Thu, Aug 30, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Moscow's water system, a relic of the Soviet era


The dour Moscow of Cold War film strips is long gone, and this increasingly prosperous city fancies itself striding chest out into the future. But every summer, the people here get a taste of old-style deprivation, as if they were flung back to a time when they had to line up at dawn to buy a few coils of mealy sausage.

In neighborhoods rich and poor, for as long as a month, most buildings have no running hot water, not a drop.

For all its new wealth and aspirations, spurred by a boom in oil and other natural resources, Moscow remains saddled with an often decrepit infrastructure. Around now, an apt symbol of its condition is the city's hot water system, perhaps one of the more exasperating vestiges of Soviet centralized planning.

Buildings in Moscow usually receive hot water from a series of plants throughout the city, not from basement boilers, as in the US. By summer, the plants and the network of pipelines that transport hot water need maintenance. Off goes the hot water. And in homes across the city, out come the pots and sponges and grumbling.

The summer suspension of hot water is such a part of life that it has found its way into poems and songs, Russians being accomplished at turning privation into art. (There is also no shortage of jokes bemoaning the olfactory assault from the unwashed masses in the subways when the temperature sometimes reaches the upper 20s Celsius.)

In fact, how people cope with the suspension seems to reflect the evolution of Russian attitudes. Younger Muscovites, who are less familiar with the hardships of the past and are as comfortable with Nokia and Pizza Hut as their peers in suburban New Jersey, seem far less forgiving.

The older generation certainly complains, but seems more willing to shrug it off. After all, what are a few weeks without hot water, given everything else that has been weathered over the decades? This view may be especially prevalent in Moscow, the largest city in Europe, whose population has surged with an influx of people from hardscrabble regions.

"We are all basically country folk," said Lidiya Artyomova, 52, a maid. "We are used to this sort of thing, so there's nothing to be done."

Artyomova was working the other day at an apartment building without hot water on Sadovaya-Karetnaya Street, in one of the city's better neighborhoods. Soon after she spoke, up drove a resident, Roman Berezin, 25, a student with a dog in the back seat and a harsher view.

"It's very unpleasant," Berezin said. "I like to take a shower twice a day, and without hot water, you end up going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, carrying the water from the kitchen to the bathroom."

Of course, as under Communism, ways are devised to skirt the common misery. Some buildings, including hotels, install boilers, and some people put small water heaters in bathrooms -- both are legal. But many cannot afford to do so, or live in dwellings whose plumbing and electricity cannot handle the equipment.

Moscow is not alone in its summertime water woes. St. Petersburg and other Russian cities have similar systems. But it galls some Muscovites that a city of such power and money cannot provide a basic necessity year-round.

"We often think about why the city cannot fix all the pipes," said Aleksandr Savin, 38, another resident of the building on Sadovaya-Karetnaya Street, who runs a package delivery company. "How come they have to do this every year? And then there are the accidents, so they have to turn off the cold water sometimes, too."

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