By Lisa Horner
Vladivostok, along with dozens of other cities, was a closed city from 1958 to 1992. This means the city had special travel and residency restrictions. It was completely closed to foreigners as it was Russia’s major Eastern naval base and the headquarters of the Soviet Fleet. Vladivostok was only accessible to Russians with proper authorization, though it was relatively easy (again, with proper authorization) for residents to leave. This is a point of humor among locals – according to them, no one ever wanted to come to the city and locals that left often came back only because they were paid to.
Self-deprecating humor is common among Russians, however, and the joke not withstanding, I found Vladivostok to be a charming city with a vibrant modern and cosmopolitan, if perhaps quirky culture. One of my favorite parts of visiting the city was my visit to Fort No. 7, an old naval fortress now used by tourists, skateboarders, and Thai boxers.
A Short Background of Vladivostok’s Military History and Forts
Russia only acquired Primorsky Krai, the region that contains Vladivostok, in the 19th century. China, the Mongol Empire and the Balhae and Jurchen nations had all controlled the area around Vladivostok before Russia gained it through the Treaty of Aigun with China in 1858. China, after a war with Britain, did not have the resources to control the area, and overestimated the power of the Russian military at the time and agreed to the treaty rather than risk another conflict.
Vladivostok was initially founded primarily as a Russian military post rather than a city. The civilian portions of the city grew around the military base, primarily to service, feed, and house the soldiers and sailors. Russia needed to heavily guard the territory, considering how far it was from Russia’s political center, and how close it was to China, Japan, and Korea, who were all known to be interested in newly-acquired Russian territory. Russia had had aspirations to become a Pacific naval power since the 1700s, so the new territory, which would allow the realization of this desire, was a precious attainment to protect.
The initial fortifications in the area, rather extensive for that time, were built through the 1870s-1890s. From 1878 to 1918 around 1,300 military objects – large and small – were built in and around the city. Vladivostok became particularly important after the fall of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, since it was Russia’s only other Pacific seaport connected to the Trans-Siberian railroad. Ninety-eight billion rubles in gold were spent between 1910-1914 on the construction of defense infrastructure, including forts, strongholds, and access roads. Part of the reason the projects were so expensive was that each object had to be specially planned due to the hilly landscape. In more “designer-friendly” geographic conditions one design is used to construct multiple forts. To Vladivostok’s favor, however, the hills make the forts very difficult to spot, and the exact locations were kept secret.
All together there are 16 forts that encircle Vladivostok from all sides, 10 of them on the peninsula, and 6 on Russian Island. Unfortunately, it seems that maps of the area are still scarcely available to the public – the only one we could find is this rather esoteric Russian-language, older map. Perhaps, as Russian Island is now being developed into a major tourist and business hub, a more complete and user-friendly map may be produced someday soon.
These naval forts were some of the last in the world to be constructed – permanent forts lost their use with changing military and war trends. Beginning in World War I, advancements in artillery and airpower meant that any detectable target could be destroyed, so the more resources spent on a particular object meant the more of a strategic target it became. Field (temporary) fortification became more relevant for increasingly technologically mobile troops. Thus Fort No. 2 is the largest fort of its type in the world and will likely remain so. It is 650 meters long and 380 meters deep, with more than 3.5 kilometers of underground tunnels.
All of the 16 forts encircling Vladivostok are intact except Fort No. 5, part of which was blown up in 2005 by when an illegal city ordinance called for the disposal of ammunition at the site. The Military Prosecutor’s Office claimed that senior officers of the Pacific Fleet did not know the fort was a federal monument and refused to initiate proceedings. Shortly after the explosions in Fort. No. 5 a survey group found undetonated explosives inside Fort No. 8 (though it is not clear who put them there).
Other forts have also been damaged by misuse. In a routine inspection of Russian cultural heritage sites in 2008 it was discovered that two-thirds of the metal in the gallery of Fort No. 2 was removed, making the passageways of this fort unsafe (it is also an unsolved mystery as to what happened to the metal). Other military objects in and around Vladivostok have been targeted by illegal scrap-metal looting as well, and after a series of incidents most of the forts now have the reputation of being a dumping ground for bodies and stolen goods (passports, wallets, etc.). Nobody besides the Vladivostok Digger Club, an amateur archaeological club, seems to care very much about the forts. Most of the forts are in a poor state after a century of fighting with nature and human neglect.
A Tour of Fort No. 7
Today the forts are not easy to visit on your own. Most of them have been completely abandoned, and years of neglect have made them a bit dangerous to walk around in and destroyed any roads that may have lead directly to them. The most commonly visited fort, Fort No. 7, is only accessible by a dirt road and there are no signs to point the way. Entrance is technically supposed to be open for all, but the man who currently lives there keeps the place entirely locked up and only unbolts his window when somebody knocks on it. If you really want to get inside, your best bet is to arrange it through a tour agency that has the gatekeeper’s phone number – if you are lucky they will call him ahead of time. If he is in a good mood he might even remove the chain blocking the dirt road to the fort ahead of time. Otherwise you will have to walk.
