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MORE STORIES FROM THE PROVINCES
THE OLD MAN FROM IRKUTSK
T he winter of Putin’s third year in office, 2002–03, was very cold. We are a northern country, of course: Siberia, bears, furs, that sort of thing. So you might expect that we would be ready for the cold weather.
Unfortunately, everything takes us by surprise, like snow falling from a roof onto your head. Because we are no more prepared for frost than for anything else, the following events came to pass.
In Irkutsk, in the depths of Siberia, an old man was found frozen to the floor of his apartment. He was past eighty, an ordinary retiree, one of the people the emergency services refuse to help because they are just too old. Their response to a telephone call is straightforward and unreflecting: “Well, what do you expect? Of course he’s feeling ill. It’s his age.” This elderly citizen lived alone, a veteran of the Second World War, who freed the world from Nazism, with medals and a state pension. He was one of those to whom President Putin sends greetings on May 9, Victory Day, wishing him happiness and good health. Our old men, our veterans unspoiled by too much attention from the state, weep over these form letters with their facsimile signature. Anyway, in January 2003, he died of hypothermia. He stuck to the floor where he fell. His name was Ivanov, the most common Russian surname. There are hundreds of thousands of Ivanovs in Russia.
Ivanov froze to the floor because his flat was unheated. It should have been heated, of course, like all the apartments in the block where he lived; like all the blocks of flats in Irkutsk, in the third year of Putin’s stewardship.
Why did this happen? The explanation is simple. Throughout Russia, the heating pipes wore out because they had been in service since Soviet times, and those times have been gone for more than a decade, and thank God for that. For a long time the pipes leaked and leaked, and Communal Services, whose responsibility they are, did nothing about the situation. Communal Services is a centralized, state-run monopoly. Every month we pay a substantial sum for the agency’s nonexistent technical support, but it virtually ignore us, goes on not doing its job, and periodically demands a rate increase. The government gives way, but those employed by Communal Services are so used to doing nothing that nothing is what they continue to do.
The day finally came when the monopolized pipes, which had been leaking for so long and had not been repaired for just as long, burst. In the middle of winter, in severe frosts, it was discovered that there was no way to replace them. Communal Services had no money to pay for substitute pipes. Nobody knew what the money we had been paying the agency had been spent on. The communal facilities that had been in service since the Soviet period had finally deteriorated. The fact that there was nothing to replace them with was not to be expected, because we produce thousands of kilometers of all sorts of pipes every year. “The country has no funds available for this purpose,” the agents of Putin’s government announced with a shrug, as if the subject had nothing to do with them. “What do you mean, there is no money?” the opposition politicians parried feebly, making their customary show of standing up for the rights of the people. The president publicly ticked off the prime minister. And that was the end of the tale of the leaking pipes. The politicians agreed to differ. There was no scandal. The government did not resign. Even the appropriate minister did not step down. So what if people had to pace around their flats to keep warm, sleeping and eating in their winter coats and felt boots? The pipes would be repaired come summer.
The old man who died was hacked off the icy floor with crowbars by the other people living in his communal apartment and quietly buried in the frozen Siberian earth. No period of mourning was declared.
The president pretended that the tragedy had not happened in his country or to a member of his electorate. He remained aloof during the funeral, and the country swallowed his silence. To consolidate his position, Putin changed the subject. He gave a grim speech to the effect that terrorists were responsible for all of Russia’s woes and that the state’s priority was the destruction of international terrorism in Chechnya. Apart from that, national life would stumble on in its usual way. The people could not be allowed to reflect on the imperfection of the world as it developed before their eyes.
Soon it was spring. Putin began preparing for his reelection in 2004. There could be no regret at defeats suffered, only joy at victories. Accordingly, several new holidays were announced—in fact, an unheard-of quantity of them, including the observance of Lent.
The nearer summer came, the less people talked about the collapse of Russia’s heating infrastructure the previous winter. Citizens were called upon to rejoice at the preparations for celebrating the tercentenary of Saint Petersburg, and to take pride in the sumptuousness of refurbished czarist palaces, fit to dazzle the world’s elite with their splendor. And that is exactly what happened.
Putin invited the world’s leaders to Saint Petersburg, and the city was subjected to an intensive repainting of facades. The old man in Irkutsk, and even the old men in Saint Petersburg, were forgotten by everyone, including Putin.
“Mind you, if he had died in Moscow… ,” the metropolitan pundits would say, suggesting that there would have been a scandal and a half, and that the authorities would have replaced the pipes before next winter.
Gerhard Schröder, George W Bush, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and many other VIPs proceeded to our northern capital and effectively crowned Putin as their equal. They were received with pomp and ceremony. They pretended to regard Putin with respect, and old Mr. Ivanov and the millions of Russian pensioners who can barely make ends meet weren’t given a thought. Putin’s reign reached its high point, and almost nobody noticed. He decided to base his power solely on the oligarchs, the billionaires who own Russia’s oil and gas reserves. Putin is friends with some oligarchs and at war with others, and the process is called statecraft. There is no place for the people in this scheme of things. Moscow represents life-giving warmth and light, while the provinces are its pale reflections and those who inhabit them might as well be living on the moon.
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