VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — When blackouts hit the residential districts of Russia’s largest Pacific seaport, as they have for up to 20 hours a day and even more this week, people learn to cope.
Mothers cook, boil drinking water and heat bath water for their children on propane camp stoves. Babushkas hobble off to the store the moment the power blinks on and the elevator starts working, to avoid lugging a duffel bag of onions and sausage up as many as 15 flights of stairs on the way back. Families spend their evenings playing cards, and book lovers simply despair: You go blind trying to read after dark by candlelight.
The U.S. West Coast is facing a shock that one wouldn’t wish on anybody — rolling blackouts in the San Francisco Bay area, electric bills that may triple in San Diego, threats that power suppliers will go broke and leave people in the dark. But it is not alone.
As an American reporter in Vladivostok, I have learned over the past four years to endure blackouts with a Russian stoicism. Throughout the Russian Pacific, people live with blackouts that last for weeks. They are all the more bitter when they hit, as now, in the winter.
Power outages are never evenly applied. In the past, the lights were more likely to stay on in workplaces than in the city’s tenement-like apartment blocks. But now, with a power crisis at its worst level since World War II, even industry has shut down. Nevertheless, political leaders have banned Dalenergo, the electrical utility, from turning off electricity in their own homes.
Because even well-off Russians, like high-level bureaucrats, tend to live in apartments, this means that anyone who lives in a building where, say, a city finance director resides will never suffer a blackout. Yet hospitals, kindergartens and clinics can be cut off.
As generators are bulky and expensive, only major hotels tend to have them. During blackouts, I pack up my laptop and slog through the snow to an international hotel, where I spend the day drinking $3 cups of coffee and pounding out copy. Few Russians, however, can afford that option.
When I first got here in 1997, my biggest fear was getting stuck in an elevator. But experience teaches us patience. The last two times I was stuck in an elevator, I didn’t panic. Yes, I yelled and pounded to attract attention. Then I just waited. It can be peaceful in the dark, even suspended in a flimsy box 10 stories above a concrete floor.
After all, even in a blackout you can find a moment of repose — as long as it doesn’t become a way of life.
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