Each year, as winter brings frost and snow to Russia, the same thing happens. At every crossroads columns of steam rise, rather like those in photos of volcanoes in Iceland or Kamchatka. But this pretty picture, caused by leaks in pipelines carrying hot water from centralised power stations, is the sign of a real problem. Ten, twenty, perhaps even two hundred flats have been left without heating and their occupants are going to bed in their outdoor clothes to avoid freezing during the night. Sometimes a problem turns into a tragedy: boiling water escaping from a pipe washes away the road and a car or pedestrian falls into the hole.
The emergency services rush to the spot. Officials assure local residents that they will have their heating back in an hour (in fact it will be a day, or possibly two or three). The officials also promise their bosses that none of this will happen next winter. But come the next heating season, clouds of steam will once more rise and a number of Russian citizens will fall to their deaths in holes full of boiling water.
Tatyana Serova is looking at two thermometers: one hangs outside the window and shows the exterior temperature, the other is on a wall in her flat. At the moment they show the same figure: outside, it is -12% centigrade, inside it is +12%. Tatyana touches the cold radiator in her kitchen and realises that the reading on the outside thermometer is not going to change, but the one on the inside will soon fall.
'The hot water pipeline was laid almost half a century ago. It was supposed to be replaced back in the 80s, but wasn’t. It bursts once a month, and each time five or ten residential blocks are left without heating.'
Tatyana lives in Pervomaisk, an industrial town of some 10,000 inhabitants. She has the bad luck to live in a district dominated by a machine-tool plant that barely survived the 90s and finally went bust in the middle of the next decade. She used to work at the plant, but is now retired. Apart from memories of working there, she is still connected to the plant by the fact that her block, along with 150 others in the district, gets its heating from the machine plant’s boiler house. This was handed over to the town administration after the plant shut, but the management company still charges more for its heating services than those in other districts.
And this is not the only problem. The hot water pipeline was laid almost half a century ago. It was supposed to be replaced back in the 80s, but wasn’t. It bursts once a month, and each time five or ten residential blocks are left without heating.
Tatyana’s flat is draught proofed: all the gaps in the old wooden window frames have been taped up. But after two days the temperature has nonetheless fallen to 7- 8%. Tatyana and her daughter Yelena will cope with the cold, but Yelena’s six year old son Kolya also lives here, and his grandmother slips a bottle filled with hot water into his bed from time to time. The women prefer to stay in the kitchen; there’s a gas cooker so it’s warmer.
Suddenly the lights go out. There has been a power cut on their whole staircase because people in three of the flats have electric fires on at the same time.
From the stove to the boiler house
For many centuries Russian towns were heated by wood. Peasant houses had one large stove, and the many-roomed houses of the rich a number of European-style stoves, supposedly built on the Dutch model. Village houses had a single chimney; town houses, several.
Post-war Khruschevki are a common feature of the Russian urban landscape. Put up in a short space of time, the five-storey blocks solved an acute housing shortage, but they were not always particularly well insulated.
Russians have never skimped on fuel: foreign visitors always remarked on how hot Russian homes were compared to European and English ones. The vast forests of Northern Russia meant cheap firewood. Even in the second half of the 19th century, when both Moscow and St Petersburg had populations of over a million, the price of firewood was still relatively low, thanks to the railways.
'Russians have two main complaints about central heating. One: the heating season starts too late in the autumn. Two: it ends too late in the spring. But if a hot flat in April is still bearable, a cold one in autumn and winter is another matter entirely.'
The post-revolutionary Socialist government accelerated the urbanisation of Russia. Many villages became industrial towns, their populations expanding ten or fifteen-fold, or more. The population of existing towns also grew rapidly. In Stalin’s time, people moving from the countryside to town usually lived hugger-mugger in wooden barracks heated by ten or so stoves, but the 60s saw the beginning of a new type of housing, the five story blocks of flats that were popularly known as ‘Khrushchevki’ (a play on the name of the Soviet leader of the time). The new housing estates and entire districts that sprang up in towns and cities all over the country were no longer heated by stoves, but by radiators, usually steam-heated. In some places an industrial heating plant would heat a whole district or even an entire small town. If there was no suitable industry a giant municipal heating plant would be built, capable of heating several districts.
