I Find an Honest Man

Vladivostock busnessman new
Valentine V. Vashnov in Vladivostok sees himself as an American-style business man.


Vladivostok is a lively place, with lots of cars and people running about, although I can’t say I saw much of the city, since I was always squinting and rubbing my eyes as I walked down its crowded sidewalks. Strong winds from the Pacific kept whipping up dirt and blowing it into my face. In search of shelter, I ducked into the Vladivostok customs office, which sits on the harbor overlooking the Russian Pacific fleet. That’s where I met Valentine V. Vashnov.

“Our government just kicked us again,” mumbled a clean-cut, boyish-looking man as his paced about the lobby. “They just raised the tax from 7.5 to 15 percent. Don’t they want good products for our people?”

Vazhnov is a Russian yuppie. He owns a company that imports cheap consumer goods from Hong Kong, and the tax hike wipes out his company’s profits, he complained.

I didn’t come to Vladivostok to write about taxes, however. I came here to write about what Western journalist usually write about when they come to Vladivostok — organized crime, corruption, prostitution, the general moral degradation of Russian life. This Far Eastern port city of 700,000 people is notorious for such things. But when I stumbled upon Vazhnov muttering in custom’s office lobby, I quickly realized I had found someone very unusual.

Some of my Russian friends tell me there’s no such thing as an honest Russian businessman, that the men who make money in this country are either involved in organized crime or were part of the old Communist Party apparatus. But Vazhnov does not belong with either group. He an “American-style” businessman — the kind who pays his taxes, goes to church, donates to charity, loves his wife, and joins the local chamber of commerce. Vazhnov, 31, smokes Camel cigarettes and eats Snickers bars. He speaks English with an American accent. The face of his watch is emblazoned with an eagle and the phrase, “In God We Trust.” He carries an American-designed .38-caliber revolver that shoots copper canisters filled with tear gas. (Real guns are illegal in Russia.) Vazhnov says he needs the gas pistol to protect himself from gang members who might try to extort him.

Vladivostok is a rough place to run a business.  For 50 years Vladivostok was a closed city because it served as headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. But now the city has returned to its earlier character as a wide-open international port. Last year, 1004 people, including 32 police officers, were murdered in Primorsky Krai — the strip of Russia tucked in between the Chinese border and the Japanese Sea. In the region’s biggest city, Vladivostok, the word most often on people’s lips is not democracy but mafia.  In some neighborhoods,  only residents with friendly contacts with local criminal groups feel safe.

Vazhnov has learned about the American way of business from reading U.S. magazines and autobiographies of American businessmen. (His favorite is Lee Iacocca.) Hard work, honesty, obeying the law, and competing fairly — this is how businessmen should behave, he said.

“I’m proud I’m honest,” he  said. “I’m proud to pay my taxes. If everybody would be this way, our country would change.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell Vazhnov about our savings-and-loan scandal, or the Wall Street scandals, or the decline of our heavy industry. He should be reading the autobiographies of Japanese businessmen, I thought to myself.

But I said noting. I just listened as he talked about his new business venture — importing food, vitamins and medicine from his favorite country, the United States.

He plans to ship $70,000 worth of U.S. goods to South Korea this summer and then have them transferred to another ship bound for Vladivostok. He said he’s already received approval from a bank for a $50,000 loan.

I spent a day with Vazhnov as he drove around town conducting business. Like a good American manager,  he keeps a tight schedule and constantly glances at his “In God We Trust” watch. He does almost every deal in person, since there are few telephones in Vladivostok. Even meeting with his accountant, who works at another job, required a rendezvous at a parking lot at a prearranged time.

At the end of the day, I asked Vazhnov to drop me off at the bank that’s loaning him the $50,000. I wanted to talk to the bank director.

“Don’t mention the loan to him,” Vazhnov pleaded. “He doesn’t know about it yet.”

The bank director didn’t know about the loan, all right, and didn’t know much about Vaznhov, either. But he knew Vazhnov’s wife. She works at the bank. She’s in charge of the hard currency loan department.

When I later met Vazhnov outside the bank, I asked him about this $50,000 loan.

“I’ve got a meeting. No time to talk,” he replied , scampering to his car.

That was the last time I saw Valentine V. Vazhnov.

By American standards, Vazhnov wasn’t so ethical after all, I suppose. But to the Russia mind, he would be a fool not to take advantage of his wife’s position. Is Vazhnov an honest man? He is in Russia.

