It's -60, there's no heating and no electricity

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It's minus 60, there's no heating and no electricity... Welcome to Vladivostok

Special report: Russia

Amelia Gentleman in Vladivostok Friday February 16, 2001,

The Guardian

The mood is bleak in the former coalmining town of Artyom, whose residents are beginning to wonder if they have been condemned to die a slow, freezing death. Russia's far east is experiencing its bitterest winter for 70 years and the region's heating system is in collapse. Since the cold set in, the shuddering energy network has left 86,000 people battling to survive in unlit, unheated flats, as temperatures outside drop as low as minus 60 degrees.

Some people have been stranded without heat and electricity for just a few days. Others - such as thousands in Artyom, an hour from Vladivostok - have been living in Arctic conditions since the first frosts arrived last October.

The political fallout from the crisis is rippling across Russia as accusing fingers are pointed in every direction. The governor of the far eastern region Primorye, the tyrannical Yevgeny Nazdratenko, sought refuge in hospital claiming heart pains on the day he was meant to explain the disaster to a presidential commission. Last week he was forced to resign by an angry Vladimir Putin, the president; Alexander Gavrin, the energy minister, was also fired.

But these dismissals have not brought heat to the region. The collapse within Russia's decrepit infrastructure is so extreme that personnel changes have only marginal impact. At the root of the crisis is a tangle of problems, with incompetence and corruption among senior politicians knotted up so inextricably with poverty and mismanagement at a local level that the Kremlin will need to devote years to unravelling the mess.

Meanwhile Viktoria Garazhenko's family of five remain squeezed in one room, their beds lined up like a cramped hospital ward. Two metal heaters give out faint waves of warmth - when the electricity is working - but are too weak to banish the overpowering cold. The children stamp about in fur boots, their bodies wrapped inside padded dressing gowns and heavy layers of clothes. At night they lay their coats on top of the blankets and tie scarves around their heads; despite these precautions two are recovering from bronchitis.

A 2cm-thick crust of ice covers the inner window panes in the rest of the flat; only a thin blue echo of daylight glimmers through the frost. Chicken legs stored on a shelf in the kitchen stay frozen. Long, dagger-sharp icicles trail down from the corrugated roof outside.

"It's not just that we're cold," said Mrs Garazhenko, a teacher at one of Artyom's secondary schools, her words forming delicate clouds of condensation. "We haven't had any water since the pipes burst. The toilet froze and broke several months ago and then the electricity began to black out. These are inhuman conditions."

Two young girls trying to keep warm in an unheated flat in Artyom recently died in their sleep when their electric blanket short-circuited. Officially no casualties have been registered, but deaths of dozens from the cold and from fires caused by faulty heating equipment have been unofficially linked to the crisis.

In the nearby village of Razdolnoye, apartment blocks remain unheated. Lyubov Krasilnikova, a night caretaker at one of the local army bases, has taken to cooking soup on an electric stove balanced on her bedside table to keep the room at a bearable temperature. When the electricity cuts came, there were no candles to be had in the shop; the family sat in the dark.

A vicious circle of disaster has triggered her problems. Unusually extreme temperatures meant heating pipes burst; shortages of fuel meant power stations could not cope when people began turning on their electric heaters. Power cuts began and the temperatures dropped lower. But as the crisis stretches into its fourth month, Mrs Krasilnikova has begun searching for an individual to blame, settling finally for Nikolai Yudin, director of the nearby brick-making factory.

Under a Soviet era-designed scheme, Mr Yudin is paid by the local government to heat village apartment blocks using steam from the factory to provide virtually free constant heating for the entire winter. Rusting pipes run overground from the plant for a mile, to reach the radiators in the flats. The water is much cooler by the time it arrives (bits of cladding have been stolen for scrap metal) but usually the system works.

In January, when temperatures were plunging to -50c, his boiler broke down and 2,000 people were left to freeze. By the time the system was mended, the pipes and radiators had already frozen and the thick metal had cracked open; the heating network was ruined.

