Winston Churchill harbored an extreme dislike for Joseph Stalin. The feeling was mutual. So when Churchill visited Stalin on a cold winter day during The Great Patriotic War, the Soviet dictator made him wait for more than two hours before giving him an audience. Churchill, not a man to waste time, took a walk through the blizzardy Moscow streets and noticed Russians, in their long coats, high boots, and fur hats, strolling about eating ice cream as if it were June. Churchill concluded: “The Russians are a people not to be trifled with.”
No one can trifle with the Russian people, except the Russian leadership. One example of this happens every summer. To a foreigner, it is literally a shock when that special time arrives again when the authorities, in demonstration of their dominance over the huddled masses, decide to turn off the hot water and "clean the pipes". Although today, modern flats in the big cities have Italian instant hot water heaters, and Moscow has cut the pipe-cleaning time down to 10 days, it still happens across the rest of Russia for four weeks (maybe six, maybe eight, who can tell?) in the summer.
This annual event affects people differently. Nothing can be done about it, like many things in Russia. Out of personal control, it gives one opportunity to philosophize. How can a country able to put men in space, not deliver hot water all year to its people? Is it just to remind the people who is in charge? A more positive thought comes to mind. Aren't we grateful that for 11 months the hot water does flow in abundance, sometimes hot enough to boil a lobster? Aren't we grateful even for 12 months of water, period? I learned to be grateful in Russia for what we had and to not fret about what we lacked. Maybe that is what the state had in mind; to remind us to be grateful for what we have: even in the midst of an abundance of lack.
By Moscow standards, I had a nice apartment with a long, but narrow bathtub. So on cold winter nights, when the heating system was not up to the task, a hot bath made up for the cold sheets. In the morning I had my shower. It’s a must. A long hot morning shower is my think time, my chance to mentally gird myself for a day that may reveal some challenging surprises. So a month with no hot water, even in the summer, is for me a lamentable loss. It impedes my creativity. But life must go on.
Handling this cold water inconvenience was a learning process. First the bathtub was prepared by placing in it two identical old stools called taburetki, and a large plastic pan called a tazyk, and a small pot with a handle to use as a ladle. Each was topped by a peeling gray linoleum covered seat edged with a rough metal trim secured by rusty bent nails. Balanced on the tub's slanting rim was the bottle of liquid soap, the bottle of shampoo, and a large disintegrating green sponge which left little green particles all over the tub and my body when I used it. Water was boiled on the kitchen stove in two dented three-liter pots. When the pots were steaming, I took them one at time into the bathroom holding them fearfully with a rolled up kitchen towel so I wouldn't burn my hands. Walking in my pajamas or birthday-suit as if carrying a land mine, I took care that I didn’t trip on the electric cord that ran under the hallway rug into the living room. “Why am I here?” I thought. “I wouldn’t be doing this in California.”
The sequence of events, the procedure of washing one’s self with two pots of steaming water is one of precision and carefully measured movements. One pot of hot water was placed on one of the stools. This warmed the cold linoleum so it was warm when I sat on it later. Putting the chipped enameled pan, the tazyk, on one of the taburetki, I filled it with boiling water and mixed it with cold from the shower hose. Getting into the long narrow tub, filled with taburetki, pots of boiling water and a big tazyk, was a bit like watching a overweight driver pour himself into a Formula One race car. I positioned myself on the one taburetka, now warmed by the hot pot, and placed my feet so they were not burned by the pots of just-boiled water.
Correctly positioned, I then shampooed, something I do every day. Facing the tazyk of warm water I wet my head and measured a dab of shampoo in my hand. The shampoo was easy and the handful of suds was stripped off so as not to foul the water in the pan which I could then scoop onto my head with the little pot. Then the full tazyk was poured over my head and body. Felt good. Felt reeeal good! The disintegrating green sponge was then filled with liquid soap and I scrubbed away. One secret in these conditions is notto use too much soap. It just causes problems, like making the linoleum taburetka seat slippery, inviting disaster and possibly a fall out of the tub. The warm soapy green sponge felt good and I became civilized again. Washing the part that is sitting on the slippery stool was a matter of a momentary defiance of gravity as my feet were too far forward in the narrow tub to allow a simple half stand-up. Somehow it happened. The second pot of hot water was poured into the tazyk and mixed with cold and the whole thing ladled over my head again.
All was well — felt so good! As the pans emptied I tossed them away from the tub across the tile floor so I would have room to stand as I got out. This must have sounded like a bomb on the roof to Mr. Popov below but he should be thankful. It is better than the overflowing tub that once created an unwanted shower in his bathroom below and ruined his wallpaper. He never called me about the noisy pots. Getting out was easy, but the floor was now all wet. I didn’t close the shower curtain for this event. It would be claustrophobic, as it fell down with the least provocation in any case. So the floor got wet - too bad.
All of this was timed to be completed before the BBC TV news came on at 8 AM. The extra thirty minutes out of my sleep in June was really not a problem. I am sure that the Russians were all the tougher for having to endure this inexplicable inconvenience each year. But maybe they just didn't bother about hot water and bathed in cold water - or as I could often tell - not at all. Of course, I could have done the same, claiming a Victorian bias against bathing as unhealthy. I did not complain. Mr. Churchill had it right. But I, too, was one not to be trifled with.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.