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Russia's utilities failing to provide heat during cold winter

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

SUDOGDA, Russia -- A chill has invaded once-cozy homes. Ice hangs from leaking municipal pipes. And the only reliable source of heat in this small town is a private gas line exasperated residents built themselves.

Russians are suffering through one of the coldest winters in recent memory, but nature is only partly to blame. Across the country, municipal utilities are failing to fulfill the basic task of heating homes.

Some 350,000 people nationwide have shivered this winter in unheated apartments, offices, schools and hospitals as heating systems sputtered in a country where temperatures rarely rise above freezing from November to March.

Russia's utility monopolies are notoriously inefficient. Except for electricity, meters are rare, and consumers pay a set sum for heating and water depending on the size of their apartment and the number of residents. Most radiators cannot be adjusted; windows are often left open in the dead of winter.

In recent years, the system has become too expensive for consumers -- and for the government. A lack of funds has led to nationwide delays in maintenance, resulting in an epidemic of breakdowns.

The government is trying to make consumers pay, gradually cutting subsidies for all but the most needy. Critics say raising prices for ordinary Russians -- whose average monthly salary is $150 -- does not address the core issue of inefficiency and thus won't help end the crisis.

22 below zero

In Sudogda, an industrial town tucked into a pine forest 125 miles east of Moscow, about 10,000 of 14,000 residents rely on central heating. This winter, some 8,000 have had inadequate heat or no heat at all, said Sergei Voronin, chief of the town's civil defense and emergency department.

Among the worst affected are residents of the Yubileiny neighborhood, where the municipal boiler broke in late December. Most residents are relying on wood-burning stoves and electric heaters, as temperatures dip to 22 degrees below zero.

On a recent afternoon, resident Maria Zvereva, 68, cornered Voronin outside her building, waving her January electric bill. It was $25. In trying to warm her apartment with electric heaters, she spent almost her entire monthly pension of $26.

"What am I supposed to live on?" Zvereva shouted.

Yubileiny's boiler failed last year, too, so some residents knew what to expect. Fifty-three families joined forces last summer to pay for a natural gas line to the neighborhood and outfitted their apartments with gas-burning boilers that have kept their homes toasty.

Inside Anatoly Apyonov's apartment, windows are iced over and the wallpaper bulges from cold. Apyonov's breath is visible as he curses the government.

"This is what I sleep in," said the 65-year-old former factory worker, dressed in layers of sweaters and traditional felt boots.


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