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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: After 97 Years, It's Still The Same Old News




In 1902, Vladivostok opium dens bribed police 1,000 rubles a month to leave their customers alone. A noblewoman, angry at her servant for buying bad meat, beat him bloody with a log. Russians were seething over England's war in South Africa.


Recently, while researching a historical figure, I reviewed some old issues of the Vladivostok newspaper, assisted by my colleague Nonna Chernyakova. And I was struck with how eternal some themes are in Russia, whether it's suspicion of Chinese, weird crimes, or worries over the ambitions of English-speaking nations.


The paper was a reminder of why an earlier generation found tsarism so odious. One story from May notes that the freighter Yaroslavl had delivered a load of inmates to the Sakhalin penal colony. And the newspaper lamented that foreign magazines must first be shipped to censors in Moscow before being mailed in tatters to Vladivostok subscribers.


In January 1902, Americans shipped 9,909 sacks of water-soaked flour to Vladivostok, of which only a tiny percentage could even be fed to pigs. "Why are they on sale, then?" the paper demanded. "Wouldn't it be easier to throw them into the sea?"


Today, Americans worry arms sales will fuel regional conflicts. In 1902, the U.S. Congress sought to protect another military technology. According to a wire report, a congressman wanted "to declare horses and mules to be military contraband in order that those who are fighting in South Africa would not use U.S. ports for export of these animals."


For those of us who now deal with wacko drivers, it is reassuring to learn that Vladivostok always produced excitable transportation specialists. When one Mr. Makaritsky demanded change from his driver, the cabby "rudely answered, 'Go to the Devil! I don't have change,' and continued cursing the passenger," the Vladivostok stated. "He threatened Makaritsky's wife with a whip, which drove her to tears. The driver was taken to Police Station No. 1, where he was held until he got sober."


Just as papers are now burdened with junk press releases from the regional administration, so in 1901 they were stuffed with ponderous decrees that began, "We, the Emperor of all Russia, Nicholas II ... " And then, as now, people fretted about what foreigners were thinking.


The Vladivostok noted that a newspaper in Harbin, a Chinese city favored by Russian emigrants, was urging the creation of an English-language newspaper "through which it would be possible to communicate with the East and refute all the stupid things that local foreign newspapers write about Russia."


Just last week, a paper backed by the regional administration launched an English edition that sings the praises of Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko. One goal seems to be to refute the stupid things this foreigner's newspaper keeps writing.