Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

St. Petersburg Times
January 10, 2003
Region Suffers Winter Blues
By Irina Titova

At 10 p.m. on Dec. 31, when Yulia Kash and her husband, Sergei, had just started boiling potatoes and frying chicken for New Year's dinner in their apartment in St. Petersburg's Kalininsky District, the electricity went off.

With the electricity went their electric stove, telephone, telephone, tape recorder and, for some reason, their cold water. The darkened windows in neighboring apartment buildings signaled that the family was not alone in facing a "romantic" New Year's celebration.

"Thank God that one of my students gave me a candle as a gift the day before, and that I had already boiled the beetroot," said Kash, a 28-year-old French teacher. "We managed to make a beetroot salad with garlic and mayonnaise."

"Pickles and champagne also helped," she added.

Kash and her husband were not the only ones to celebrate the arrival of the New Year in almost complete darkness; thousands of other residents of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Oblast, hit by temperatures down to minus 35 degrees Celsius, did likewise.

An unusually long and deep cold snap that enveloped much of Russia over the last three weeks has created a number of emergencies in the Northwest Region, as temperatures dipped as low as -39 C.

As of Thursday, at least 166 buildings in the Leningrad Oblast were still without heat.

The below-freezing temperatures on the streets generated their own crisis, with Interfax reporting that two St. Petersburg residents had died from hypothermia. While it could not confirm the deaths, the city administration's Health Committee said at least 341 people had been treated for frostbite and hypothermia in St. Petersburg between Dec. 31 and Jan. 7.

According to the committee, about 220 of those treated were drunk. But Vladimir Kotsur, chief doctor of the St. Petersburg Scientific Research Institute for Ambulance Services, said 95 percent of the cases involved drunk people.

"There is no problem with frosts hurting people, but there is a problem with the stupid drunken mentality," Kotsur said. "Sober people are rarely seriously injured by the frost, unless they are injured, because they can control the situation."

"Every year, we are faced with situations in which we have to amputate people's extremities after they have suffered from hypothermia brought on while out drunk in very cold weather," he added. "They are left as invalids who receive a state pension. In my opinion, people who suffer hypothermia while they are completely drunk outside should pay for their hospitalization from their own pockets. Only then are they likely to stop behaving that way."

While large numbers suffered outside, for many, being indoors was not much better. Particularly badly hit was Tikhvin, in the Leningrad Oblast, where 62 buildings lost all heating last Friday. By Thursday, emergency repair workers had restored heat in at least 15 buildings. The remaining 47, housing some 13,000 people, including 4,500 children, still had no central heating as of Thursday.

Residents of another 62 buildings in the villages of Sverdlov and Krasnaya Zvezda, near Vsevolozhsk, also in the Leningrad Oblast, lost their heating on New Year's Eve. Twenty six of the buildings were still without heat on Thursday.

According to the press service of the Northwest Region branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry, most of the shutdowns were the result of electricity failures brought on by the cold.

Valentin Shumovsky, the head of the press service at local power utility Lenenergo, said many electrical problems arose because the system cannot handle all the electric heaters switched on when the temperature dips.

"The problem is that the electricity systems in most Russian buildings were built to certain specifications that limit the consumption of electricity by any one apartment," Shumovsky said. "Many apartments are wired to receive no more than 5 kilowatts, while one modern electric radiator alone can exceed that."

He added that, when the levels are exceeded, transformers in the buildings switch off automatically, to prevent wires overheating and causing fires.

"In this situation, people who switch on several electric radiators at once in their apartments should be aware that, in the end, they might cause problems for the whole apartment building," Shumovsky said.

He also said that the city's electric and heating networks are simply not equipped to deal with temperatures below -25 C and that, at a city-administration meeting on Wednesday, the discussion centered around a program for reconstructing the networks.

One of the hardest hit areas in the Northeast Region was Karelia, which saw temperatures drop as low as -45 C and the heating fail in 265 buildings, home to 5,300 people. Sixteen schools, four kindergartens, four hospitals, and one orphanage were left in the cold, Interfax reported.

Karelia President Sergei Katanandov, in a conversation with President Vladimir Putin broadcast on Channel One, said some outages were the result of carelessness on the part of utility workers. He said that a heating breakdown in the town of Muyezerskoye was in part caused by holiday celebrations. The electricity was accidentally switched off at 11:55 p.m. on Dec. 31, as outside temperatures dropped to -45 C. As a result, water froze in the town's pipes, which subsequently burst.

"Clearly, people were celebrating," Katanandov told Putin. "They relaxed a bit, and let this happen."

The cold snap left a number of public institutions scrambling to get by and avoid further disasters. Halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, in the Novgorod region town of Valdai, 24 apartment blocks and a hospital were without heat after pipes burst, leaving more than 3,000 people in the cold. Novgorod's Emergency Situations Department was unable to turn the heating back on by the end of Wednesday, as it previously promised, media reported. Television showed newborn children surrounded by hot water bottles in the local hospital.

Employees at the St. Petersburg Botanical Gardens resorted to lighting fires to warm up the fragile plants in the gardens' greenhouses. Utilities workers were able to restore power at the gardens on Monday, after it had been out for just over a day, Interfax reported.

On Thursday, Leningrad Oblast Governor Valery Serdyukov approved the allocation of 2 million rubles ($62,500) for emergency repairs in Tikhvin, and 2,000 rubles ($62) in compensation to each family that suffered from central-heating-system failures in the Leningrad Oblast. The State Construction Committee has allocated another 3 million rubles ($94,000) for work in Tikhvin.

Thursday brought relatively warm weather in St. Petersburg, with temperatures rising to -3 C, but forecasters do not expect it to last. According to the city's Meteorological Center, temperatures are set to drop as low as -18C Friday and continue falling Saturday - to as low as -28 C. Temperatures in the north of the Leningrad Oblast are expected to fall to as low as -37 C on the same day.

While experts at the center said that temperatures this low are not rare for the region - 1987, 1978 and 1942 brought much lower readings - the length of the current cold spell is unusual. Not since the winter of 1940 to 1941, when the deep cold brought misery, as well as food - across frozen Lake Ladoga - to Leningrad, then suffering under a Nazi-German blockade, has the city endured such a prolonged and severe cold period.

The meteorologists said that the cold spell is being caused by fronts of warm air that usually come in from over the Atlantic Ocean swinging south of the Northwest Region this year, leaving cold air from the Arctic unchallenged.

The center says that the next cold spell will begin to relax on Wednesday, with temperatures climbing to between -8 C and -10 C and likely remaining in that range for the rest of the month.

Staff Writer Andrei Zolotov Jr. contributed to this report.

Back to the Top    Next Issue