Russia’s Winds of Winter
The big freeze that Putin and his propagandists gleefully predicted for Europe and Ukraine has now come to Russian cities.
AS UKRAINIAN DRONE ATTACKS remind Russians that they are not exempt from the costs of the war that Vladimir Putin unleashed—most recently in Voronezh, where a state of emergency was declared on Tuesday after strikes targeting an air base resulted in collateral damage to several apartment buildings and injuries to two children—numerous Russian cities and suburbs face a different kind of emergency, one not directly related to the war in Ukraine but emblematic of a general slide into chaos. As winter temperatures have plunged far below freezing, Russia seems to be plagued by an epidemic of heat and power outages that have forced people to wear winter coats indoors. These scenes have a grimly ironic twist, prompting many to remember that only a year ago, Russian propagandists and officials gloated about Europeans and Ukrainians shivering in their unheated apartments—the former due to losing Russian energy sources, the latter due to Russian bombardments taking out the heating infrastructure.
The first high-profile reports of trouble in Russia came from Podolsk, a city of some 300,000 some twenty-four miles south of Moscow, and especially in its Klimovsk suburb. On January 4, a heating pipe burst in the boiler room of a specialized ammunition plant in Klimovsk that also serves as the local heating station, leaving at least 22,000 residents without heat in their apartments and cutting off the heat to schools and hospitals. With outdoor temperatures sometimes dipping to -4 degrees Fahrenheit at night, temperatures indoors started to drop to as low as 40 degrees.
Five days later, thousands of people in Podolsk were still without heat at home. The governor of the Moscow region, Andrei Vorobiev, took almost three days to comment on the emergency on his Telegram account, where comments were turned off after residents posted hundreds of complaints. The next day, he announced that people who had no heat would have their heating bills waived for the month. The day after, on January 9, Putin personally took charge of the situation; his solution was to nationalize the ammunition plant, blaming the crisis on private-industry anarchy, and have the plant’s general director and boiler-room manager arrested along with a city administration official. (The manager, Aleksandr Chikov, was defended not only by his niece, who claimed that her uncle had repeatedly tried to alert the higher-ups to technical problems in the boiler room, but by some 20,000 people who signed a petition demanding his release.) The arrests didn’t do much to help the people who were freezing.
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But Podolsk is far from the only Russian city to have recently grappled with a heat emergency—and the other malfunctioning facilities have been government-owned, so excessive laissez-faire clearly wasn’t the issue. According to the independent Russian news site Meduza, extensive power, heating, and water outages have plagued cities, suburbs and towns across Russia including Novosibirsk, Voronezh, Ryazan, and Tyumen. Altogether, more than twenty regions in Russia had experienced such problems. While Moscow itself hasn’t been affected, residents in the Moscow suburb of Khimki (eleven miles northwest of the city center) have been complaining about heating malfunctions since late November; most recently, heat and hot water were turned off in dozens of residential buildings as well as an outpatient clinic and several schools on January 10. Meanwhile, in Nizhny Novgorod, bursting water pipes have flooded the streets with boiling water, injured at least ten people, and left thousands without heat.
RUSSIAN SOCIAL MEDIA has been full of video clips in which exasperated people start bonfires in the streets both to warm themselves and to call attention to their plight, or record appeals to the authorities (including Putin himself) while wearing winter coats indoors and chanting, “Za-mer-za-yem! Za-mer-za-yem!” (“We are freezing!”). Middle-aged and elderly women, who seem to be the most active and outspoken of the sufferers, talk emotionally on camera about the unbearable cold in their apartments, with some comparing their situation to that of people during the German siege of Leningrad during World War II. In a video appeal to Putin filmed in a town in the Tver region, a spokeswoman for a large group of residents says that “we are being murdered by cold” and that earlier appeals to local officials and to the region’s governor had gone unheeded. A report on local television, which blamed “ice in the heart of bureaucrats” for the desperate situation, showed blocks of ice on apartment windows—inside.
