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Russians Rue Cold, Lack of Services

by JIM HEINTZ Associated Press Writer

IRKUTSK, Russia (AP) -- Fastidious by nature, Lena Kolobova scrubs the kitchen porcelain to keep it white -- but it doesn't sparkle like the frost that hangs from the room's ceiling.

Frost also lurks in the bathroom, where flakes of it fall down the neck of someone using the toilet. It stretches across the living room above the shelves where Kolobova keeps knickknacks, a few dozen novels and a thermometer that shows the indoor temperature at 34 degrees.

That was one of the warmer readings of the year in her apartment in this Siberian city, five time zones and 2,600 miles east of Moscow, where winter's grip lasts a good six months of the year.

When the region was hit by a severe frigid spell that sent temperatures in Irkutsk as low as minus-53, Kolobova's home temperature fell to 28 degrees and the only relief was an electric space heater in the bedroom.

''The radiators are barely alive. ... I just sat in the one room, then would hurry out and brew tea,'' the 44-year-old cleaning lady said, dressed in a coat, stocking cap and heavy leggings in her living room.

''We had to wear clothes to bed. ... It was like jail,'' said a pensioner who gave her name only as Valentina and lives in an adjacent building.

Irkutsk's 800,000 people generally aren't the type to complain about cold. Some are stolid, some joke about heat waves when the temperature rises to 5 degrees, some point out admiringly how winter turns the city's abundant trees into graceful white sculptures.

But this winter, the coldest in three decades, has cracked open a fissure of resentment and feelings of helplessness with the grim demonstration of how infrastructure and social services have deteriorated in the decade since the Soviet Union collapsed.

The fierce cold strained Russia's shabby power systems, often past the breaking point. Tens of thousands of people in the Far Eastern Primorye region were going without electricity for much of each day as temperatures plunged. Nakhodka, a major port for trade with Japan, was without power for 22 hours Thursday. Wide outages were still reported in the Irkutsk region this week even though temperatures were rising.

Steam pipes that distribute heat from central plants exploded and the region's already low coal stockpiles dwindled as the frigid weather froze mining machinery.

At least 11 people froze to death over the last 10 days alone in the Irkutsk region. By midweek, more than 165 frostbite victims were brought to the city's main hospital and more than 40 of the cases were severe enough to require amputations, said Tatiana Rerke, a nurse at the burns unit where freeze victims were treated.

Some of the victims were drunk, Rerke said, but others were just luckless, like a 34-year-old woman who gave her name only as Tatiana.

''I was walking home. ... I thought my feet were all right, but then I fell down, two or three times,'' she said. Eventually, she couldn't get back up and was found by a passing railroad crew who brought her to the hospital where she had some toes amputated.

The influx of victims put a severe load on a hospital with minimal facilities: patients are crowded on narrow beds eight to a room and new victims are brought by stretcher up a narrow, twisting staircase.

The severe freeze also put a burden on the government's efforts to restore economic credibility. Russia entered 2001 touting a first-ever balanced budget, but within days officials said the additional cost of coping with the cold would cause a deficit in January.

Even with that extra spending, many Siberian facilities are on the edge of misery this winter. Food supplies to institutions such as orphanages and old people's homes have dwindled severely since the economic crisis of 1998, said Margarita Plotnikova, a Russian official of the International Red Cross.

The Red Cross this year is distributing 24,200 tons of American-donated food to Siberia, and some local officials say the aid is all that stands between them and hunger.

At Irkutsk Mental Hospital No. 3, where a half-inch of ice hung from the inside of some windows, patients got ''only potatoes, water and cabbage'' before Red Cross help started, said Viktor Guk, a ward doctor.

But for many, such as Kolobova in the frost-lined apartment, hope for help seems remote.

''I've appealed to the heating authorities. They say there's nothing they can do,'' she said. Asked how she would cope with a predicted new plunge in temperatures, she shrugged.

And the best assessment that one official could provide was to say things could be worse.

''I cannot say we have had a crisis,'' said Vladimir Rodionov, head of the regional social welfare department. ''Yes, we have had certain incidents, but we didn't have a whole city or village frozen.''

AP-NY-01-20-01 1814EST< 

-- Rachel Gibson (, January 21, 2001

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