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The Globe and Mail (Canada)
January 18, 2003
Pipes are 'popping like soap bubbles'
In the grip of a Russian cold snap, many homes are so cold that icicles are dripping off the walls. As MARK MACKINNON reports, neglected Soviet-era heating systems are to blame -- but no one will take responsibility

Mark Mackinnon is The Globe and Mail's Moscow correspondent.    VALDAI, RUSSIA -- On Thursday, Antonina Lesikova was the warmest she'd been in almost two weeks. The heat in her apartment was still off, and the wind outside still howled, but the warmth of her gas stove, combined with the mildest day so far in 2003 (a balmy -3 C), sent the thermometer in her living room climbing to a merciful 11 degrees.

But with night looming, Ms. Lesikova wasn't about to take any chances. As she sat at her dinner table and watched the workers outdoors scurry to repair the broken water pipes that have deprived much of this town of heat for the past 10 days, the 70-year-old grandmother wore her winter boots, multiple sweaters, and the heaviest scarf she owns.

The heat went out in Valdai on Jan. 6 -- the night before the Orthodox Christmas, and the same night the mercury began a three-day stay at -35. Ms. Lesikova, having lived through many Russian winters, knows the temperature could return to those depths in a hurry.

"There was ice on the windows -- on the inside," she recalled with a shiver. "I had three sweaters on and was sitting by the stove and I was still cold."

That image from Valdai, a town of 19,500 people halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia's northwest, is just a snapshot of what has been occurring all across a bitterly cold Russia this winter. Soviet-era heating systems have finally broken down and pipes have been popping like soap bubbles in the extreme cold, leaving more than 30,000 without heat at one point during last week's extreme cold snap.

In Karelia, the wintery northern region stretching along Russia's border with Finland, residents lost not only their central heating, but their water and electricity as well. There have been tales of limbs freezing off, and television pictures of families chipping the ice off the inside walls of their homes. One 67-year-old man is known to have died from burns after falling asleep on top of his heated stove.

Many others are feared to have died in the region, and some 53 schools across the province have been forced to close until the crisis is over. Teachers couldn't be expected to teach and children to study, authorities explained, when temperatures in the classrooms were below freezing. There is reportedly a similar situation in Siberia and the Russian Far East, where temperatures have fallen to -50 and beyond.

"Russia is freezing," the daily Izvestia newspaper declared in a front-page headline, over an article that blamed bureaucrats for the breakdown in maintainance of the country's heating systems.

While top officials have been ducking the mud and slinging it elsewhere, no one disputes the mechanics of what went wrong: Most Russian homes, carbon-copy apartment blocks built en masse during the Soviet era, are heated centrally. If a boiler or pipe breaks, the whole area is affected. Since the fall of the Soviet Union -- and the economic hard times that followed -- few regional governments have had much money to spend on system upkeep.

When the mercury fell, the pipes that had been rusting unattended for more than a dozen years finally cracked. Cruelly, it happened at the same time as the country was experiencing its worst winter since 1987.

"The communal housing system is still a socialist system. No capital has come into it. It does not make money," said Nikolai Koshman, head of Gosstroi, the state committee which looks after communal services. "People think the whole system -- from lighting and heating houses to cleaning the streets -- runs by itself."

The cold hasn't kept people from expressing their anger at what they see as massive ineptitude that is now claiming lives. In Karelia, villagers have blocked roads to draw attention to their plight, arguing that it all could have been avoided with a bit of political foresight. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to agree with them.

"Your region should be prepared for these kinds of temperatures," he scolded Karelia's President Sergei Katanandov in a televised telephone call. "It's a northern region, after all."

Nor is it only Russia's nether regions that have been hit by the crisis. Larger cities, such as White Sea port of Arkangelsk and even St. Petersburg, have been hit hard, too, with breakdowns leaving big areas of both regions without heat.

In an embarrassing moment for many in Russia, one of the country's top scientists, Nobel Prize winner Zhores Alfyorev, was shown on television working inside the ice-cold St. Petersburg Physical and Technical Institute. Workers were setting up heaters to keep the model thermonuclear reactor he was working with at an appropriate level.

"One more proof of the rule in physics that water expands when it turns into a solid," he said with a laugh, pointing at the frozen and cracking heating pipes in his laboratory. More seriously, Mr. Alfyorev warned that after 11 days without heat, important research was in danger of being destroyed.

Though heating systems in the capital held, homeless residents of Moscow have been the hardest hit of all. In an affluent city that shows little sympathy for its less fortunate, hundreds of bomzhi -- the derogatory name for street people -- died of cold.

There are just eight shelters in the city, offering a total of 8,000 beds to a homeless population estimated to be near 100,000. Thousands are forced outdoors every night even as the temperature dives. The death toll from hypothermia and frostbite in Moscow this winter now stands at 292. Bodies continued to turn up even after temperatures rose to tolerable levels this week. Two more were discovered Thursday morning, after a night were temperatures were barely below freezing.

While many perish after turning to alcohol to keep warm and collapsing in snow banks, others of the city's homeless are elderly and simply couldn't withstand sleeping on the streets in the -30 temperatures that have prevailed so far in the new year.

However, some observers also see a human factor at work. Doctors Without Borders, the international aid organization, said the numbers of the dead have been swelled by the lack of sympathy most Russians feel for the bomzhi. Many of them die in crowded streets, with no one stopping to offer help.

"We believe that the main cause of death of the majority of those frozen is general indifference," the organization said in a press release."Unfortunately, it has become normal to pass by a person who has fallen down or lost his consciousness."

In Valdai, the Christmas-night breakdown was more than a decade in the making. Even before winter began, the town administration acknowledges, more than 60 per cent of the town's central heating and water pipes were in desperate need of replacement. However, Vladimir Danilov, first deputy head of the Valdai administration, says there was little anyone in the local government could do.

"We have a special program to replace the pipes, but we need to finance that," he said. "We were getting ready for winter as best we could, but there is not enough money."

It's an excuse some here are willing to accept, but not others. "It's warmer outside than in my apartment," sniffed 63-year-old Galina Ivanovna, 10 days after her building first lost its central heating. "I've got an electric heater at home, and I've been almost sitting on it, it's so cold in my apartment."

She and many others wonder why nothing was done when everyone seemed to know there was a disaster looming in the old pipes. Responding to such concerns, the local prosecutor's office has opened a criminal investigation and started interviewing town officials.

When the pipes burst, more than 3,100 people were left without heat, including some 700 children. One of the areas immediately affected was Valdai's hospital, on a frosty night with Christmas baby about to be born.

Surgeon Oleg Tyurin said the hospital staff immediately went into emergency mode. "As far as it was possible, we evacuated all the patients to regional hospitals. Those patients who were recovering from surgery and who needed our assistance have been left here. We carried on doing our jobs."

One mother-to-be was too close to delivering that night to be moved anywhere, so she stayed at the Valdai hospital as the temperature dropped. The Christmas baby was born that night after all. Her parents named her Snyejnaya Korolyeva -- Russian for "Snow Queen."

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