In this light, one begins to sense the symbolism of the colossal Russky Island Bridge project. Satter of Johns Hopkins said the APEC projects were largely intended to "counter the impression of irresistible decline" in the Far East. Such frenetic periods of construction have been seen before. In the years preceding the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, the Tsarist regime heavily fortified the coast around Vladivostok. When the USSR's relationship with China turned sour in the early 1960s, Khrushchev promised to turn the city into a "Soviet San Francisco", covering its hills with dozens of krushchevka -- boxy Soviet-style apartment blocks. Each time, Moscow's attention has come as a response to the threat posed by rising Asian powers.
But is Russia really in danger of losing its Far East? My translator here, an economics student at the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service named Andrey Zaytsev, said the tide of anti-Chinese sentiment peaked in the 1990s, when conditions in the region were at their most desperate. While many people might be "more ungracious" to the Chinese if they knew the extent of their involvement in the local economy, rumors of the death of the Far East -- or its loss to China -- have been greatly exaggerated. "There's no need for China to invade us," Andrey said in his fluent, American-inflected English. "For the next 20 years or so the PRC is guaranteed with a supply of natural resources from the Russian Far East."
Popular attitudes, especially among the young, also seem to be changing. Marina Rashchepkina, a second-year translation student at the Far Eastern Federal University, said many people in her hometown of Amursk, around 500 miles north of Vladivostok, held prejudices against Chinese migrants. The older generation especially were "apt to underestimate mental abilities of Asian migrants," she said. But with growing economic interdependence has come an acceptance that, like it or not, China has come to play a central role in the future of the Far East. Marina said, "Most Russians, thinking rationally, would reject the total absence of China in the life of the Russian Far East."
Maria Lebedko, a professor of English at the university who also teaches courses in inter-cultural communication as part of an arrangement with universities in Japan, China, and other neighboring countries, told me the region had no choice but to come to terms with its geographic reality -- something she tried to impart to her students. "We are in Asia. ... We are not in Europe," she said. "I think we have to know each other better."
In a bid to stem the region's decline, the federal government has introduced incentives for ethnic Russians in Central Asia to shift eastward, and has offered subsidized airfares between Moscow and Vladivostok. But there is a Eurocentric cast to Russian policymaking that remains an obstacle to increased Asian investment and migration. Early last decade, in response to local sentiment, the government of the Primorsky region banned Chinese merchants from selling in local produce markets. Chinese migrant workers also face difficulties getting temporary work visas.
"On our streets, how many people can you see with Chinese faces? Not many," said Andrey Kalachinsky, a local television anchor and a former correspondent for several Moscow newspapers. "Russia is not a very good place for Chinese people to work or live. It's not enough: we need to open our city."
The bigger question for many locals seems to be whether the current changes will bring any concrete benefits. Marina told me that, due to the lack of job opportunities in her nearby hometown of Amursk, few young people wanted to remain. "Hundreds of young people leave the town every year and they really don't want to get back," she said. "It's difficult to understand what the region does need. Today they tell us that they need interpreters; tomorrow they will tell us they need people who can provide technical advice. ... Everything is so changeable that it is difficult to predict."
Some of the infrastructure will clearly bring benefits: the bridge over the Golden Horn Bay is set to slash travel times between the central city and its suburbs across the water. But the current emphasis on monumental infrastructure projects -- part of a far eastern Great Game between the Asian powers -- will do little to reverse the drain in population, Kalachinsky predicted. "Propaganda is good for foreigners, diplomats, journalists. But for local people, we need other things: jobs, good salaries, and the possibility to buy a new house or own apartments," he said over coffee at a small cafe near the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service, where he also works in public relations. Kalachinsky said his salary under the Soviet Union was 20 or 30 percent higher than the average wage in Moscow or St. Petersburg. "Now," he said, "we have salary that is less."
The fall of the Soviet Union is often described as a doubly traumatic experience for Russians, who lost not only the country's status as an imperial superpower but also the subsidies and benefits that the bloated system provided. This is especially the case in the Far East, which is still dealing with the loss of its privileged Soviet status and the awkward reality of its location, on the exposed rim of a booming Asian continent. The region's reorientation -- literally, its shift back towards the East -- has already taken two decades. It could yet take many more.
Among the bare branches in Pokrovsky Park, close to a gold-domed Orthodox church, I met Anna Mikhailovna, 55, a lifelong resident of Vladivostok. When asked about the city's current changes, she grew nostalgic about life in the military city of the Soviet era, a time when Vladivostok was so clean "even the puddles on the ground were transparent".
"If I was in charge of spending the money for [the APEC summit], I would do something about the prices of water, gas, and electricity," she said, wrapping a hot pink scarf around her neck against the chilly April wind. She went on to complain resignedly about dogs fouling up the city's parks and the problem of drugs and delinquent youths. "The city might be better for the next generation," she added, "but I have many doubts."