Tired of gas promises, Russian villagers stock up on wood

Two years after a gas pipeline was laid in her street, Valentina Sakharova still uses wood to heat her small, one-storey house at the edge of the Peno village in central Russia’s Tver Region.

“Last time, they promised us that gas would appear in the pipeline this summer,” the 88-year-old WWII veteran says, sitting on a bench outside her home.

Sakharova pays 4,000 rubles (some $140) from her modest pension for a pile of firewood that will last her several months, and she plans to buy more for the coming fall and winter – “just in case.”

The construction of pipelines to supply natural gas to the village of 7,000 began in 2006, and the entire village was scheduled to receive access to gas heating in the fall of 2010.

But, so far, only 170 families, most of them living in the village’s 10 apartment blocks, have had gas heating installed in their homes – partly because of delays in the construction of gas pipelines, which the local government has blamed on contractor negligence.

“This gas issue has been such a lot of hassle for the village,” Alexei Zilov, a doctor in the local hospital, says.

Costly affair

Although the Soviet authorities launched a nationwide gasification program in the 1980s, around one third of Russia – home to the worlds’ largest gas reserves – still has no access to piped gas. While gas is common in most of European Russia, it is an unknown luxury for many in Siberia and the country’s Far East.

In 2005, Dmitry Medvedev, then the CEO of Russian energy giant Gazprom and now the country’s president, named the gasification of Russia as one of five national priorities. Since then, progress has been unspectacular, with a mere ten percent improvement in the amount of territory covered with gas pipelines. Medvedev announced in 2009 that all Russian regions should have full access to natural gas by 2015. Time is clearly running out.

But even if the pipelines had been constructed in Peno on schedule, most of the villagers, whose monthly incomes average some 8,000 rubles ($290), would not have been able to afford to install gas in their homes.

“For pensioners like me, it’s too expensive,” says Tamara Nazarova, 84. Like the majority of people in Peno, the only time she uses gas is when she cooks with disposable gas canisters.

Just to get gas piped to their houses, villagers have to pay between 25,000 rubles and 55,000 rubles ($900-$1,970), depending on the distance between their house and the closest pipeline. The price rises to up to 200,000 ($7,200) when you add the cost of radiators and other equipment needed to heat a house with natural gas.

The figures are repeated across Russia, where the costs involved in gaining access to energy networks are generally much higher than in the West. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in July that prices were “40 times higher than in developed countries.”

Peno village head Vladimir Khudyakov believes, however, that a lack of money is not the main obstacle to the mass gasification of his village.

Drawing a scheme of a gas pipeline on a sheet of paper to explain how it all works, he says many locals just “cannot believe” that more and more pipes in the village will soon be full of gas. As a result, he says, they are reluctant to take the plunge. But, he admits, prices “are high.”

As for Sakharova, who has somehow managed to collect all the documents necessary to get a government subsidy to install gas in her house, Khudyakov promises that her dream of gas heating will come true “within the next ten days.”

But the pensioner herself doesn’t seem particularly confident she will live to see the promised gas. “At least my grandchildren will be able to use it,” she laughs.

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