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Russians freeze at home amid slow heating reform
By Oliver Bullough

SUDOGDA, Russia, Jan 13 (Reuters) - When pensioner Lyubov Semyonova wants her morning tea, she has to melt the ice in the kettle. She scrapes ice from the mirror, the walls, the lights.

"At night, I have to dress up just like this or I cannot sleep," she said, gesturing at thick layers of clothing as she stood outside her two-story house in the Russian town of Sudogda, 200 km (120 miles) east of Moscow.

The day was still, the distant pine forests clear beyond the white meadows that stretched away from the crumbling town of 15,000, and it was warmer in the snow than in her house.

The source of her heating problems was not hard to find.

A loosely insulated water pipe with spurs to each of the street's identical houses tumbled a cascade of rusty icicles -- the water that should have been heating her house.

Russian houses, which were largely built en masse by the Soviet Union to replace districts of log cabins and to house industrial workers, are usually heated centrally so that if a boiler or pipe breaks, a whole area freezes. The collapse of heating networks had left 25,000 Russians without heat by early January just as parts of Russia were experiencing their most severe winter for 15 years.

Temperatures plunged as low as minus 37 in Moscow, elsewhere minus 50 has not been uncommon.

One 81-year-old man froze to death at home when heating failed in his Siberian apartment, while some 250 people have already died on Moscow's streets this year.

Sudogda residents survived by running stoves all day and sleeping whole families to a room.


Politicians are unwilling to risk the wrath of the electorate by raising service tariffs -- still way below cost price -- to a level which could pay for repairing the systems.

Nikolai Koshman, head of Gosstroi, the state committee which looks after communal services, said reform was slow and that the system has suffered because of political neglect.

"This is largely because we are in a pre-election period and some people are beginning to exploit this issue at the expense of the state," he said in an interview with Izvestiya newspaper.

"The communal housing system is still a socialist system. No capital has come into it, it does not make money," he said. "People think the whole system -- from lighting and heating houses to cleaning the streets -- runs by itself."

Efforts to reform semi-state electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (UES) have been opposed by Russia's new generation of big business, which has little interest in liberalised electricity prices.

UES head Anatoly Chubais said the blocking would be catastrophic long-term -- a position echoed by gas monopoly Gazprom, which says it loses vast sums because domestic prices are kept artificially low.

In Sudogda, Emergencies Ministry workers were laying gas pipelines to supply new heating systems, but residents were far from confident they would solve the problem.

Their failed system was less than a year old, they said, and the problem lay less in the network than in corrupt officials.

But Yuri Vishtikailo, deputy head of the Emergencies Ministry for the area around Sudogda, insisted the new system would be ready soon.

Until then Sudogda residents would have to wrap up warm and try to be to cheerful. "But at least it's warm, only minus five or six today. They say tomorrow it will be minus 31," said Semyonova.

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