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Russians Dying as Temperature Plunges

January 12, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — If there's one thing you would think Russians should be prepared for, it's cold winters.

But with the thermometer set to plunge again this weekend to levels far below zero across vast stretches of the country, thousands of apartment buildings, schools and hospitals are suffering from a lack of fuel or ill-repaired heating systems -- sending residents, students and patients into the deep freeze.

The situation is even more lethal for people caught on the streets. More than 270 people have been killed by the cold so far this season in Moscow alone. The victims, mostly the homeless or the inebriated, stumble, sleep and quietly die -- sometimes as cars and pedestrians pass nearby.

Police expected no relief this weekend. In the early morning hours Saturday, the temperature was minus 10, with wind that made it feel like minus 25.

With the slogan "Indifference Equals Murder," a human rights group demanded Friday that Moscow's mayor open more shelters and take other steps to reduce the daily tally of hypothermia and frostbite victims that is projected to cause 400 deaths this season in the city of 10 million.

Casualties on such a scale are more appropriate to a military campaign than to winter in a European capital, said Alexei Nikiforov, coordinator of the homeless assistance program of the group Doctors Without Borders. "There is no war, yet people are still dying," he said.

Doctors Without Borders blamed the majority of deaths on "general indifference" in a city that sometimes seems as if it has ice water in its veins. "Unfortunately, it has become normal to pass by a person who has fallen down or lost his consciousness," the group complained.

But even having shelter has not been enough to spare about 25,000 people in the Karelia and Novgorod regions north of Moscow from the frigidity because of faulty heating.

"It used to be a proper hospital, and now we call it a refrigerator," griped Svetlana Kozenkova, the head physician at a hospital outside Novgorod. Wards are staying barely above freezing during this cold stretch because of broken heating lines in the area, about 250 miles northwest of the capital.

"Not only is it impossible to treat the sick in such temperatures," she added, "it is hard for a healthy adult to survive."

Lyudmila N. Pyattoeva, 54, a nurse who lives with her husband, Vitaly, 55, in a two-room apartment farther to the north, in Karelia, said she doesn't know how they will endure.

After chipping away at a block of frozen chicken stock to make her husband's soup, she said she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"There is no heating, my apartment does not have running water, the sewers are completely frozen over, some radiators have burst, and there is no gas in the apartment," she sobbed in a telephone interview from the town of Muyezerka. "And there is no hope that anything will be done to save us until spring."

She too compared it to wartime. "There must have been things like this during the Great Patriotic War. But back then it would have been absolutely explicable. What is the reason now? We are lost for answers and we are lost for words."

The couple's two small space heaters run 24 hours a day but keep their home only a little above freezing, she said. In the bathroom, the toilet is frozen solid, forcing the pair to use a bucket or walk to her sister's block of apartments half a mile away. "Cold brings you physical suffering every second -- it is impossible to get away from it," she said.

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