Thermal insulation was not great. Pipes burst even in Soviet times, and people complained that the radiators weren’t hot enough. But in the 60s natural gas from Siberia began to replace other fuels in heating plants in the European part of Russia, and the problem of heat loss over long distances remained sidelined.
Russians have two main complaints about central heating. One: the heating season starts too late in the autumn. Two: it ends too late in the spring. But if a hot flat in April is still bearable, a cold one in autumn and winter is another matter entirely.
Heroes and reforms
The economic reforms that began in the 1990s didn’t immediately impact on housing services and utilities. Prices for heating and hot water rose more slowly than those for electricity. And even if now and then electricity suppliers would cut off individual flats or even whole blocks, and even if over half the occupants of a staircase hadn’t paid their electricity bills, at least you were still warm. There was just the odd problem with heating, and the Law was always on the side of the punters. Between November and the end of March the temperature in many Russian towns and cities drops to -25%C or even -35%C for a week or more at a time, so a week without heating would mean literally freezing flats and deaths among their residents.
'Current Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu shot to fame in the 90s when, as Minister for Emergency Situations, he saved the inhabitants of several northern towns by flying in diesel powered iron stoves and emergency generators.'
The infrastructure for transporting the heated water was, however, practically never repaired, and pipes frequently burst. And even if no one fell to their death in a hole full of boiling water, an incident like this could potentially be as dangerous as an earthquake or typhoon in other parts of the world. The Ministry for Emergency Situations (MChS) would airfreight diesel powered iron stoves and emergency generators into small towns, and current Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu shot to fame in the 90s when, as head of the MChS he saved the inhabitants of several northern towns. Such was his popularity that when the interregional ‘Unity’ movement was created in the mid 90s, his name was top of its electoral candidates’ list.
Shoigu is not the only politician to have gained support by saving voters from the big freeze. In the run up to local elections, the Mayor’s staff in many a northern Russian town would regale the populace with the dramatic tale of how just before New Year, with the temperature at -40%, a heating water pipe had burst. The hero of the hour, the Mayor, had literally dragged the maintenance team from their festive dinner tables and already opened vodka bottles. He then spent days and nights at the incident site and did not leave until the repair work was completed.
In fact people living in the far north of Russia suffer less from freezing flats than those in the central or southern zone. Up near the Arctic Circle the cold is taken seriously; the heating season starts early, the pipes are checked beforehand and leaks are repaired pretty speedily.
It’s a pity there are no elections coming up!
Tatyana and her neighbours are less lucky. They don’t live in the north, so the period when the main form of heating is a bottle filled with hot water can last several days.
There is an impromptu demonstration happening on the landing. First a small crowd of older women like Tatyana knock on the door of a flat where they all suspect several electric heaters are in operation. The occupant swears at them through the door, but agrees to switch off the heaters for a while. The lights go back on.
Having sorted out their immediate problem, the women switch to slagging off the council. In December, prices for utilities went up by 5%, after an earlier increase of 4% in the summer. But the heating was turned on later than usual and many had really felt the cold. And now, with a real frost, what do they get? A pipe burst.
‘It’s a pity there are no elections coming up! There were three bursts in one block on Plekhanov Street. The residents wrote a letter to Putin’s regional office threatening to vote for another party if it wasn’t fixed. They got new pipes and new radiators as well.’
The residents have been phoning the management company offices for two days now, and have been assured that ‘repair work is ongoing around the clock’. But last night they went out to look at the site of the burst and saw no signs of work in progress, apart from a wooden fence around the hole.
