Lacking all the right connections

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The Independent Online
THERE ARE many dreaded words in Russian, but among the most feared are the oh-so- innocent-sounding "In connection with". Whenever you see a notice start in this way, you know to expect some bureaucratic excuse and you can work out for yourself how you are about to be inconvenienced.

"In connection with works on the bridge": this means that traffic on the only highway between Moscow and St Petersburg will be reduced to a single lane and you will experience mile-long tailbacks for the next two years.

"In connection with repairs to the pipes": the hot water in your apartment is going to be switched off indefinitely and you will have to boil pans of water to wash up or have a bath.

The "in connection with" notices went up in Samotechny Lane last week. The basement had been chemically treated for vermin, we were told, and so we could expect waves of cockroaches and possibly even mice and rats seeking asylum in our apartments. Later we had a visit from a woman dressed in battle fatigues and a purple chiffon headscarf, who offered us a cocaine- like powder to sprinkle round the skirting boards. "Deadly to cockroaches, won't harm your pets," she said. My black cat rolled in it and turned white.

"In connection with" something else, we also lost our telephone links. This was a blow, as we natter incessantly, taking advantage of one of the happy vestiges of the Soviet system, free telephone calls within Moscow. Thus, the concept of street life extends to include not only neighbours but also friends on the other side of the city. Suddenly we had to sit in icy trolley buses and actually visit each other if we wanted to exchange tales of misery.

In the far-flung suburb of Khimki, which belongs spiritually to Samotechny Lane, they were having power cuts "in connection with" something or other. The cheerful ladies in the local bakery were selling loaves by candlelight.

All this, of course, was trivial compared with the suffering of people in Vladivostok, in the far east. If there is one thing worse than an "in connection with" notice, it is no notice at all, just unexplained breakdown. This means that all responsibility for the problem has been abandoned.

The television showed pictures of desperate people, left for days in the depth of winter without any heating in their homes. Some were bearing the ordeal patiently, like the woman, bundled up in jumpers, who showed a reporter her goldfish, belly-up in cold water. She had put jumpers round the bowl but they had not helped. The implication was that jumpers would not save her either. You could see her breath as she talked inside the flat, where the temperature was zero.

Others, who had gone outside because it was warmer around the street bonfires than inside their refrigerated homes, were close to rioting. "We are being treated like cattle," cried one woman. Various factors, from unpaid bills to neglected maintenance work, appeared to be behind the problem. Yet, the homes of senior officials were warm. The crowd rocked one of the officials' limousines and tried to overturn it. It was the nearest I have seen to Russians losing their legendary patience.

"In connection with" the near total collapse of the country, there is a possibility of imminent revolution. As far as utilities are concerned, the mess we are in now is because of the failure of a quiet revolution planned by ousted reformers. We are paying for years of dependence on the nanny state, which subsidised us on the one hand (hence the ridiculously low telephone, gas and electricity bills) while on the other, denied us choice and responsibility.

The reformers wanted to change all that but never got round to it. Now the state is verging on bankruptcy and its services are increasingly patchy.

Ironically, while most people were freezing, one building in Moscow had too much heat last week. "We are wearing T-shirts in here and still we are sweating," said Kirill, who lives in a block once set aside for artists from the Bolshoi Theatre. There are no knobs on Russian radiators. God forbid that individuals should be able to decide for themselves whether they are hot or cold. Such freedom would lead to anarchy, or so the old Soviet planners believed.

"I suspect that Yeltsin keeps the central heating button in his briefcase along with the nuclear button," joked Kirill. But no, only the bureaucrats at the central heating station can decide whether to turn the heat up or down. Officials working in the Kremlin complained that they were shivering and, according to a television report, asked for the heat to be turned up by three degrees.

Helen Womack