This time last year, I was preparing to leave for my final semester of undergrad–study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. If you ask the average American what they know about Russia, they usually mention the same things: vodka, commies, sometimes bears, and cold. Deadly, soul-chilling cold. I spent hours searching for fleece-lined boots that also wouldn’t offend the Russian sense of style, packed a full-length faux-fur coat, and heeded warnings not to wear contacts until March as most brands will end up freezing to your eyeball.
But actually, it wasn’t that bad. Well, it was. St. Petersburg in late January is definitely the harshest cold I have ever experienced, cutting through multiple layers of clothes, numbing extremities, and burning faces. But in response, Russians take the cold seriously. The Soviets devised a massive system of “district heating” in which entire districts are centrally heated for about 8 months of the year, at heavily subsidized (read: cheap) rates to home and business owners.
The heat comes on in October and goes off in May, with the temperature itself also centrally controlled, and (as it seemed to me) usually set at “subtropical”–the only way to reduce the heat was to crack a window, a widespread practice in Russian cities that has drawn harsh criticism for decades as a sign of the system’s obscene wastefulness. All the sweaters I brought were therefore useless, because you were either outside in the elements in your jacket, or you were were indoors, where it was usually warm enough to wear a tank top if you so desired.
This is not so in Georgia, which once had a similar system installed in Soviet-era apartment buildings. In the chaos surrounding independence and the gas cutoffs in the 1990s, the central heating systems stopped functioning; it made more sense for the residents to saw out the radiators to sell for scrap.
But as many other expats have observed, Georgians as a whole seem unfailingly surprised by the onset of winter each year–which is strange, because while Georgia is not as cold as New England, there’s still usually at least some snow at various points between December and February. This perception of winter as temporary affliction rather than a predictable phenomenon that happens every year is reflected in the local approach towards heating (and road/sidewalk clearing, which is basically non-existent). Very few buildings (even offices) have central heat, insulation is extremely inadequate, and most places use gas wall furnaces, wood stoves, open-coil space heaters, and/or plug-in radiators (usually a combination thereof, as one source is generally insufficient).
While I applaud Georgia for not being as wasteful as Russia, I don’t understand why central heating (controlled by individual thermostat) doesn’t seem to have caught on in recently built or renovated buildings. I understand that it can be difficult to install in an older house, as well as prohibitively expensive–it’s cheaper to buy a space heater for about $50 and replace it every other year than it is to front the hundreds or thousands needed for central air.
But relying on several “disposable,” inefficient, and inadequate heaters is in itself wasteful, poses a constant fire hazard, and in the end isn’t even very livable. My apartment is cold, my office is cold, and even the cafes are a bit cold. My fingers and toes are almost constantly numb, and this actually makes the comparatively mild Georgian winter more difficult to handle for me than the St. Petersburg winter–proof that a problem is really only as bad as how you address it.