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Cold showers in the Russian summer

Juri Rescheto
July 14, 2021

Every summer, Russian households have to do without hot water. For up to three weeks, everyone has to take cold showers — even in the ultramodern city of Moscow, writes DW's Yuri Rescheto.

Man showering on the bank of Moskva river opposited Christ the Savior Cathedral
Cold showers are unavoidable in Russia in summer but at present they may be welcomeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Ilnitsky

"Modernization has reached new heights in Russia: You can now access the schedule for your building's hot-water shutdown online!" joke Muscovites. Meanwhile, they're busy putting pots on the stove and preparing to heat their water.

It's a stroke of luck that, with the Russian capital currently sweltering in a heat wave, people are happy to take cold showers. It makes the obligatory annual hot-water shutdown less difficult to bear. But once the heat wave passes and Muscovites want some pampering again, their yearning for hot water will increase, as will the discomfort of their morning and evening ablutions.

Annual showering problems

Every summer, for between 10 days and three weeks, there is no hot water in Russia. It makes no difference whether you live in the remotest corner of Khanty-Mansiysk or in the heart of the glittering metropolis of Moscow: This is the normal, 21st-century Russian reality. Only Westerners are surprised by it. Russians bear it with fortitude. They know it has to be this way. But ... why?

Woman pouring out a large saucepan of hot water
Many Russians have recourse to more cumbersome methods of heating water when the supply cuts offImage: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

It all has to do with Russian central heating, a relic from the Soviet era that still operates in all the cities of the former USSR. This is a complex system of pipes several kilometers (miles) long, connected to hydroelectric power plants around each city that provide residential buildings with hot water. The water companies say that, in order to ensure that the system will operate reliably in winter, it must be maintained during the summer, and that it's only by doing this maintenance work that they can detect all the cracks in the pipes. The water temperature in the pipes is lowered to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), and the pressure in them is increased. Leaks are located and repaired, then checked again.

The Moscow Integrated Power Company (MOEK) is responsible for doing this. It's even produced a cartoon explaining to the city's residents why no hot water flows from their taps in the summer. MOEK claims that it needs a minimum of 10 days to inspect the pipes and that unfortunately, it is still not possible to reduce the time the hot water is turned off in order to do this. Not now, or in the foreseeable future, says the company.

"Not necessarily!" say independent experts who contradict Moscow's official energy suppliers. "From a purely technical point of view, Moscow can avoid cutting off the hot water," says Svetlana Razvorotneva, an expert from the non-profit association National Center for Public Control in the Field of Housing and Communal Services. "For example, new residential districts are already connected to alternative heating supply routes inside the buildings, so there are other, alternative water pipes that could certainly be used as a substitute during repairs," she explains.

Svetlana Razvorotneva
Water supply expert Svetlana Razvorotneva says alternatives would be possibleImage: Privat

New apartment, old system

One person who would be in a position to enjoy the benefits of an alternative hot water supply route in one of these new residential districts is Maxim Mikhnenko, a young Muscovite. He bought an apartment in a new business-class property segment a few years ago. His neighborhood has round-the-clock security, underground parking, various stores, restaurants and a gym with a swimming pool. The only thing is ... every year, just as everywhere else in the city, the hot water is switched off.

"Obviously I don't heat my shower water with a kettle," says Maxim. "Instead, I've had to pay a lot of money to install a water tank with heating function." He complains that, unfortunately, the price of a property in Russia is not a reflection of its quality.

 Maxim Mikhnenko
Maxim Mikhnenko has spent a lot on an alternative heating systemImage: Privat

Russian households are effectively forced to endure the hot-water shutdown because the procedure is incorporated into the technical standards, explains Svetlana Razvorotneva. "We have technical safety standards that are put in place to prevent accidents. And according to these, precautionary checks must be done annually. So it makes no difference what year a house was built: Everyone has to put up with this inconvenience for the sake of safety," she explains.

What to do in the weeks of no hot water?

But the district heating system does also have advantages. It's cheaper because heat is delivered in large quantities simultaneously all across the city. Smaller, individual heaters are more expensive for consumers both to purchase and to maintain.

As the hot-water shutdown period approaches, the local media are full of tips on how to get through it: from conventional methods, like heating water in a kettle, to more innovative ones, like how to do it in a washing machine. It's also suggested that the lack of hot water is a good reason to visit friends in another residential district and take a shower at their place, or all go together to a banya, or Russian sauna. Or, of course, you could simply quit the apartment altogether and go on vacation.

This article was translated from German.

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief