Vladivostok - the final frontier of Russian politics

As Russia prepares to votes for its next president, Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull sets out on a journey across the country to gauge people's views, beginning in the eastern city of Vladivostok.


    You'd need many weeks of travel to get the true feel of a country the size of Russia. Even then, you wouldn't be anywhere close to understanding it.

    It is harder still to pierce the veil of people's real political allegiances and beliefs.

    I have just ten days, and much of that time will be spent navigating the often numbingly frustrating modes of Russian public transport from planes and airports, to trains and unintelligible timetables.

    Here in the far east, where my journey begins in the city of Vladivostok, it feels like frontier exploring, rough and exotic, unusual in this abundantly connected, same-same world of 2012.

    I'm a foreigner in a strange land, not always welcomed with my garbled Russian and western high expectations of life. Precise timings? - why. Accurate directions? - what for. Hot coffee? - nyet!

    The police are quick to yell at me for infringements of the most meaningless bureaucratic protocols: no photos even outside the train station, no going in through the door marked out. But you get the sense they'd be nowhere about if you were in real trouble.

    My Russian colleague sums it up well.

    "Always keep your expectations very low," Anton says. I try.

    It is that spirit which has kept much of the Russian electorate spellbound by Vladimir Putin for 12 years. The political compact is a simple one: provide me with my basic needs, make my life a little better than it was and I will give you my vote, ask no questions.

    While I wholeheartedly endorse my friend's advice as a mantra for travel across this vast country, the spirit of low expectation is steadily being rejected politically by large numbers of Russians.

    Vladivostok is a crumbling port on Russia's far east Pacific coast, seven time zones away from the Kremlin. It is strikingly decrepit for a city that is the proud home of the navy's Pacific Fleet and the country's gateway for trade with Japan and Korea, with China on its doorstep.

    Only a few years ago, I'm told, there was no working sewerage system in this city of 600,000.

    It is achingly cold.

    Despite sudden massive infrastructural investment ahead of this September's APEC summit, which Vladivostok will host, the political compact here is falling apart.

    Salaries are stagnant and low, prices are shooting up. The streets are decidedly third world. A teacher on $400 a month spends half that on rent and taxes. Massive oil deposits in the region have made the Kremlin rich, and local officials in expensive SUVs sport Swiss watches worth as much as their cars, a trademark of Russian wealth and position.

    Vladivostok has benefitted little.

    It's a city closer to Pyongyang than to Moscow, and not just geographically.

    There have been opposition protests in Vladivostok, as in many Russia cities, since last December's parliamentary election revealed falling national support for the ruling United Russia party, and massive electoral fraud. The numbers have not been huge here, but then nor is general turnout at the polls.

    In Vladivostok, a once prized and well-funded Soviet city, United Russia was beaten into second place by the Communist Party in December.

    The Communists were out on the streets during my visit.

    I don't believe there's any danger of a Communist takeover, a Russian Revolution mk-II. Across the country, opposition forces of all persuasions, including a hefty chunk of Russia's middle class, are in this together. They won't stop Vladimir Putin winning the election. But they hope to force change on the way he governs in future.

    More and more people want accountable politics, control of their own destinies. In my report, neurologist and local activist Alexander Krinitsky says people no longer want to be sheep "in the flock of some shepherd - now we sheer their coats, now we slaughter them."

    It does feel like change is upon Russia, a change of heart, a change of thinking. A change to that simple old compact between power and the voter.

    If only Mr Putin et al are wise enough to listen.

    I'm finishing this in the historic and beautifully preserved city of Irkutsk in the heart of Siberia. Vladivostok is a three hours flight away to the east and I'm preparing to board a train on the trans-Siberian railway heading west for the oil town of Tyumen. As we clatter along over the next two days, I'll ask my fellow travellers, perchance over a vodka or two, what they think of pre-election Russia.

    More as it happens...

    For regular updates from Russia, follow Jonah Hull on Twitter: @JonahHull



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