Tires at a car market in Vladivostok. Vladivostok. Source: Aaron Huey / National Geographic / Getty Images
The official symbols of Vladivostok are a tiger, hills, bridges, the Sea of Japan, and the Pacific fleet. One of the most well known unofficial symbols is Zelyony Ugol (Green Corner), the largest market for used Japanese cars in Russia.
Green Corner, which is partially covered by green forest, has long been the name of one of the outlying suburbs of Vladivostok. In summer here it is hot, and in the winter there is an icy wind that chills you to the bone. There is an outdoor market located on several of the hills in Green Corner that has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of car dealers from Siberia.
Green Corner can be spotted from a distance - it gleams with car paint and reflections from windshields. The wide assortment is similar to markets in Japan, but there are differences.
For example, in Russia off-road vehicles are much more popular than in Japan, and the prestigious Toyota Prado and Surf always attract admirers. Although lately, a lot of comical urban mini cars have appeared that are slightly larger than an office chair.
It’s impossible to see all of the thousands of vehicles in Green Corner in one day. They are all shiny and clean, have no license plates and don't yet smell of Russian gasoline. Most vehicles here have never been driven on Russian roads and are three to five years old. The duties for bringing in older cars are so much higher that it isn't profitable to import them.
"Was it sawn in half?" asks a large bearded man in a business-like tone pointing to a tiny Subaru.
The sawing in half refers to the bizarre process of sawing cars in two in Japan and welding them together in Russia to reduce customs fees. This barbaric practice was invented after duties were increased in 2008, but then authorities began to clamp down on it.
The seller laughs nervously, "I don't saw cars, I paid full customs tax for all my cars." "Full customs" means the car was imported in one piece.
Deals are made right here in the front seats of the cars, and the happy owner of a Japanese-made car then sets off to the State Traffic Department to register it or leaves for home -- Khabarovsk, Chita, Irkutsk ...
Japanese cars were first imported to Vladivostok at the end of the 80's when it was still a closed city. Auto import completely changed the face of the city and the dynamics of its economy. It was a business for the common man, allowing people like officers, fishermen, and scientists who lost their jobs during perestroika to make a new career in sales.
All of the available ships in the Far East were used to transport cars, including fishing and research ones (they say military ships were even used). The spare parts and repair markets also flourished. Naturally, the auto business was closely linked with the criminal world.
There was even a time in Vladivostok when cars were exchanged for apartments - that shows how great the desire was with Soviet people to purchase a modern vehicle. People were amazed by the options available in Japanese cars such as air conditioning and automatic transmission.
Far East residents quickly adapted to the right-side steering wheel and even saw the "heretic" steering wheel as a symbol of their independence and love of freedom. Local folklore even grew up around it, for example, the famous saying "a left-side steering wheel can't be called good" (one of the meanings of the word "left" in Russian is "incorrect" or "bad").
A whole vehicle slang has been invented that is almost unintelligible for motorists in western Russia. The Toyota Sоаrer is referred to as "Saira," the Toyota Hаrrier SUV is called "khoryok" (a word that means "ferret" in Russian) the Nissan Wingrоаd, which is very popular with fishermen and those with gardens outside town, is known as "Vinograd," which is "grape" in Russian.
The internal market of Primorsky Krai is relatively small. The local car business flourished due to the fact that Vladivostok turned into a transfer point for delivering cars to Siberia. On September 25, 1993 the famous Green Corner opened.
From the outset, Moscow wasn't pleased with the rapid growth of the Far East car market, seeing it as a threat to the Russian industry. Back in the mid 90's Prime Minister Chernomyrdin attempted to prohibit the operation of right-side steering vehicles in Russia, but the government backed down because of protests.
It was then that a saying appeared "forbid right-hand steering wheels and you will get a Far East Republic" (in reference to the state that existed in the Far East from 1920-1922 that was formally independent from Russia).
The authorities changed tactics by starting to raise taxes on imported cars. The increase in 2008 caused a social explosion in Vladivostok: local residents blocked roads and organized protests, which Moscow suppressed by flying in the Zubr police special forces.
In 2012, 258,000 vehicles passed through the Far East customs. The record was in 2008, when more than half a million cars were brought into the region and neither the customs officials nor the riot police can keep up with Green Corner.
The state is struggling with "gray" crimes, for example, when the engine and body are imported separately, or when the whole body is sawn in two, and businessmen are always coming up with new more or less legitimate ideas.
Today Vladivostok has more cars per capita than any other city in Russia. In 2012, there were 558 vehicles for every 1000 people. In second and third places are oil-rich Surgut and Tyumen with 377 cars. Moscow has 338 cars per 1000, leaving it in just seventh place.
Twenty years on Green Corner is an entire era in the eastern half of Russia. The Far East car business has entered popular culture as well. Vitaly Dyomochka, who has a criminal past, filmed the popular series Spets about criminals and car importers, Siberian Mikhail Tarkovsky wrote the novel "Toyota-Kresta," Vladivostok poet Ivan Shepeta has written a poem with the line "steering wheel on the right, heart on the left," and in the Primorsky town of Tavrichanka they brew the Pravorulnoye (right-sided steering wheel) beer.
A newcomer to Green Corner will be impressed by the magnitude and diversity of Japanese cars on the market (recently Korean and American cars have appeared too). But an experienced person will say that the market is now half empty.
Because of the pressure from Moscow, as well as the popularity of Japanese auctions that allow people to remotely buy a car with a clean history, there are far fewer cars on the market than in the "golden age" of the right-side steering wheel.
Those who prefer the auctions claim that the open-air market is full of cars that were sawn in half and "toplyaki" (submerged wood), that is, cars that got wet in the sea. Those on the side of the market are of the opinion that at the market you can touch the car with your hands and start it up, and an auction sheet is simply a piece of paper.
Many people come here not for a vehicle, but for some “related products.” Contraband is openly sold at Green Corner, such as smuggled Japanese Suntоry whisky, coffee, and cigarettes. In the Vladivostok port these trifles have traditionally been ignored.
City authorities have announced several times their plans to build a new residential area where the market now stands -- it turns out that this was envisaged in the Vladivostok city plan. The market would be moved outside the city, or it would just shut down after the next increase in taxes or ban on right-side steering wheels.
Residents of Vladivostok do not believe this will happen. Although many now drive left-side steering wheel cars, the majority are still faithful to the right-side steering wheel.
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