MOSCOW – Summer in Moscow: the season to crowd into flower-filled parks and public squares to soak up every minute of cherished daylight, under the gaze of statues of Russian poets and generals. The season to reveal the pale skin of arms, legs and – when men unbutton their shirts – bellies long hidden under winter clothes.
Also, the season to take ice-cold showers. Not, mind you, by choice.
Moscow is about two-thirds of the way through its hot water shut-off, an annual annoyance that leaves millions of Russians without the modern convenience of a hot shower for weeks at a time.
It might seem inconceivable that the largest city in Europe – the capital of the nation that rocketed the first man into space – cannot provide hot water to its residents year-round. But much like the Soviet-style government bureaucracy and the bribes readily exchanged at routine traffic stops, the shut-off is an unpleasant reality to bemoan but, in characteristic Russian fashion, dutifully accept.
Every summer, local authorities turn off the hot water in residential neighborhoods on a rolling basis to perform maintenance on the 5,600 miles of pipes that deliver it to households connected to the centralized system that also provides heat in winter. Workers run tests, install replacement parts and, in recent years, lay new pipes that resist the main culprit – rust – and are predicted to last up to 30 years.
Coping with the shut-off demands a mix of resourcefulness and patience. A shower no longer requires just shampoo and soap. Suddenly, it’s an affair demanding teapots, electric kettles, pots and pans, small bowls and, usually, a basin known as a tazik.
Boiling water in the kitchen and toting it to the bath is the most common approach. But there are others. The newspaper Rech, in the Vologda region northwest of Moscow, suggested rigging a system where hot water from a washing machine is diverted into the tub.
“It’s faster and more convenient than boiling water on the stove in aluminum buckets and pans,” said the paper, which also suggested joining a gym or renting a more modern apartment for the duration of the shut-off.
Residents of new and renovated apartment buildings, which are usually equipped with water heaters, are spared the inconvenience. But the vast majority of Muscovites can’t afford an individual boiler or can’t fit one into a tiny bathroom.
Maxim Yenkov, 25, who works at a Moscow computer store, was without hot water for nearly a month. To shower in his apartment, he needed to boil two pots of water. His girlfriend, with longer hair, had to prepare three or four. They sometimes traipsed together with their toiletries to a friend’s house. “It’s quite a difficult process, all the planning, of which friends to go to at which time – who is at home, who has hot water. There are lots of factors that are involved,” Yenkov said.
Some days, it took the couple 1 1/2 hours to reach the Moscow suburbs, where most of their friends live, by way of public transportation, where perspiring bodies are pressed closer together than anyone might comfortably wish.
“When you come back after you’ve had a shower, in all of these trains and these metros where people are stinky and smelly and haven’t had a shower for a long time, you’re dirty again,” Yenkov said. This year, the municipal agency responsible for the majority of the pipes, Moscow United Energy Co., plans to replace 237 of the 3,100 miles of piping scheduled for upgrade. When the project is complete, officials say, hot water should be provided year-round, except for two or three days a year during preventive maintenance.
With what he called “sufficient financing” – about $2.4 billion – Deputy Chief Engineer Ivan Averin said the work could be finished in six years. At the current pace, though, it will take nearly 120 – which means a lot more cold summer showers.
This year’s shut-off began in May and is scheduled to last until the third week of August.