Sitting beneath a yellowing portrait of Lenin in his director's office, muffled in his coat and fur hat, Mr Yudin lays the blame elsewhere. Every year the local administration is meant to deliver 6,000 tonnes of coal to fuel the heating process; this year only 123 tonnes arrived. Desperate telegrams were sent to the local mayor, Alexander Prokhurov, but no response arrived. The boiler stopped working when they resorted to low-grade coal.

"I spent factory money on buying more coal, because I felt sorry for the people who were beginning to freeze. We had to stop producing bricks to conserve coal for heating," Mr Yudin said angrily. The factory has been officially bankrupt for years, largely because of unpaid regional heating debts. "Despite all the promises, we've only got enough fuel now to last for four more days, and then more homes will be cut off."

In the draughty mayor's office, Mr Prokhurov wearily accuses those further up the food chain. "There isn't enough fuel and no one has done any repairs on the heating system for 40 years. What can you expect?" he said. On the roads outside his window, men can be seen dragging felled trees back to their yards, to be burnt in the home-made metal stoves that many have installed over the winter.

The buck-passing continues inside the Vladivostok White House, the head of the regional administration, where two major culprits are identified by those officials still loyal to Mr Nazdratenko: the International Monetary Fund and Russia's electricity monopoly UES.

The IMF is blamed for helping close a dozen coal mines as part of a restructuring programme in 1996, leaving Primorye with just one pit. Artyom, one of the worst hit regions, is the site of seven abandoned mines. Half the coal burnt by the region is brought by train 4,000 miles from central Siberia. The officials claim that if the mines were still open, the region would never have frozen.

Protest

UES, run by the privatisation guru Anatoly Chubais, is accused of failing to ensure that the regional electricity stations had enough fuel to deal with the sudden surge in consumption. When Mr Putin sacked the energy minister, Mr Chubais was sternly reprimanded. UES has retorted that the local government failed to stockpile enough fuel. The recriminations go on and on.

Mr Nazdratenko's opponents insist that corruption streaking through his administration, 6,000 miles from the eyes of the Kremlin, is the real cause of the region's suffering.

Vladimir Gilgenberg, a deputy in the regional parliament, says he has evidence to show that Mr Nazdratenko was buying fuel at inflated prices through a company owned by his son. The former governor denies the claim.

It was only late in January that Primorye's stoic population burst into protest. Razdolnoye's residents marched to the track of the Trans-Siberian express and attempted to block it off, and demonstrators filed through Vladivostok.

Alarmed at the widespread coverage of the government's failure to resolve the crisis, Moscow sent the region another $16m to help and officials from the emergency situations ministry were dispatched on the 10-hour flight to Russia's eastern tip to launch a new rescue operation.

Five brigades of specialist plumbers have been sent in from northern Siberia and Moscow to replace the pipes and radiators in flats in Razdolnoye and Artyom. Their work has already reduced the number of freezing residents to 3,500, but the mission has been criticised as an extravagant face-saving exercise.

The six new radiators in Mrs Garazhenko's flat were flown at considerable expense from Moscow this week. The pipes are not yet connected, but she is hoping life will become easier when the job is done. "The workmen said the system is so rotten that if it works at all, the heat will be feeble. Next winter will be just as bad."

Analysts believe that about $5bn a year needs to be invested in Russia's decrepit energy system; the government is able to spend only $1.2bn. Primorye's crisis looks set to be the first of many winters of misery.

The cold facts

Oymyakon in north-east Siberia, with a population of 4,000, is the coldest permanently inhabited place in the world. In 1933, the temperature fell to -68C; more recently, an unofficial reading reportedly touched -72C.

Verkhoyansk, in Siberia, experiences the greatest range of temperatures on the surface of the planet, from -68C to 37C.

The Pole of Inaccessibility, Antarctica, has an average temperature of -58C.

The lowest temperature ever registered on Earth was -89.2C, at Vostok, Antarctica in July 1983.

Over six days in February 1959, the most snow ever produced in a single snowstorm, 4.8 metres (189 ins), fell on Mt Shasta ski bowl, in California. Source: Guinness Book of Records

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

-- Swissrose (cellier@azstarnet.com), February 18, 2001


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