A Nation Comes Apart

Soviet Horror

Lenin Square in Luchegorsk, a small city situated about halfway between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. It has an enormous coal-fired power station, which supplies electricity for Primorski Krai.

In the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, I lived in the Russian Far East, spending most of time time in Khabarovsk, a city of more than a half million people about 19 miles from the Chinese border at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers. I had traveled there to write a weekly column for the Anchorage Daily News about the lives of ordinary Russians as their economy careened from state-controlled socialism to free-for-call capitalism.

The indestructible Soviet Union was gone. The lifetime savings of most Russians had been wiped out as a result of the “shock therapy” implemented by Boris Yeltsin’s government on the advice of American economists. This vast nation, once again called Russia for the first time in more than seven decades, was falling apart.

During this period, there were weekly flights between Khabarovsk and Anchorage, Alaska. This was all pre-Internet, of course. Every Sunday,  I stuffed one or two canisters of film and a floppy disk into an envelope and stuck on some U.S. postage stamps. Then I rode a bus to the airport and asked an Anchorage-bound stranger to drop the envelope in a mail box somewhere in the America.

All the letters arrived safely to the Anchorage Daily News newsroom.

I have decided to publish those columns in this blog. The photos, taken with Fuji slide film, had been damaged over the years by mold. I digitalised the photos, restored them and uploaded the restored images here on this blog.

In 2012, I returned to the same region with my wife, Svetlana, and our daughter, Ihila, to visit Svetlana’s sisters and to show Ihila the remote village where I met her mother. Ihila and I kept a blog about our journey. You can read here about our travels as well.

— Tom Bell

Internet access at last!

VLADIVOSTOK — We arrived here yesterday after taking a 12-hour train-ride, the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  We’re staying with my wife’s 23-year-old niece, Dasha, and for the first time in two weeks we have access to the Internet.

 We had been living in Krasny Yar, a native village in a mountain valley in the northwest corner of Primorksi Krai. Its 680 inhabitants belong primarily to the Udegeh tribe, although several members are Nanai, the tribe of my wife.

 The village is situated on high ground on the east bank of the Bikin River. “Yar” is an old Russian word for “river bank.”  “Krasny” means “red.”  There is nothing  red here, though. The name is due to the color favored by the Soviet government, which established the village in 1957 as a settlement for native people who were scattered in the region.

  The river basin upstream from Krasny Yar forms the largest tract of virgin temperate forest in the Northern Hemisphere. The Udgeh tribe, which controls the timber rights, has fought for decades to protect the forest from loggers. Nearly 50 men in the village work in the forest as professional hunters and trappers.

 As one might suspect, there is no Internet service in the homes. While the school principal has dial-up Internet service, she has installed  a hyper-vigilant filter that blocks access to most foreign Web sites, including my e-mail sites and my blog.

 There is also no cell phone service. So in Krasny Yar, my iPhone served mainly as a flashlight for my trips to the outhouse.

 To be truthful, though, life without Internet access has been pleasant.

 But now I sit here on Dasha’s one-bedroom apartment in Vladivostok, with the Ethernet cable securely attached, and I can tell you about our trip so far.

 Let me begin were I left off, in Khabarovsk, a regional capital situated on a bend on the Amur River, which for much of its length serves a  border between Russia and China. I lived in Khabarovsk in late 1992 and 1993, working as a freelance journalist following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 I see some obvious differences between then and today. The communist propaganda murals are gone, replaced many times over with billboards.  Some of the newer commercial buildings are covered with advertising, and companies even use graffiti to hawk their products and services.

 Supermarkets have arrived in Khabarovsk, and several large, new apartment buildings have been built or are under construction.

 For the most part, though, Khabarovsk’s outward appearances have changed little. Most of the city’s  600,000 residents live in grim, Soviet-era apartment buildings in various stages of decay.

 The buildings don’t have furnaces. Rather, power stations supply hot water that flows though the city via a network of huge above-ground pipes.

 We have been staying with my wife’s cousin, Ira. Her husband,  Vasili, was killed three years ago when a  helicopter he was piloting crashed and burned in the upper portion of the Bikin River. The helicopter’s radar system had been tampered by somebody, apparently by an enemy of a businessman who had rented it and was flying as passenger.

 Ira and her daughter Anya, have been a wonderful hostesses and have kept us well-fed with wonderful home-cooked meals.  While staying with them, I walked around the neighborhood and took some photographs. I’ll post some of them now.