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Why are many Russians freezing in their homes this winter?

Darko Janjevic
January 18, 2024

Russia boasts a massive energy infrastructure, but a recent wave of heating system breakdowns in Moscow and beyond has left many residents scrambling to keep harsh winter temperatures outside.

A ship amid ice on the Moskva River floats by the Kremlin walls in Moscow
Even Moscow and the surrounding Moscow Oblast were hit by heating outagesImage: Vera Savina/AFP

Thousands of Russians have been affected by heating systems failing across the country, including Moscow and its outskirts, the Moscow Oblast, as they face one of the harshest winters in decades.

The wave of breakdowns started in December and shows no sign of stopping. This week, at least 16 people suffered burns in the city of Nizhny Novgorod when a large-bore heating pipe exploded, spouting boiling water into the street. The pipe failure also left more than 3,000 people without heat, according to a local news channel on Telegram. The messaging service is one of the few remaining platforms Russians use to obtain uncensored information.

Just a day before the Nizhny Novgorod incident, a heating node failed in the city of Oryol, cutting off heat to homes, kindergartens, and a school, where boiling water burst out of steam heaters during lessons.

Residents in Moscow Oblast left without heat for days

The most severe breakdown occurred in Klimovsk, a district of the city of Podolsk in Moscow Oblast, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital. On January 4, the temperature dropped to -34 Celsius (-29.2 Fahrenheit) —  the coldest spell for the area in at least 40 years. On the same day, a Klimovsk heating plant failed. Some 20,000 people were left without heat in the district of 50,000 people. Thousands of them remained cut off from the heating grid for several days. Other cities and towns in the region also experienced multi-day heating failures during the extremely cold weather, with residents of the city of Elektrostal lighting bonfires in front of their apartment buildings as a sign of protest.

"The children were sleeping in warm clothing, me and my husband were also sleeping wearing pants, sweaters, shirts, under two duvets," a local woman told Russian news outlet The Insider, adding that the temperature in her apartment did not go above 10 degrees Celsius until she started using electric space heaters.

Ammunition factory provides town with heat

Officials were slow to respond. It took Moscow Oblast Governor Andrey Vorobyov three days to put out an official statement on the Klimovsk breakdown, blaming the owners of the "privately-owned boiler room" for allowing the breakdown to happen. Vorobyov said authorities have launched an investigation.

"We understand that everyone's patience has a limit," he said during a meeting with the citizens.

The governor also accused the plant's owners of being unreachable during the current crisis, pointing out that two of them lived abroad. The issue apparently drew the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin — he ordered Vorobyov to nationalize the heating facility. 

The delayed response could be due to the heating facility's sensitive location — it is operating within an active ammunition factory. Such arrangements between military industry and civilian infrastructure were relatively common in the Soviet era.

Links reported between Klimovsk plant and Kremlin

The ammunition plant was privatized in 2001, and the current ownership structure has not been made public. However, unconfirmed reports in the Russian media indicate that the plant's managers had first-rate connections at the very top of the Kremlin. The director of the plant, Igor Kushnikov, is a former colonel of the Russian FSB intelligence agency, according to media reports. In May 2023, he took over the plant management from Igor Rudyka — reportedly one of Putin's former bodyguards.

Last week, Russian federal investigators said they detained Kushnikov and the manager of the boiler room, Alexander Chikov.

Crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure

One of the shareholders of the Klimovsk ammunition plant, Marina Saharova, who is based in Germany, said the reason for the failure was not due to the heating facility itself but to the dilapidated conditions of the heating grid — she insisted that the boiler room needed to be shut down because of failures outside the factory.

Experts warned that the heating network in Russiais poorly maintained and outdated — especially in the areas that have massively increased their population density since the Soviet times. Even now, some parts of the country still use decades-old steel pipes, well past their projected 25-year lifetime, according to Russia's The Bell outlet. Official figures cited by The Bell indicate that some 3% of the heating, water and sanitation network is labeled as being in a state of "emergency" every year. Still, only 1%-2% are being modernized, leading to thousands of breakdowns.

A man wields a flamer to warm up heating pipes in Klimovsk in the Moscow region
Klimovsk had to resort to heating pipes manually to get the systems working againImage: Evgenia Novozhenina/REUTERS

Security poses an additional challenge in facilities such as the one in Klimovsk. Due to restrictions on access to the ammunition factory, civilian officials were unable to prepare the boiler room for winter or monitor issues in real-time, according to the outlet.

Russia, an energy superpower?

While some heating-related incidents happen every winter in Russia, this season has seen successive heating failures in multiple cities, from Novosibirsk in Siberia to Moscow and St. Petersburg to the western exclave of Kaliningrad. 

The issue also carries an emotional weight in the country that traditionally sees itself as an energy superpower. FollowingRussia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, state propagandists issued dire warnings over EU sanctions on gas imports, claiming Europe would "freeze" without access to Russian gas for its heat.

Ukrainian soldiers face second winter on front lines

Nearly two years into the war, however, heating in Europe appears stable while Russian officials scramble to respond to the heating crisis. This contrast is pointed out with glee by Putin critics and Russian-speaking users from war-torn Ukraine.

"They decided to freeze out Europe, but that didn't work. Then they decided to freeze their own to intimidate others," a YouTube user commented under a video reporting on the breakdowns.

Moscow moving to modernize heating grid

Russian authorities also appear aware of the problem. Recently, the Kremlin has started taking a more direct role in managing the heating grid, and federal authorities signaled they would be freeing up more funds.

"We are still using the communal infrastructure that was made during the Soviet era," said Svetlana Razvorotneva, a Russian lawmaker and member of the committee in charge of urban engineering. "We did not invest in modernization. Instead, we invested in maintaining all that outdated infrastructure."

She added that some 40% of the communal heating grid urgently needed to be replaced. The Russian state, according to the lawmaker, intends to invest 150 billion rubles (€1.55 billion, $1.68 billion) in the next two years to modernize the system. 

Edited by: Sean Sinico