The smell had been there for a while, but then, the podyezd always stinks. After years of living in Moscow, the smell of putrified turd, rotting flesh, or acrid vomit in the podyezd doesn't even register -- it's normal. But on the third or fourth day, as I turned the key in the lock of my ground-floor apartment, I suddenly realized that this was a different smell -- and it smelt suspiciously like gas.
The neighbors had moved out a couple of weeks back, and I'd noticed Tajik workers coming in and out and demolishing the place over the days since. But a few days before, they'd stopped coming, and that was when the smell started. I peeked through the window from the street and it seemed that they hadn't painted the place yet, so all signs were that they'd nicked a gas pipe and the place had been filling up with methane for past few days. Putting my nose to the keyhole, the smell was so concentrated that I began to worry.
Still, I couldn't really be bothered to do anything -- my time in Russia has long since massacred any desire to take personal action for the collective good. Plus, I didn't really want to call anyone official, as I suspected that their first question might be about my (non-existent) registration in the apartment. Nice to live in a country where you're more worried about cops causing problems than being exploded by a gas leak.
I thought maybe the neighbors on the other side might know what to do -- perhaps they would know who to call or how to get help. I hadn't exactly had a fruitful relationship with these neighbors, a miserable elderly couple who when I first moved in met my cheerful stairwell "zdravstvuite"s with cold, silent disdain. Indeed, the only time they'd ever deigned to communicate with me was when they slipped a handwritten note in the letterbox, with the deceptively polite beginning of "Uvazhaemye Sosedi", where they curtly wrote that: "If you continue to play music and make noise during the evening and night hours we will report you to the police."
Still, our mutual impending destruction by gas explosion seemed like a good time to make a bond with the miserable fuckers, so I put on a respectable looking shirt, combed my hair, and with some trepidation rang their doorbell. I could hear some malignant shuffling inside, but the door wasn't opened. "It's your neighbor!" I called out as cheerfully as possible. "I'm worried there might be a gas leak." There was a long pause, and then more shuffling. Clearly the prospect of being crushed in post-explosion rubble, or suffering third-degree burns that would cause lifelong facial disfigurement was preferable to them than having a conversation with me.
As I was giving up, I saw two ladies who live on a higher floor come into the apartment. They seemed friendly looking, although neither paid any attention to the acrid smell of gas. "Dobry Den!" I said brightly, hoping I might engage them in the matter of averting our impending death. I was ready to launch into my concerned-citizen act, but the two women breezed past, not hearing or not wanting to hear.
Fuck it, I thought. These things don't happen to people like me anyway. It's other people that die in gas explosions, it's probably not gas, and even if it is it's not going to explode. All will be fine. As we were lying in bed, at about 3 a.m., though, Mrs. Pahars began to get hysterical. After all, she pointed out, this was a country where in the last few days a plane had crashed, a helicopter had crashed, 60 old people had burned to death in a fire, there had been an explosion in a coal mine killing more than a hundred, and just the night before, a strip club had gone up in flames. If you couldn't even feel tits in this city without fear of burning to death, was it really wise to be sleeping just one wall away from a gas-filled apartment?
This got me worried. I decided to go online and Google "russia gas leak" to see what advice I got. Predictably this was a bad move. All the results were along the lines of: "Babies Die in Russian Gas Leak", "Yet Another Gas Explosion Kills Russians", "Sleeping Expats Perish in Apartment Gas Blast," and the like.
Suitably terrified, but too late to make any calls, we headed for a friend's house and slept on the couch. Next morning, the apartment was still there, but so was the smell, so this time I just called the fire service on 02 and asked what I should do. "Gazovaya Sluzhba. 04" barked the woman on the other end of the line. I was relieved to finally have the right number, but slightly disturbed nonetheless. 04? Why was the number so low? After police, ambulance and fire, gas leaks was the most common emergency service? This didn't bode well. What about Alcoholics Anonymous? The Domestic Abuse Hotline? The Ministry of Dill Supply? With all of Russia's problems, could the gazovaya sluzhba really merit the number one spot in the hotline pecking order after the traditional Big Three emergency services? Clearly, the threat was grave.
At this point, I'd love to tell you how, three hours later, a drunken peasant turned up, cigarette in hand, coughing and swearing, to investigate the leak. But imagine my surprise, when, a mere ten minutes later, a large van with flashing lights drew up outside, and six guys came leaping out carrying a gas detection machine. Five minutes later, they had done checks, told me it was chemicals and not gas, and departed without so much as asking for a bribe. What efficiency! So there I was, standing in amazement -- could this be the non-Russophobic sting in the tail of this story?
Well, not really. Later that day, I remembered an old Russian girlfriend, whose flat I'd come home to one day to find all four hobs on the stove lit and at full blast, despite the fact that no one had been in the house all day. "It keeps the place warm," she said, innocently. And this was a responsible young university student.
So ultimately it doesn't matter how attentive you are, or how good the response teams are. Because if you're living in a Russian tenement block, you can be 99% sure that if your neighbor isn't using their gas cooker as heating, you'll be living above, below or next to an irresponsible alcoholic who on any given day has a fairly high chance of leaving the gas on, setting himself on fire and passing out while you are safely tucked up in bed, with the result that you are never any more safe from utility-related disaster than you are from your president deciding to blow up your block to secure his presidency.