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The Guardian (UK)
January 10, 2003
Situation normal: Russia is frozen solid
Even the search for new energy stops when winter hits
Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow

Zhores Alfyorev, the Nobel physics laureate, points to the frozen and cracked heating pipes in his laboratory and laughs: "One more proof of the rule in physics that water expands when it turns into a solid."

More than half the rooms in the St Petersburg Physical and Technical Institute, where he is director of experiments into nuclear, solar and other forms of energy, have frozen through.

The building has been without heat and water for 11 days. Equipment for vital and potentially hazardous experiments had to be moved from their rooms to warmer places.

"Our institute is one of the main centres of research into new sources of energy, but we have to fight the most primitive problems of old heating pipes. Now we need to spend 10m rubles [200,000] just for repairs."

Russia has been pushed to breaking point by weeks of sub-zero temperatures: 25,000 people are living without heating, officials estimate. Ports are paralysed: icebreakers are rushing to St Petersburg to free 40 ships, carrying vital supplies,frozen in the harbour.

In Karelia province, near the Finnish border north of St Petersburg, 55 people have lost parts of arms or legs to frostbite and 5,300 people are living without heating. A state of emergency has been declared.

Valenitina Nikolaevna lives alone in a small flat at 10 Shkolnaya Street in the tiny village of Vilga. Her three electric heaters are enough to keep only one room warm. The kitchen and the loo are frozen through.

Across the street in the block where her son lives the sewage pipes have frozen through, splitting the ceiling and spilling their contents into his flat.

Mrs Nikolaevna, a pensioner, went to help her son clear up the freezing mess on his floor.

"I paid 700 rubles [14] this month in heating, water and electricity bills," she told local media."Before this we had hot water for three hours a day. Now there is no gas, heating or hot water, and the electricity keeps going off.

"The village council said I have to deal with this shit myself. 'We cannot help you', they said."

Some parts of Russia are dealing with their coldest winter for years. In temperatures of minus 25C, it only takes a small cut in the electricity supply to cause chaos. After five hours the gas stops pumping, causing the ageing central heating pipes to freeze then burst, and leave the building deprived of heating for the rest of the season.

Alexander Shatalin, head of the Medvezhyegorsk regional administration, said: "It is a cold winter, but we have had them before.

"But the main thing is the state of the pipes. What do you expect if you do not invest in the heating systems since the time of Perestroika?"

The Kremlin has offered 1m emergency aid, but meteorologists consider the cold snap "nothing special".

Gennady Yeliseyev, deputy head of the state weather service, said: "This is simply a cold winter. We have forgotten what it is like to have a normal winter, as the last few have been so mild."

But he conceded that it was colder than usual. On average the weather was 10 degrees warmer than normal in North America and 10 degrees colder in some European countries, including Russia.

In the southern climes around the Volga river it was the coldest weather for a century.

"This December is the third coldest for 100 years in Moscow. But in Moscow the record is minus 42, which hap pened in 1940. Two days ago we got 36 degrees below zero in the Moscow region. This is normal."

The cold has so far claimed 272 lives in Moscow, where the temperature remains minus 22C, dropping to minus 37 at night in the suburbs; 2,159 people have been treated for hypothermia and frostbite since the cold spell began on September 12.

The record in Russia - and the northern hemisphere -was held by Yakutia, in Siberia, where it was minus 72 in 1926. "Still, minus 60 is normal there in winter," Mr Yeliseyev added.

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