic is suspended for over three months of the year.  The streets are uneven, and, if anything, more dusty that at Khabarovsk.  The population consists chiefly of the Russian garrison, and of over 14,000 Chinese and [K]orean tradesmen and coolies.[3]

A final fascinating description of the growth of the town comes from one William Oliver Greener, a correspondent sent to Eastern Russia in 1904 to report on the ongoing Russo-Japanese War.  In comparison to what he had observed on previous visits to the port town, Greener noted that:

Vladivostok has grown and improved; it possesses a new cathedral, many new government buildings, three theatres and several additions to its business streets.  Additional barracks have also been erected at Vladivostok, and its importance has increased rather than diminished[.] […] There is no lack of amusement, gaiety, and “life” at Vladivostok, but the port has an appreciable commerce which gives it staidness and stability. […] [However,] Vladivostok is not “one of the busiest ports in the world.”[4]

The overall image that grows out of this description is one of a bustling, if not extraordinarily large frontier town.  Additionally, the geographic proximity to China, Korea, and Japan seems to have led to a relatively large amount of ethnic diversity within the population of the town.  The continued growth of Vladivostok is a theme across all of these descriptions, communicating, a continual desire to expand and increase the capacity and influence of the young town.
[1] Botham Ward Bax, The Eastern Seas: Being a Narrative of the Voyage of H. M. S. "Dwarf" in China, Japan and Formosa (London: J. Murray, 1885), 160-164.
[2] Curtin, J., Schafer, Joseph, & Curtin, Alma M. Cardell. (1940). Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin. The State historical society of Wisconsin.
[3] Elim Pavlovich Demidov, A Shooting Trip to Kamchatka (London: Rowland Ward, 1904), 65-66.
[4] William Oliver Greener, A Secret Agent in Port Arthur (London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1905), 28-29.

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