Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Powerless Live in the Dark




Three years ago, during prolonged blackouts in the Far Eastern Primorye region, the lights went off at the Vladivostok apartment of First Deputy Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein.


No major world leader should have to spend his evenings in the dark, reading, by candlelight, appeals from organized criminals seeking his help in grabbing control of the Chinese market (a process the Federal Security Service has accused Tolstoshein of abetting).


The first among Primorye's 13 deputy governors was understandably incensed. He phoned a dispatcher at Dalenergo, Primorye's energy utility, and upbraided her, allegedly employing many words that are unprintable in quality Independent Media publications such as The Moscow Times or Playboy.


Perhaps somebody's mother should have washed his mouth out with soap f albeit gently, so nobody would lose his temper and call in some guys named Tolyan and Spike to drub some sense into Mom. But I understand the frustration. After weeks of brownouts, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for most of the day, we are back to 1997.


The power has been out for perhaps 14 hours a day for most of the past week. It shuts off by 8:30 a.m., then finally comes back on f well, I don't know when, because at about 10 p.m. I give up and go to bed. Even when I place five candles on the bedside table, I nearly go blind trying to read.


True, when Vladivostok went through this in 1997, it was worse. The blackouts continued for months, and it was cold and dark out. I was new, but I got ove r my sissy foreigner's dependence on electricity and coped like everyone else: You cook, boil drinking water and heat bath water on a propane camp stove (there was also no hot water).


Yet in some ways, it feels gloomier now. Streetcars and trolleybuses are cut off most of the time. Although certain apartments never seem to lose their light, on one night last week, every building in my neighborhood was dark.


Worst of all, the current blackouts are professionally vexing. Dalenergo doesn't cut the lights at major workplaces, so during the 1997 blackouts we worked normally at the paper where I was employed. Now I am a freelancer, and I have to find electricity for my laptop.


After my 9 a.m. class, I can plug in at Far Eastern State University's Russian School for Foreigners, but the lights go out in the afternoon. Often I move on to the Hyundai Hotel's coffee shop. Or I hole up at a grubby Internet cafe that seems to double as a cell for cyber-terrorists trying to plant girlie pictures on NATO's web site.


In general, citizens have done little to protest the blackouts. Three years ago, when one area was without power for 23 hours a day, crowds blocked a boulevard in protest. Last Saturday, residents of a darkened area of the Churkin Cape region also stopped traffic. But they dispersed after a city apparatchik came out to hold hands and blame Dalenergo. No revolution is brewing.


What was 100 years ago the world's most radicalized populace has become the most passive, and the reason, ironically, is communism. Russians have had enough of revolution. Perhaps there is a historical maturity in this f particularly compared to a wealthier citizenry's tantrum in Seattle at last December's World Trade Organization meeting f but it comes at a price. Leaders do not fear anger on the streets. They don't even fear anger at the ballot box: Elections are too easy to manipulate.


So we are left with the spectacle of the city bosses scurrying to protect themselves from the consequences of their ineptitude. Igor Popkov, spokesman for Dalenergo, explains: "We would have applied the blackouts more evenly, but the city administration gave us a plan, and according to this plan we can't turn off certain buildings, no matter what. That is why some citizens have electricity all the time, and some don't have it for many hours." Artyom Lukim, spokesman for Mayor Yury Kopylov, replied: "Dalenergo is cutting off Vladivostok citizens' [apartments], although they are the best payers. Certainly the mayor's office places all the responsibility for the blackouts on Dalenergo."


Naturally. But the good news is that Tolstoshein can now save his vocal cords for more important duties, such as singing in the shower, berating citizens and threatening to plant drugs on local media executives (another accusation against the deputy governor; he ignores calls seeking comment on such matters). The reason: A neighbor says the deputy governor's electricity never, never goes out anymore.


Russell Working is a freelance journalist based in Vladivostok.