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Far East Russians shiver and work to survive

Wearing a fur hat and a winter coat, 82-year-old Alexei Sanin sat down to eat his sandwich in his kitchen _ fully dressed as if ready for a subzero outing in this forlorn village in Russia's frozen Far East.

"He sleeps dressed this way, too," said Sanin's daughter, Lyudmila, who tries to keep their apartment warm with wood stolen from the nearby tree-covered slopes of the Siberian taiga. "Old people are always cold."

So are many other people in Fabrichny and surrounding towns, where bank tellers and doctors in polyclinics sit next to heaters wearing as many warm things as they can put on. After work, they go home, turn on heaters, but never take off clothes.

Every winter, tens of thousands of people brace for the biting cold and fierce winds that sweep the Primorye region on Russia's Pacific Coast. They're victims of Russia's failure to restructure the formerly centralized energy system, make repairs or simply prepare for winter.

This year's heating crisis, which began in October, affected some 60,000 residents in nine villages and towns throughout the Primorye region at its peak. In November, a spokeswoman for the utility Dalenergo, Nadezhda Okovitaya, said regional coal supplies were only about 40 percent of previous years' levels.

Fabrichny is among the hardest hit. The local ore plant, which used to smelt half of all the tin in the Soviet Union, has been almost dead since 1996, and local authorities have been unable to purchase enough fuel to keep the village's heating plant operating because of a lack of funds.

The crisis has forced tenants to come up with old-style solutions to survive the frigid winter, with temperatures that plunge to minus 22 degrees.

In some Far East villages, residents have installed wooden stoves _ clumsy, rusty metal boxes on four legs with flue tubes leading to a ventilation slot. The appliances also came in handy in the years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and during World War II.

"It's been around for three years," said Alexander Sidorov, a retiree bundled up and huddled near his stove.

"I come home from work, feed my disabled father and go out to saw wood," said Lyudmila Sanina, a cleaning worker at the tin factory. "It's hard to carry it because my leg aches."

Sanina and her daughter, who cares for her 1-year-old baby, take turns sawing the wood and then hauling it up to their apartment on the fifth floor.

The stove warms the main room well in the daytime, but the apartment cools off at night and the baby often coughs.

Sanina illegally cuts the wood because buying it is too hefty a burden on the family budget.

Olga Yakuba, an insurance agent, spends $43 to purchase wood every month from November to May. The sum amounts to a third of what she and her husband earn monthly.

"I'm at a loss for words," she said, complaining that because of a lack of hot water, she has had to bathe at a relative's bathhouse. "This is bad beyond limits."

Emergency workers who are battling to connect homes to central heating are called heroes. They thaw off frozen pipes with gas torches or replace the burst ones in biting frosts. But the work is stalled by extremely worn-out pipes inside the buildings and underground. Frozen, they burst when the hot water that is used to circulate the heat comes in.

But the emergency troops left Fabrichny and the other two villages on Monday, saying they were done with the bulk of their work. Residents went sour on hearing the news.

"We have been left to the mercy of fate," Yakuba said.