Founded in 1860, Vladivostok became the major commercial and naval port of the Russian Far East. Its history epitomizes the challenges faced by tsarist Russia as a multi-ethnic empire and as a military power in the north Pacific.
Count Nikolai Muraviev-Amursky, governor-general of Eastern Siberia, established the town on the site of a Chinese hamlet before the region was formally ceded by China to Russia. The name he gave it, which translated to "Ruler of the Orient," belied its precariousness in an area contested by the rival imperialist nations of Europe and Japan. Situated at the end of a peninsula jutting 32 kilometers (20 miles) into Peter the Great Bay off the Sea of Japan, the Russian Navy had doubts about moving its Far Eastern squadron there from the more secure Nikolayevsk further north. The port freezes over during winter, and maritime access to the town can be controlled by hostile navies (as occurred during the Russo-Japanese War). Movement of settlers and transport of troops to Vladivostok from the central Russian provinces required travel along the slow and primitive over-land routes across Siberia or over the high seas.
These communications deficiencies were among the factors behind the decision to build the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Groundbreaking for the railroad took place at Vladivostok in 1892, but construction along the Amur River, which connected the region with the rest of Siberia, was deemed too expensive. An alternative presented itself after 1896 when the Russian government received permission to build the Chinese Eastern Railroad through Manchuria. In 1897 the Russians arranged a leasehold over the Liaodong Peninsula, including the naval base at Port Arthur and commercial port at Dalian (Dalny), where a substantial amount of Vladivostok's commercial and naval traffic shifted. Tsarist defeat in the subsequent Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and withdrawal from southern Manchuria led to the revival of Vladivostok, but the strategic disadvantages remained.
By that time the town had grown from a collection of huts to the largest city of Siberia, with a population of nearly one hundred thousand. It was the capital of the Maritime Territory and had become a center of intellectual life with the founding of the Society for the Study of the Amur Region (1884) and the Oriental Institute (1899), dedicated to the study of Asian languages. Commercial activity also flourished in a modern district featuring ten banks and branches of European, Japanese, and Russian-owned firms. As a sign of the growing reputation of the city, twelve nations opened consulates there.
Russian policymakers were dissatisfied, however. The presence of ex-convicts, fugitives, and Chinese bandits (hong huzi), along with a sizable number of sailors and stevedores, made Vladivostok the murder capital of Siberia. Foreign visitors were struck by its cosmopolitanism, but also its filth and violence. Russians who lived there lamented its isolation from European Russia.
The demography of the city also alarmed the central government, ever concerned about its loose grip on a vast territory. In 1912 more than half the legal residents of the city were Russians, but their numbers were nearly balanced by 27,000 Chinese, 8,000 Koreans, and 3,000 Japanese. The city's Asian inhabitants dominated economic life, with Chinese and Koreans making up 90 percent of the unskilled labor force on the railroad and the docks and supplying virtually all of the city's produce, firewood, water, and animal feed. The Japanese competed in the service sector as barbers, servants, photographers, and, most commonly, prostitutes—in brothels that were often fronts for Japanese government espionage operations. Although occasional fighting broke out between Russians and Asians, intermarriage was a more common occurrence.
Russian officialdom's fear of the "Yellow Peril" and desire to modernize through governmental uniformity and Russification made the state of affairs in Vladivostok seem a threat rather than an opportunity. The Revolution of 1905 fueled these anxieties as enlisted men awaiting repatriation from the Russo-Japanese War rioted and Trans-Siberian Railroad workers went out on strike. No major socialist cells had been active in the city, and order was restored quickly, but St. Petersburg felt compelled to step up Russian migration to the town, whose population grew by more than thirty thousand before 1917. This ended up making the town less secure for the government because Russian workers were more politically conscious and open to revolutionary agitation than the Chinese coolies they displaced, although before World War I the secret police kept these tendencies in check. With an influx of refugees and prisoners of war from the German and Austrian armies and the rise of Bolshevik and Menshevik activism after February 1917, the stage was set for the upheavals experienced by the city in the coming revolutionary and civil war years.
Kabuzan, V. M. Dal'nevostochnyi krai v XVII–nachale XX vv., 1640–1917: Istoriko-demograficheskii ocherk. Moscow, 1985.
Marks, Steven G. Road to Power: The Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia, 1850–1917. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.
Stephan, John J. The Russian Far East: A History. Stanford, Calif., 1994.
Steven G. Marks
VLADIVOSTOK , city in Maritime Territory, formerly Russian S.F.S.R., now Russian Federation. Jews began to arrive in Vladivostok at the close of the 19th century, forming part of those exiled to the Russian Far East regions. In 1897 there were 290 Jews in Vladivostok (1 percent of the total population), representing an organized community administered by the Zionists until the Soviet occupation in 1922. In 1926 the community numbered 1,124 (1 percent of the total population). Although it is known that with the development of the city and the growth of the Jewish settlement of the nearby region of *Birobidzhan, the number of Jews increased, in 1970 no information was available concerning any organized Jewish life in Vladivostok. In 2005 the original synagogue was again in use and a Sunday school was being run by the community.