Yesterday the city government turned on the heat. The heat in my apartment, as in every apartment I’ve seen thus far, is generated by radiators through which steam and hot water are pushed. As far as I know, my whole building’s system is connected, and there is no way to control individual radiators. Moreover, I am lead to believe that the heating systems for all buildings in Almaty are on one central, municipal network. Therefore, before 20 October there would have been no way for anyone to turn on their heaters, no matter how cold it got. And from now until the city turns off the heat, we won’t be able to shut them off, no matter how warm. Because there has been a nip in the air since I returned from Uzbekistan, I’m content with this arrangement. But I mention this because this year’s observance of a mundane ritual speaks to the extent to which Kazakhstan is still stuck with its Soviet legacy, and the little steps the country is taking to break free.
The central heating system is a legacy of the Soviet Union. Both the unified infrastructural system and the central control mechanism were replicated in major cities across the USSR, and each region or city had set dates on which the system was turned on each autumn and off each spring. In Almaty, this system is coal-powered because Kazakhstan, though now famous for its oil reserves, is also a major source of high-quality bituminous coal and the oil industry here was under-developed in the Soviet era. As a result of the extra coal burned to power the heating system, the air pollution is supposedly noticeably worse here during the winter. People quip darkly that the onset of winter is marked also by a dark cloud of smog hanging over the city.
I haven’t seen evidence of this blackening of the sky yet, but the logic holds. I asked why, since Kazakhstan is now also a major oil and gas producer, the city doesn’t switch to a cleaner natural gas-based system. The reason is, of course, that Almaty’s electric grid has been attached to coal plants for years now and it would be hugely uneconomical (given that Kazakhstan still has the world’s 7th largest coal reserves) to switch to a new system of electric plants.
However, one small cause for hope (the proverbial silver lining on this coal cloud) is that the municipality turned on the heat on 20 October. For decades, the city government turned on Almaty’s heat on 15 October and turned it off on 15 April. My Russian teacher says it was a certainty by which one could set one’s calendar. But October this year is a bit on the warm side, and the heat has not really been necessary. Therefore, the city exercised discretion and flexibility, responding to demand rather than diktat, and waited five days. This might seem like an insignificant act, but wasn’t this what the Cold War was ideologically all about?
Although the centrally planned economy fell demonstrably by the wayside in Kazakhstan 20 years ago, transition from the Soviet system is not yet complete and little victories are still being won.