July 01, 2019

Concrete in the Clouds

Concrete in the Clouds
Walking through the clouds. Katrina Keegan

I walked into the middle of a partly cloudy day. 

On my left, thick clouds rolled off the Sea of Japan, blanketing peninsulas that jutted out of the water below, and visibly wisped across the dirt road. On my right, the bright blue sky lorded over green hills, untouched save for occasional unidentifiable concrete structures and, in the distance, the two-pronged crown of the island: the massive suspension bridge back to civilization, Vladivostok. 

Russky bridge
The Russky Bridge. / Katrina Keegan

Russky Island – Russian Island in translation – is true to its name. Contrasts evident in Russia as a whole exist in microcosm on the island: unexplored wilderness meets modern development; a secretive military history predates a partly spontaneous, partly government initiated, family-friendly present. 

On a path unknown to Google and Yandex maps, stepping on clover plants as big as the palm of your hand, looking into a jungle so densely overgrown with ferns that it turns black after just a few rows of trees, it appears as if the island is deserted. However, if you visit on a summer Sunday, the moment you step out onto the rocky beaches the fresh, mist-off-the-sea smell is banished by the savory smoke of shashlik (Russian kebabs). 

Russian family beach Russky Island
A Russian family enjoying a picnic on the beach. / Katrina Keegan

Since 2012, when the bridge from the mainland was built, the island has become a favorite weekend retreat for local families, who of course are not put out by puddle-and-trench-ridden roads, scrambles down dusty hills with small children, or poisonous snake bites (the one I saw casually crossing the road seemed just shy of a meter long). Not all the wildlife, however, is the enemy of the people; foxes here have decided to become supermodels in exchange for food. 

Fox Russky Island
Staring match. / wgovor / Pikabu

A reverse process is taking place on the island’s historical structures. Here, the wildflowers are reclaiming their territory from humans. Brave tourists with flashlights can walk through artillery batteries dating back to the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s, and to some extent maintained through the Soviet period, when the island was a militarized zone. The era left behind legions of unlabeled structures of various shapes and sizes, spread over the vast green landscape like a trail of concrete crumbs. 

Tsarist battery Russky Island
Flowers make war on an imperial-era battery. / Katrina Keegan

Sadly, that is not all of the island’s violent history. The island was a base for Chinese pirates, the Honghzi, to attack Russian settlers of the Far East in the nineteenth century. One website claims that a Honghuzi curse may cause people to hear voices and mysterious deaths on the island. Another Russian website claims that the island was the sight of an American torture and a concentration camp during the Allied intervention into the Russian Civil War. The interventionists did commit atrocities in a camp on the literally opposite end of Russia, Arkhangelsk. However, the claim that something similar occurred on Russky Island cannot be confirmed in reputable sources. 

There are an increasing number of options for less intrepid travellers more interested in the island’s future than its history. The administration of Primorsky Krai has been working on a variety of development projects since the island’s debut as the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in 2012, which took place in the newly built Far East Federal University, given over to the students the following year. Another project of particular note is the Primorsky Aquarium, which opened in 2016, with an accompanying mini electric station. 

Aquarium Russky island
A fitting location for an aquarium. / Primorsky Aquarium

More is coming, but the pace of construction has varied wildly on other projects designed to attract tourism. Work has halted on the innovation cultural center, which the minister of culture for the region criticized as the worst situation he has seen in his seven years on the job. Meanwhile, students picketed to protest noisy construction of a museum-theater complex that continued daily past 10:00 pm. Also in the works are a center for digital development, a safari-park for local tigers needing rehabilitation, and an accessible beach for people with disabilities.

Accessible to all, in fact, seems to be the theme of Russky Island. From techies to tigers, pirates to picnickers, flowers to fighters, students to snakes, a lot of seemingly incompatible things coexist on this small – just barely shy of 100 square kilometers – protrusion from the sea. Much like, in fact, the much bigger Russia for which it is named. 

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