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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vladivostok's New Uniform Approach

MTShchedrov, right, talking to a similarly dressed colleague.
VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- The order to put on uniforms took the staff of 1,500 people by surprise. But since April 3, government workers in the Vladivostok administration office have been going to work in business suits cut from the same drab olive cloth.

The decree mandates suits for men and skirts and sleeveless jackets for women, all produced at a local factory, with nametags placed over the breast pocket. Vladivostok Mayor Yury Kopylov said he issued the order to promote morale, claiming the outfits to be a matter of pride. The uniforms may also signal a new austerity in Vladivostok's city government, which has battled a legacy of corruption and scandal.

Employees didn't protest the uniforms, at least publicly, when word came down from Kopylov's office in January. But there was plenty of head-shaking.

"I thought, 'It can't be serious,'" said an administration employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We are not soldiers. Who could legally make us wear uniforms?"

Stanislav Shchedrov, the head of City Hall's press monitoring office, admitted to an odd breaking-in period. "It was a bit strange at first to see each other in uniforms and badges," he said. "But it is a durable suit. I wore it for three weeks and didn't even iron it once, let alone have it dry-cleaned."

Personal hygiene aside, the suits may actually represent a cleansing of City Hall's image. Kopylov, a former ship captain and one-time leader of the local Communist Party, was elected two years ago on the heels of several major scandals.

Vladivostok gained public attention in the late 1990s when former Primorye Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko and Unified Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais locked horns. Chubais waged war over mounting electricity debts, which Vladivostok refused to pay. The city regularly had electricity, heating and water switched off, and TV news programs featured people freezing in their apartments, which were lit by candles.

The former mayor of Vladivostok, Viktor Cherepkov, who now serves as a State Duma deputy for the region, leveled charges of corruption at Nazdratenko, which led to public demonstrations on the streets of Vladivostok.

City Hall officials sigh with relief that such conflicts are behind them, especially considering the amount of repairs that Vladivostok is currently facing.

Kopylov said more than half of the city's housing is beyond repair and needs to be razed. Out of 6,000 apartment buildings in the city, 2,500 of them have leaky roofs. Many elevators don't work, since thieves often abscond with metal from their inner workings. Out of 800 kilometers of heating pipelines, 500 kilometers need to be replaced.

"The heating system could collapse as soon as next year," Kopylov said, adding that one of Vladivostok's most glaring problems is the lack of industrial and human waste processing installations. "Vladivostok is the only Russian city that does not have them." Kopylov said the city does not have the $250 million that is necessary to fund these projects. "I can only rely on federal donations."

Kopylov has executed a few face-lifts around town, painting facades of decaying buildings in the center of the city, some of them as old as Vladivostok itself. Kopylov constructed an Arbat-type street at Ulitsa Fokina, which dead-ends at an embankment that is a popular local hangout. Last week, several new fountains opened, immediately becoming favorite spots for children, who splashed water at each other.

"The city is slowly being repaired," said one City Hall employee in her olive-colored suit. "We're improving roads and tunnels, repairing housing. Before, we mainly prepared refusals to people's requests."

Kopylov pegged the cost of the uniforms at 5 million rubles ($160,000), a fraction of Vladivostok's annual budget of 3 billion rubles. He said he introduced the uniforms not because he wanted the staff "to march in formations," but for two main reasons: to follow the principle of social justice and to try to make them feel proud to be members of the team that is improving the city.

Kopylov has been in a belt-tightening mood since he took office. Over the past two years, he has laid off 5,000 city employees, firing redundant staff from district administrations while increasing salaries for those he kept on. "I have left the best of the best working in the administration. Many have scientific degrees. Many work 10 hours a day, without days off. They devote their lives to work and they have started to value their jobs."

And some have even come to see value in the new uniforms. "It is cheaper just to have a few blouses instead of having to change your whole wardrobe all the time," said a middle-aged female employee. "Before, people were trying to impress everyone with their clothes. Women were wearing tight pants or mini-skirts and lots of jewelry. Now, we all look modest."

The uniforms themselves have inspired a spartan attitude in some employees. "If you want to work here, you wear it," said one woman in an elevator in the Gray House administration building at Okeansky Prospekt. "You have a choice: If you don't want to wear it, then don't work here."

Several employees said that the suits have streamlined productivity. "It is better for the organization of work," said one employee.

City Hall staffers are now easy to identify, which cuts down on the time they can comfortably spend away from their desks. Several employees said that even when they leave the building to smoke, they can't stay long, otherwise locals will think they have nothing better to do. They have also stopped killing time by shopping around town during office hours.

"It is basically good for discipline," said one employee. "But I feel embarrassed thinking that at a time of such huge problems in the city we had to spend money on uniforms and not on fixing our pipelines and collapsing houses."