Out of Russia: Wired for water in the third zone

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The tap in the kitchen burps, shudders then gives a long hollow wheeze. Not a drop of water comes out. Strange things are happening in the living room too. Water is oozing from the electric socket by the window. Long tears of murky liquid drip down the wall.

I had been warned about Russian plumbing. But this is spectacularly weird. Who to call for help - a plumber or an electrician? Or perhaps even an exorcist. There are certainly plenty of angry ghosts in my building, built on Stalin's orders by German prisoners and Russian convicts. Many died and, like the slaves who perished building the pyramids, are said to be entombed in the concrete. There are other ghosts with grudges too: the victims of the KGB generals and Communist Party hacks who lived and still live here.

I go across the hallway to ask my neighbour if she has noticed anything unusual in her flat. But it is late, and she, a sour and suspicious old woman at the best of times, refuses to open the door. I ask her through the letter-box if her water has been re-routed from the tap to her electrical sockets. It is not a question that eases her suspicions: 'I can't tell you that, go away.'

The guard downstairs in the lobby is more helpful. He takes me down a hallway and into a high-ceilinged ante-room with six chandeliers.

High on the wall hang two portraits of Lenin and Marx. Beneath them, half covered by the curtains, hangs what looks at first glance like a recruitment poster for the Ku Klux Klan. It has pictures of flaming buildings and lots of people dressed in sheets. I look closer: it is a civil defence chart showing residents what to do in the event of a nuclear war (worry a lot and probably die) or an attack by 'imperialist armies' using biological weapons (wear a protective poncho and a gas mask and retire to the nearest shelter).

Not a word, though, on what residents should do when their plumbing goes berserk in peacetime. The guard points to a wooden door with a sign saying 'Keep Out'. We go in. This, he explains, is the control room. On one side of the room sit two women with what look like tea- cosies on their heads. In front of them stands a large metal box studded with buttons and levers. They take turns poking the box and shrieking down a telephone.

I try to explain my problem. 'Which floor?,' asks one of them. 'Nineteenth.' 'Which apartment?' I tell her. Then she pauses, stabs another button, consults a chart and picks up the phone again. Finally, the answer: 'You,' she says, sounding like a doctor about to announce a fatal disease, 'are in the third zone.' The what? She repeats herself: 'The. . . third . . . zone.'

What is going on? My wiring is connected to the plumbing; my plumbing rasps with what sounds like terminal emphysema; and the woman who is supposed to be in charge tells me I'm living in the 'third zone'. I always knew this building was strange. For one thing, it is the only block in Moscow fitted with American-style electrical sockets - a curious detail in what was supposed to be a fortress of revolutionary zeal. Stalin built the block for his functionaries. The architect seems to have had Dracula and Batman in mind. The result: a wonderful, hideous confection of mock-Gothic spires and walls as thick as a medieval fortress.

And it is walls, explains a supervisor the following morning, that are to blame for the strange happenings in the 'third zone'. Buried deep inside are not only the bones of dead workmen but miles of rusting pipes. To replace them would mean tearing down the whole building. One by one the pipes burst; wall by wall, workmen with sledgehammers pound away. I now have a gaping 3ft hole in my living-room wall. But at least the building is still standing - waiting for the next pipe to burst.