VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — The communist central planners who designed modern Russia’s infrastructure devised a system of boiling water kilometers from where it is needed, running it through aboveground pipes across a region where temperatures can drop as low as minus 40 C — and expected this to warm the radiators of Russia’s drafty apartments.
Now add a heating-oil shortage, accusations that Moscow isn’t paying for energy used by the military and charges of stolen fuel. No wonder the Far East is facing its perennial heating crisis.
Here in Russia’s Primorye region — a finger of land flanked by China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan, the capital of which is Vladivostok — temperatures have already fallen to minus 30 degrees, and hundreds of thousands of people live in apartments with inadequate heat — or none at all.
Some 60,000 people in Arseniev, an industrial town 200 km northeast of Vladivostok, still have no heating, said Yevgenia Khokhlenkova, editor in chief of the town’s weekly newspaper, Business Ars. Worse, there is no electricity for at least three hours every day in residential buildings.
In the villages of Khrustalny, Rudny, and Fabrichny in Kavalerovsky County, temperatures are falling below minus 30 degrees, and there is no heat. Three schools have closed because the temperature in classrooms is only 4 degrees. The cold has prompted most villagers to leave their apartments for older and more trustworthy dwellings.
When winter temperatures drop, keeping warm requires resourcefulness. Some people stuff old pillowcases or clothing into empty cans, soak the rags in vegetable oil and burn them to make a miniature heater or cooking stove. Most people wear outdoor clothing indoors, and some pitch tents in their apartments and camp inside.
Cold-related causes kill scores of people in Russia each year. Most of those who die are street people unable to find shelter or drunken men who fall in the snow and freeze. But on Nov. 27, two young girls in Artyom — Sasha Kolchigina, 8, and her sister Zhenya, 3 — died in their sleep of smoke inhalation. Their mother had left town, and left them in the care of a friend. The woman tried to keep the children warm with a cheap electric mattress, but it short-circuited and began smoldering.
The issue of unheated housing in the winter would cause governments to fall in some countries. But in a nation where long-suffering is legendary, the crisis simply sparks another round in a familiar winter sport for political leaders: mutual vituperation over who is at fault.
Nonetheless, citizens are losing patience with the inability of the authorities to provide heat. Residents of 19 apartment blocks in the village of Uglovoye — 40 km north of Vladivostok — blocked the major highway leading north Nov. 30 to protest the lack of heat.
Primorye has become a national example of Russia’s breakdown of living standards. Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky, presidential representative to the Far East’s seven territories, blames Gov. Yevgeny Nazdratenko. At a press conference in Moscow last week, Pulikovsky said, “There is no one else responsible other than the leader.”
Many people speculate that theft by government officials contributes to the crisis. Such charges are not new. A report to the Kremlin released in 1998 by the Federal Security Service, or FSB — the chief domestic heir to the KGB — accused a Primorye regional vice governor of joining with mobsters to conduct “machinations concerning fuel deliveries for the region.” The vice governor purchased but failed to deliver $17 million worth of fuel over the course of two winters, the FSB charged. Primorye officials have dismissed the report as “garbage.” They call it a politically inspired attack on the administration.
After the national media began covering the heating crisis, the State Duma invited Nazdratenko to Moscow to address the matter.
The governor offered a ready explanation. The media, he said, are exaggerating. In a subsequent interview with the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, Nazdratenko accused journalists of attempting to incite street protests. “The heat in Vladivostok is turned up to its maximum level,” he said. “One can always find one or two buildings where the pipes have broken or where tests showed poor readiness [for winter]. But no matter how hard the mass media tries to prompt the city to go on strike, the city doesn’t strike.”
He added that the federal government owes his region $21.4 million in debt for electricity and other utility services used by the military and other agencies. And he blamed high oil prices and electricity tariffs that are much higher than in other regions of Russia.
Both Nazdratenko and Vladivostok Mayor Yury Kopylov have insisted that the extensive coverage of the Primorye energy crisis is an “information war launched by Moscow.” In a recent issue of the newspaper Primorskie Vesti, controlled by the governor’s allies in the Vladivostok mayor’s office, a story on the heating crises offered inspiring words to shivering readers: Everybody is picking on us.
“There’s no heat in Arkangelsk, Yoshkar-Ola, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Barnaul, Blagoveshchensk, etc.,” the weekly stated, citing other cities around Russia. “We can name many more places, but nobody cares about those regions. They only care about Primorye.”
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