Many years ago, when I was a young Moscow journalist, I went on a business trip to the Russian Far East for the first time in my life. A distant, mysterious region that cannot easily be reached (nine hours by plane!) – I knew ahead of time that it would surprise me, but I had Asian exoticism in mind.
Before the trip, I had heard and read many times that in the cities of Russia’s Pacific coast, the influence of neighboring countries – above all, China, which has carried out a soft expansion there, both in terms of business and migration – is rather visible. In Moscow in those years, people from Central Asia were already working on construction sites, and it was logical to expect that the Far East labor market would have Chinese features. I arrived in Vladivostok with such expectations, and this charismatic city, paradoxically, managed to surprise me precisely by the fact that in its organization, life and population, it was basically no different than any medium-sized Russian city – the same people, the same architecture, the same service, no Asian features.
My local acquaintances took me to an Italian restaurant for dinner, and when I asked them about Chinese and Japanese cuisine, they thought a minute and suggested the same nationwide chains that operated in Moscow.
The first impression is always superficial, however, and after observing local life a little longer, I was able to establish that Chinese business, Chinese tourists and Chinese students are quite widely represented in the region, though strangely they do not look at Vladivostok as part of the universe in which they live – on the contrary, they see it as the most accessible and reachable piece of Europe, which is interesting for them because it does not look like the world they are used to with Chinese cuisine and Chinese habits.
Values experiments of Putin’s Kremlin
Now, years later, that old observation seems to me a metaphor for the current civilizational choice made by Russia during the Ukraine war. When people talk about the current isolation of Russia, they often think of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, though this comparison is not entirely correct. The Soviet Union was surrounded by an Iron Curtain, and the hermetically sealed border equally separated it from European countries (even if they were Soviet satellites), from Iran and Turkey in the south and from the Asia-Pacific region. The current isolation is not hermetic whatsoever – it concerns only the Western side, while the south and east, on the contrary, are now of exceptional importance for Moscow. Throughout the first year of the war, the Russian economy turned its back on the West, setting up schemes for “import substitution” and “parallel imports” and putting roots down in the space that now, with Moscow having broken with the West, represents the outside world.