Accessibility links

Russia: Arctic Cold Leaves Tens Of Thousands Without Heat

  • Gregory Feifer

Tens of thousands of people across Russia have been left without central heating as temperatures in some regions drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius and even lower. The cold is also taking lives -- mostly those of homeless people who freeze to death outside. Top officials are addressing Russia's latest crisis, but with no let-up in sight for the long-running cold snap, the country looks set to continue suffering from freezing temperatures for the foreseeable future.

Moscow, 9 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A wave of Siberian cold has left over 25,000 people across Russia without heat as aging infrastructure breaks down and forecasters predict little let-up in the weather pattern, which has already lasted well over a month.

Pushed down over the North Pole by unusually warm, El Nino-driven weather across the globe in the United States, freezing Arctic air has dropped December and January temperatures in Russia to their lowest level in over 15 years, meteorologists say.

Russian Meteorological Center Deputy Director Gennadii Yeliseev yesterday listed some of the low points. "On 6 and 7 January, it was minus 48 degrees Celsius in the Murmansk region -- that is very cold. It was minus 42 in the region of Arkhangelsk, minus 33 in the Leningrad region -- very low temperatures."

Freezing temperatures and large snowfalls have overburdened hot-water-pipeline heating systems in 13 regions, chiefly in the northwest of the country, leaving 25,440 people without heat in hundreds of buildings, the Emergency Situations Ministry said today.

Russian television showed the interior walls of buildings coated with ice and residents struggling to stay warm by bundling up and huddling around electric heaters. Over 100 buildings have been left without heat in the Leningrad region. Ships were left stranded in 80-centimeter-thick ice in the port of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. A heating pipe burst in the town of Valdai in the Novgorod region northwest of Moscow, leaving 3,100 residents and a local hospital without heat.

Temperatures in Moscow reached minus 31 degrees Celsius overnight on 7 January, killing six people who froze to death outside. A total of 272 people have died of exposure in the capital so far this year, Interfax reported. Some 400 people die on Moscow streets from the cold each year, many while drunk. This year the numbers might rise higher because of the unusually intense cold.

On the Far East Sakhalin peninsula, a three-day snowstorm killed six, including an 11-year-old boy found buried under snow. Rescue workers saved 39 people from snowdrifts.

President Vladimir Putin met Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov yesterday to discuss heat and electricity cuts, ITAR-TASS reported. The Emergency Situations Ministry is mobilizing a workforce of around 1,000 to repair burst pipes and broken heating systems. Military troops have been ordered to help with repairs.

The cold has dominated the national news. "Russia is freezing, but no bureaucrats have suffered," "Izvestiya" newspaper writes in a headline.

People interviewed on the streets of Moscow -- which itself has not suffered heating shortages -- mostly blamed regional authorities for the heating problems. One man reflected general opinion: "In the summer, when it was necessary to deal with all this, [the authorities] were doing other things -- summer relaxation -- and left people without heat."

Meanwhile, prosecutors in the Far East city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka have opened a criminal case against its administration, accused of squandering budget money allocated for fuel supplies, Interfax reported.

The liberal Yabloko Party today said the government was responsible for the crisis for allowing housing and utilities reform to be put off. Proponents of reform -- which the Duma put on hold last year -- have long been pushing for unpopular change to open the Soviet-era sectors to market forces. Utilities remain heavily subsidized by the state, charge negligible rates from industry and the population, and suffer from lack of investment and decay.

In statements reported by Interfax, Yabloko deputy chief Sergei Mitrokhin said, "This crisis situation is a direct consequence of the government's housing and utilities policies, which [force the population] to bow to the dictates of utilities monopolists."