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When Vladimir Putin landed in Khabarovsk on his tour of Russia’s Far East last week, he was given a warm welcome by a small group of patriotic youngsters holding signs.
“Please wear a hat,” one of them read. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, it’s cold here,” another warned the president. “We need you in good health,” said a third.
There was not a hint of irony in their message even though, at that very moment, tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen were suffering icy conditions within their own homes.
As Russia’s winter has announced itself with subzero temperatures — the way it invariably does every year — news outlets are reporting that some two dozen regions have experienced heating outages. While Putin is trying to knock out Ukraine’s infrastructure with missile attacks, the outages at home offer a revealing insight into the failings, corruption and manpower shortages of his own state.
Ahead of the acclamation of his 24-year rule he expects in elections in March, it’s hardly ideal for Putin that shivering Russians are puncturing his vision of a mighty Russia, not only in far-flung provinces but also only dozens of kilometers from the Kremlin.
Experts say there are a number of reasons for the nationwide heating collapse, none of which are good news for ordinary people.
The root of the issue dates back to Soviet times. Back then, the energy sector was centralized, with a focus on “generating cheap heat and electricity for industry, not the needs of ordinary citizens,” Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister turned opposition politician, told POLITICO.
Today, Russia’s heating system still largely relies on enormous boiler plants which are often located on the outskirts of cities and connected to residential areas through a sprawling network of pipes.
Milov recalled visiting a neighborhood in Khabarovsk where residents received their hot water from a boiler plant some 15 kilometers away.
“By the time the water reached them, it was already cold,” he said.
As well as inefficient, the centralized system also means that when something goes wrong, it goes wrong big-time.
In Siberia’s Novosibirsk, one cracked pipeline has cut off the hot water supply for about half the city’s population of more than 1.5 million, said Sergei Boiko, a former city council deputy.
“In these temperatures that is life-threatening,” Boiko told POLITICO, adding that hundreds of apartment blocks as well as hospitals and schools had been affected.
The crisis is not limited to an absence of central heating. In some places, billowing geysers of scorching hot water have spilled out of burst pipelines into homes and streets, injuring passers-by. Others have suffered from power and water cuts.
To complete the apocalyptic vision, in Novocherkassk a rupture at a sewage plant flooded an entire area with feces.
Burying the evidence
Yet other former Soviet countries have inherited the same centralized system — without the tendency for implosion.
The answer to that conundrum, analysts say, is corruption.
Since the 1990s, the ruble equivalent of several dozens of billions of dollars in state funding has been poured into the upkeep and replacement of aging pipelines, said Milov, the former deputy energy minister.
But, like the hot water in the neighborhood in Khabarovsk, much of it never made it to its final destination.
With little to no public oversight and astronomic sums of government money involved, the utilities sector has been a favorite cash cow for corrupt officials.
Every summer, Russians’ hot water access is temporarily switched off for several days, supposedly to allow for maintenance work. But the fixes are often ad hoc or exist only on paper.
Anecdotes abound of workers breaking up roads, splattering fresh paint on pipes to hide corrosion or moving faulty parts from one place to another in a semblance of activity, then burying the evidence underground.
Decades of such machinations across Russia have resulted in a Potemkin-style utilities grid that falls apart at the seams every year whenever temperatures take a nosedive.
But this year, a snowballing of factors, directly and indirectly connected to the war in Ukraine, has made the crisis particularly bad.
One is that what Putin likes to boastfully refer to as record low unemployment rates translates into an aching labor shortage on the ground.
Hundreds of thousands of Russian men of working age have been sent to the front or fled the country to avoid being mobilized. A weaker ruble has also made Russia less attractive for migrant workers.
In a recent survey by Superjob, a major Russian job website, 86 percent of the 1,000 companies and institutions polled said they were struggling to fill vacancies.
It is highly likely there are many more problems than there are plumbers, electricians and engineers to solve them.
Second, a near-total crackdown on civil society in the name of war-time societal consolidation has meant there is even less public oversight than there was before the war.
Local whistleblowers like Boiko from Novosibirsk, who is an ally of jailed politician Alexei Navalny, have been forced into exile (in his case to Mexico to avoid a Russian-issued international warrant for his arrest). Others have been jailed or gone underground.
Finally, in their scramble to solve the problems dumped into their laps by the Kremlin, regional governors have spent rainy day funds on plugging military holes, such as equipping soldiers or treating those who return from the front with injuries, said Boiko.
“Now that the money is needed for repairs, it has already been spent on the purchase of bullet proof vests. “
In coming years, as the system unravels and more of the infrastructure, much of it dating back to the 1970s, reaches the end of its lifespan, Western sanctions on technology may worsen an already bad situation.
Meanwhile, planned federal spending on the utilities sector is set to halve by 2026, as Moscow doubles down on its war machine.
“The money that is being spent in a single month on the war, would be enough to overhaul the entire utilities sector in a matter of several years,” said Boiko.
After winter, comes spring
With protesters facing high risks and Russia’s geography acting as a natural barrier, local gripes tend as a rule not to spill over into neighboring regions.
But this time, Russians living only several dozens of kilometers away from the Kremlin have joined those in Vladivostok in the far east, Petrozavodsk in the north and those in Makhachkala in the south in the same leaky boat.
The images and videos they share online, of ice-covered windows and residents trying desperately to stay warm, are near identical — and so is their message.
“How can one survive in such temperatures?” a woman asks in one video. “We don’t live, we just exist.”
Heading into election season, some now wonder aloud whether the utilities collapse could be a black swan event, cracking Putin’s façade of life in Pleasantville in a way the war in Ukraine has failed to do until now.
Seemingly aware of the sensitivity of the moment, the authorities have begun to identify scapegoats and heads have started to roll.
Shortly after Putin ordered Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry to “take all necessary measures” to solve the heating crisis in Podolsk, a city some 40 kilometers south of Moscow, the regional investigative committee said it had detained the heads of the local boiler plant and a linked ammunitions factory for providing unsafe services, as well as the deputy head of the city administration on suspicion of abuse of power for issuing the plant with a safety certificate while being aware of “defects.”
Since Podolsk’s boiler plant is privately owned — an exception to the general rule — it is a safe way for the Kremlin to signal it is in control, while simultaneously deflecting all possible blame.
In a display of their selective focus, Russian propagandists have either ignored the crisis situation altogether or, zeroing in on the situation in Podolsk, railed against the evils of privatization.
Although that is unlikely to soothe the tangible anger and frustration, it might be too soon to call the revolution. In previous years, anger about housing and utilities issues thawed along with the ice.
“People have short memories,” said Milov. “After winter, comes spring.”
Тhe Kremlin, at least, seems to be banking on that.
Speaking to journalists, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “Herculean efforts” had been made over more than a decade to upgrade the grid, but 10 to 15 years of repairs had not been enough and the program was “stretched over time.”
In Novosibirsk, 76-year-old pensioner Lyudmila, who did not want to give her surname for safety reasons, was rejoicing at having her heating turned back on after a lapse of several days.
“We are no longer freezing,” she told POLITICO. “That’s an improvement.”
But she expressed cautious skepticism that what was needed to avoid another collapse was just more time. “In Soviet times we never experienced such problems,” she said, adding: “I don’t know why.”