Thu, Jan 19, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Russians suffer as temperatures fall to 27-year low

THE GUARDIAN , MOSCOW

The schools are shut, traffic has ebbed and life has taken a more cautious pace over the sheet ice. There is little you can do but shuffle on, tape up your windows and buy a thicker hat. Temperatures in Moscow on Tuesday plunged to minus 28oC. Three people froze to death and 14 were taken seriously ill. But, as ever, it will get worse for this city of 12 million.

Weather forecasters predict that tonight and tomorrow temperatures will plunge to as low as minus 37oC, the coldest in the capital since 1979. Moscow's record low is minus 42.1oC, set 66 years ago.

One Russian news Web site ran the headline "The Day After Tomorrow -- in Moscow," referring to the Hollywood film about global warming in which the US is enveloped overnight in a new ice age.

Tales of burst pipes, electric-heater fires, icy road accidents and homeless people frozen solid will become commonplace as the week rumbles glacially on. Cold, known in Russia by the phlegmy word kholod, is a familiar but indefatigable enemy and 107 Muscovites have died from it since last October.

For the thousands of homeless who roam the city's streets, minus 37oC is a death sentence. At the weekend, the police were ordered to stop their traditional practice of ejecting homeless people from underpasses and metro stations and told, instead, to help them find state-run shelters.

In a city normally paralyzed by traffic, up to 400,000 Muscovites found their cars would not start and took the metro to work instead.

The 9 million people who use the system routinely just grimaced and bore the extra load.

The city's electricity network was more troubled. The government made large businesses pledge yesterday to put out their lights while they still had a choice, though between 3pm and 9pm, the city authorities introduced electricity rationing.

But when life is hard in Moscow, it is intolerable in the regions, where Russia's remaining 131 million people live. It's an unexpected crisis in a country that prides itself on being an energy power -- the biggest exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia and the leading supplier of gas to Europe. But among Russians, where the Kremlin's geopolitical ambitions have nearly always taken precedence over ordinary folk, it came as little surprise. To top it all, they are also facing a record rise in utility prices.

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