After discussing our intents with my tour guide and having decided we were harmless, the gatekeeper, Grisha, walked around to the front and unbolted the main fort entrance for me and the guide. Grisha led us by flashlight to the room that serves as the main headquarters. There is no natural light in the corridor – when the fort was in use lanterns were placed in sills built into the walls. The room we entered, originally the kitchen, contained a gas-stove and a table spread with a sorry assortment of souvenirs such as a few magnets, a picture book of Vladivostok’s various forts, and military rations. The room also contained a map of the fort, a couch where Grisha sleeps, a computer with an old Soviet film on pause (probably interrupted when my tour guide knocked on the window), and various rusting pieces of indistinguishable equipment spread among Grisha’s own personal things. Grisha lives on the premises and when there are no tourists he studies his real main interest – ufology (the study of UFOs). If you’re alone or with a small group he might tell you about his interest in ufology. He has hundreds of pages of notes. Otherwise he will skip directly to an introduction of the fort.
Officially named “The Fort of the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich,” it was built in 1910 into the side of Mount Toropov, 14 km north of the center of Vladivostok. It’s the western-most fort on the northern defense line, and was designed by an experienced military architect, Vyacheslav Sergeyevich Toropov. Fort 7 has the longest barracks of all 16 forts – 150 meters, with the capacity to house 400 soldiers. During wartime it was filled to capacity, and in peacetime only a handful of soldiers were stationed there. The barracks’ deep foundation was even equipped with a full kitchen, oven, and even its own power station. The water supply came from an artesian well inside the fort, and the artillery room was equipped with a forced ventilation system so that the gasses from the artillery would not poison the soldiers.
Construction of the sprawling fort was never completed due to the October Revolution in 1917, but what was left was minor – for example, not all the equipment was installed, and the countermine galleries were not completely finished. During the Russian Civil War the fort and remaining construction equipment were kept under guard by the Whites until 1923, after the Bolsheviks had taken control and signed a treaty with Japan regarding the demilitarization of Vladivostok. The fort was abandoned and later looted by unknown bandits. It’s rumored that from the 1930s until 1940 the forts were used by the NKVD (secret police – later known as the KGB) as an underground execution area.
The fort never did see any actual fighting. It was used as a storage facility in WWII, housing mostly weapons. It was also officially used as a storage facility from 1962-1996, but its still a mystery as to what, exactly, was kept there. Locals report covered military trucks transporting cargo to and from the site, but can’t say what kind of cargo might have been inside. After Perestroika and the reduction of the military and navy, Fort No. 7 was abandoned and again plundered by unknown criminals. It was only made presentable and opened to the public for tours in 2001, when former officer Sergei Popov took an interest in restoring it.
The main attraction of the fort are the underground tunnels, which have a total length of 1.5 km and connect the fort’s entire defense system, intersecting and then taking off in different directions. It was designed so that riflemen and artillerymen could move quietly from one end of the fort to another, and appear in places the enemy would not expect.
The concrete tunnels are completely dark inside – electric lighting was installed during restoration, but it rarely works. Temperatures inside the fort range from 50-57 degrees Fahrenheit during summer, and in winter the temperature inside the fort is usually the same as the temperature outside, never rising above 40F. There are enormous icicles that form inside during winter as the concrete has since cracked and begun leaking.
The interior of the tunnels is basically cleared out, with only a few odds and ends left – some ammunition, a few cots in the barracks, etc. A skate-boarding youth group is allowed to come in on some weeknights to skate.
There have been several scandals associated with the fort during the last 10 years. In the early 2000s its rear line of defense was demolished so that a few upper-class vacation homes (dachas) could be built there. In July 2007 there was a local scandal when representatives of the Thai Boxing Federation of the Primorsky Region showed up – armed – and claimed the fort was theirs. The Federal Agency for Managing Historical and Cultural Monuments had officially leased the fort to the Thai Boxing Federation. Sergei Popov, who had been taking care of the premises and conducting tours there for years, did not have the formal rights, and was forced out to the chagrin of the local population and media. The scandal was largely tied to the fact that a bus full of school children was visiting the fort when the armed Thai Boxing Federation showed up to claim the fort, but there was also a good deal of sympathy toward Popov.
The Federal Agency for Managing Historical and Cultural Monuments claimed that Popov, who had reopened the fort to the public and renovated it for tours, had done so illegally and had been resisting formalizing his operation of it. Thus the federal agency began looking for other tenants and signed a lease with the Thai Boxing Federation so that the funds made from the rent could be used for the fort’s upkeep. The Thai Boxing Federation wanted the premises mainly as a training base, but also promised in the lease that the excursions of the fort would continue. Popov, on the other hand, claimed that he had been seeking to formalize his management of the fort for years, but had been categorically ignored until he began making money on the excursions. The fort was only temporarily closed during the confusion of who was the legal tenant before reopening to the public – by the Thai Boxing Federation. The last scandal associated with Fort No. 7 was that the Thai Boxing Federation illegally installed a fireplace in 2008, and had to pay a fine for neglecting their responsibility to keep the object of cultural heritage unaltered.
No matter who the owner is, the fort is likely to remain open to tourists for a long time, considering its cultural and historical importance, that it draws tourists to the area (many from Asia), and that it is the only of Vladivostok’s forts suitable for excursions. Whether the operation becomes more formalized with easier access, so tourists don’t have to trail behind their tour guides knocking on windows to be let in – is much less clear. However, it’s still the type of adventure that any adventurer heading to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far, Far East should relish in.