Autumn is here in Russia so of course, I have dug out my tank tops, light linen trousers, and flip-flops. The worst summer heat wave on record is over, but now I’m prepared to really sweat. Radiators, have begun to sputter, hiss, and clank as all over Russia, the Central Heating is switched on from one very evil central command centre, regardless of the relatively mild temperatures outside. Comes the moment, on they go, from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk: “putt…sputtt…hisssss…clank.” Full throttle for the next eight months -- my own little corner of Russia a permanent sauna.
I loathe Russian Central Heating. It is stifling in my flat: I can’t sleep, despite summer cotton sheets and my skimpiest nightshirt. I take a salt pill before switching on the electric kettle.
“Open the window!” I hear you cry. I do. And I’m not alone. Those Russians who do believe in global warming lay the blame for it firmly at the feet of expats who leave their windows wide open throughout the long Russian winters. HRH and the cleaning lady refuse to put up with that kind of death wish. They shut the windows with moral fortitude whenever they find them open.
“Turn down the radiator!” is another naïve suggestion I get from the uninitiated. For many years I tried, with various implements of destruction including the heel of a boot, a hammer, and a copy of Das Kapital, all to no avail. The knobs, into which the German prisoners of war who built the house clearly poured their resentment, remained unyielding. Then, this past summer, we had the grim Nazi radiators replaced with more flashy perestroika models from Yugoslavia, with shiny red knobs that…. moved.
HRH warned me. He made it clear to me that, though the radiators were new, the heating system was not. “Our Soviet heating,” he explained remained something I had no business tinkering with. He hinted at grave consequences, which I ignored, and then he set off for work. I tried to ignore them, but those shiny red knobs kept calling me from across the steamy room. I rationalized that HRH had never distinguished himself as the King of DIY, and went about turning off all of the shiny red knobs in each of the rooms.
The result, while it lasted, was amazing. It was cool in the flat. It was like the sweet relief of a desert night after the sun has gone down, or the rush of fresh air when you step out of a trans-Atlantic flight onto the jet way of your destination. I put the summer clothes away and brought out the flannel sheets. I issued a stern admonishment to Velvet: “get something on your feet!” – a constant refrain in my childhood, seldom heard in hers. Wild fantasies bubbled into my consciousness: dinner parties in February that didn’t feature gazpacho, iced gin and tonics and sorbet.
The Big Chill lasted about a week. One mid-morning, I relaxed with a neon blue seaweed masque slathered an inch thick on my face: the minute you get into this kind of comfort zone in Russia, something invariably comes along to ruin it. That day, persistent and impatient rings at the doorbell shattered my peace, which, as I was not expecting anyone I simply ignored: nothing good ever comes from unexpected rings at the doorbell or telephone. The rings abated, only to be replaced, about forty minutes later into loud thumps on the door and shouts to open up for the ZHEK, the custodians of the building complex.
Another observation about life in Russia? When you need the ZHEK, they are always on a lunch break. But here they were: three short, stocky men easily recognizable as hangers about around the courtyard, who spat, smoked, shouted into mobile phones, and watched the Tadzhiks do all the heavy lifting. They thrust official looking permits up to the peephole.
“Open up, Woman.” they ordered.
“I’m not really dressed for it,” I responded through the metal door.
“Woman, there is a problem with your heating. We need to see your radiator.”
“The radiator is fine,” I assured them. “It works beautifully.”
“Woman, it is not fine. Your neighbors are complaining. Open the door or we will return with the police.”
These way-down-the-totem pole officials are, of course, deeply capable of bringing the police around. They love to flex a bit of official muscle and play a minor, if not responsible part in a local drama. Bonus points for nabbing a foreigner.
The Russian police have ways – to say nothing of the authority – to break the door down. So I opened up, resplendent in my neon blue masque. They seemed completely unfazed.
Another thing about these guys? They assume you can’t and won’t understand them, so they talk REALLY LOUDLY, and make elaborate hand gestures as if they were talking to an idiot child. They started in on this line of communication.
“I have,” I told them softly, “a degree in Russian Studies from the same university Barack Obama attended.”
This fell on deaf and indifferent ears. Barack Obama, they assume, is just a fluke, and more than capable, they figure, of associating with blue-faced people who don’t know how to work their radiators.
“You are not allowed to turn off your radiator,” said one.
“But it is so hot in here,” I pleaded.
“That makes no difference,” he said and then made an expansive gesture towards the ceiling, “You have turned off the heat for the entire building. Your neighbors have complained to the police, and it will go very badly for you if you turn the radiator off again.”
“But how can I make it cooler here?” I pleaded. “You must be able to do something!”
They looked at one another and sighed deeply.
“This isn’t Paris, you know,” the other guy finally said.
And on that, at least, we could all agree.
This column was first published in print in The Washington Post and Russia Beyond The Headlines on September 22, 2010 under the title "It's Getting Hot in Here." A link to the online version can be found here.