lonely planet

Vladivostok is at the end of the earth. It’s as far East as Europeans got before fuck it, they ran out of continent. It’s on a dog-leg strip of land owned by Russia, surrounded by a militaristic Japan, a crumbling Koryo, and the badlands of Manchuria.

Despite, or perhaps because of its remoteness, its a cosmopolitan city. There’s half a million souls clinging to this edge of the earth; Chinese and Korean faces are as common as Russians here, and there are plenty of leftover North Americans and Brits from the short-lived invasion of ’17.

The city is seventy years old, and wears them all on its face. The streetlamps, where they exist, are kerosene rather than electric. The avenues are bare of trees; of the few that survived the end of the Civil War in 1922, most have since been cut down for firewood or building the airport.

Vladivostok routinely chooses to be on the wrong side of history. Held by anti-Imperial revolutionaries when the Empire was winning in the opening years of the twentieth century, then taken over by the dying remnants of the Empire’s forces when all else had fallen to the revolutionaries.

A significant proportion of Russians who are here are vagabonds and deserters who fled here when everything went to shit on the other side of the country – between Petrograd, the Crimea and the Great War, there were plenty of reasons to start running. The journey to cross the continent was treacherous, but had one thing in its favour – it was at the end of the world’s longest railway, the Trans-Siberian.

After the Revolution, battles were fought up and down the length of this railway. In one bitter skirmish, known now as the Great Ice March, the so-called White Army led by the doomed Admiral Kolchak left the railway and stumbled onto the frozen surface of Lake Baikal, the world’s biggest, deepest lake. With the Red Army at their heels, Kolchak’s imperial forces made their way across the icy surface, mile after freezing mile. Arctic winds blowing across the sheer surface froze the majority literally where they stood; their bodies stayed standing there for months, until the harsh winter gave eventually way to spring, the ice cracked, and their corpses vanished silently below the water. Those who survived went on to Vladivostok, or settled in the nearby mountains and starved their way through the long Siberian winter.

For years, the city was too far away for the Reds to care about; the Leader had bigger problems on the other side of the country. But now, the Railway is firing along again, and each train brings more of the Reds, the Cheka, the Punitives. Every new arrival makes the ‘natives’ – including the White Army survivors, now derisively labelled the Porcelains for their cracked, fragile psyches – grow more cautious, more wary of the the eventual knock on the door that will see them off to the re-education camps of Tunguska.

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