Not surprisingly, Russian dissident media, virtually all of them now expatriate—such as the TV Rain channel, the Khodorkovsky Live YouTube channel, and the Popular Politics YouTube channel, which is run by the team of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny—saw the utilities problems as evidence of a general crisis in Russia and of the failure of the Putin regime. Some pointed out that all of Russia’s heating infrastructure could be renovated for a fraction of the money currently being spent on the war in Ukraine. Military spending currently consumes at least 30 percent of total government spending in Russia—Reuters reports that Russian “spending on defense and security combined” will reach 40 percent of total government spending next year—while the U.S. government commonly spends around 15 percent of its budget on defense.
But are the heating problems in Russia something out of the ordinary, or just regular emergencies that are currently getting a lot of attention because of a heightened interest in anything that potentially shows the Putin regime floundering? YouTuber Michael Nacke tackled this question in a recent conversation with economist Vladimir Milov, who served as Russia’s Deputy Minister of Energy in 2002. According to Milov, such emergencies have been steadily increasing and may have finally reached the critical point experts have predicted for years. The main cause is simple: a deteriorating and poorly maintained infrastructure, which even some official Russian sources admit has a wear-and-tear rate of 60 to 70 percent. (In many places, heating systems still run on old Soviet-era technology, or even rely on rotting pipes actually laid in Soviet times.) The problem is also made worse by endemic corruption—and, more recently, by the prioritizing of war.
The commentary from dissidents has been as scathing as one would imagine, with the tone ranging from anger to “We told you so” bitterness to gallows humor. (A stream by Navalny team activist Vladimir Boyko was laced with such snarky asides as, “Of course the authorities couldn’t have anticipated such problems: It’s Russia, it’s not as if we often get cold winters here!” and, “Who says you need heat in your apartment when you can have so much fun going outside to warm yourself by a fire?”) But some of the most merciless sarcasm was occasioned by recollections of the Russian propaganda machine gloating, only a year ago, at the prospect of heating problems in Europe and Ukraine.
Who can forget, for example, the grotesque “Merry Anti-Russian Christmas!” holiday ad aired in December 2022 on the Kremlin-funded RT channel (formerly Russia Today), in which a European couple is reduced to using a miniature generator powered by their daughter’s pet hamster—and then, in the finale, to eating hamster soup in a dark and freezing apartment? Or Putin’s repeated quoting of a line from a Russian folk tale—“freeze, freeze, wolf tail!”—to mock Europe for supposedly punishing itself by dropping Russian energy sources?
Video blogger Maxim Katz has offered an impressive collection of similar fare directed at Russian audiences. There is, for instance, the odious TV talking head Yevgeny Kiselyov oozing satisfaction as he reports that Russia “continues to destroy the critical infrastructure” which allows the “Nazi regime” to supply heat, power and water to cities, “although with more and more interruptions.” There’s also the veteran comedian Yevgeny Petrosyan reciting a lovely bit of verse at the 2022 New Year’s Eve gala on Russia’s TV-1 channel, which I offer in my own translation:
If you’ve eaten and you’ve showered,
And your home is nice and warm,
Then you clearly live in Russia—
Lucky place for being born!
It’s tempting to see karma here. The problem is, it’s not the propagandists or the Kremlin court jesters who are feeling the chill: It’s ordinary men and women whose worst offense, in most cases, is being passive and apathetic.
Could what some describe as a “utilities crisis” or even “utilities collapse” in Russia shake large numbers of Russians out of this apathy and turn their anger against Putin? So far, none of the recorded videos have blamed the Kremlin. But the public mood is notoriously difficult to measure under Russia’s authoritarian regime, and the simmering low-level discontent with the war could be amplified by a sense that inconveniences and discomforts are multiplying.
The “freezing wolf tail” joke Putin told with such gusto in 2022 references a folk tale in which the wolf is tricked by a wily fox into putting its tail down an ice hole to catch fish and ends up trapped in the ice; in various versions of the tale, the wolf either gets killed or runs away with its tail ripped off. In 2024, Russians trapped in their ice-cold apartments—not to mention the Russians freezing, dying, or losing their limbs in Ukraine—may feel that the joke is on them. By the next winter, could it be on Putin?