‘It’s a pity there are no elections coming up!’ somebody says. ‘There were three pipe bursts at one block of flats on Plekhanov Street. The residents wrote a collective letter to Putin’s regional office (run by the ‘United Russia’ party regional organisation), threatening to vote for another party if it wasn’t fixed. They got new pipes and new radiators as well, and now their flats are nice and warm.’
The women decide to go to see the head of the district administration, but it turns out it’s not one of his reception days. ‘Maybe we could block off the street’, someone suggests. ‘That way we might get noticed.’ But another resident comes in off the street and says that the long-awaited repair work has finally begun, and the women go back to their cold flats, in the hope that they will soon be warm again.
The reason for these endless heating problems is not just the use of aging pipes that should have been replaced long ago, but also flagrant fraud. November 2012 saw the opening of the so-called ‘pipe case’ in St Petersburg – the most serious criminal case to be brought in the housing services and utilities area. The former chair of the Energy Committee Oleg Trishkin is under arrest, and his predecessor is also on the wanted list. Three officials in all have been arrested and immediately sent to Moscow for further investigation, a very rare turn of events in regional corruption cases. The accusation against them is that over five years they installed low quality hot water pipes in St Petersburg. Instead of laying specialised pipes strengthened and insulated to avoid leaks and heat loss, they bought scrap pipes previously used by Gazprom for their gas pipelines, washed them, added some basic insulation and recycled them for central heating purposes. More than 600 kilometres of these substandard pipes were laid in the city.
The swindlers were ‘outed’ by their own shoddy structures. At the start of the 2012 heating season several pipes burst one after another. The criminals were arrested, but the pipes are still there, and their replacement would require several years of work and a lot of money which St Petersburg simply doesn’t have.
How about a nice iron stove?
Aleksandr is the manager of a large business in St Petersburg. He is following the ‘pipe case’ with interest, but has no worries about freezing if there is a burst. Last year he sold his three roomed flat in town and now lives in a private house in the suburbs. His new home is twice as large as the old one, but he has installed his own gas boiler and is spending less on heating than he did in St Petersburg. ‘I can decide when to turn on the heating’, he says, ‘and I can regulate the temperature. I’m not stealing fuel from myself.’
'Tatyana thinks it would be simpler to install a little stove, take the flue pipe out through the window and burn wood in it to heat her flat. Her neighbours point out that you can’t just opt out of the central heating system. Even if you turn it off, the bills will keep coming.'
Not many Russians are keen to head out of town, but a lot would like to control their own heating, partly because of the high and unfair cost of utilities, not to mention the frequent pipe bursts. For Tatyana and her neighbours in their small town, where only the boiler house of the local factory is still in operation, a house like Aleksandr’s is like something out of a fairy tale, not even to be dreamed of. But she has her own dream. She remembers her mother talking about a ‘burzhuika’ - a small cast iron stove that heats up very quickly, although it cools down quickly too. Stoves like this were common in Russia before the advent of central heating and are still widely used in out of town dachas. Tatyana thinks that if heating prices keep going up and pipes go on bursting, it would be simpler to install a little stove, take the flue pipe out through the window and burn wood in it to heat her flat. Her neighbours and relatives are trying to put her off the idea, pointing out that you can’t just opt out of the central heating system. Even if you turn it off, the bills will keep coming.
Before the advent of central heating, indivdual Burzhuika iron stoves were a fixture in many Russian homes. Now people are once more electing to have some sort of heating device in their homes
Over the last few years new large housing complexes have started to be built with their own heating plants, and mini-plants serving just a few buildings are also appearing. The aim is to cut heat loss between boiler and consumer and to be independent of the energy monopolies. The electrical systems in new buildings also have a higher capacity, and in theory flats could be kept warm by electric heaters. In some flats it is already possible to adjust heating temperatures, which are generally very high by Western European standards.
But such flats are still few and far between in Russia. Every spring town dwellers wilt in their overheated rooms, and every autumn they shiver with cold and carefully avoid places on the streets where clouds of steam can be seen rising.