Like giant white serpents, two huge pipes emerge from the ground and wind their way 500 yards down Raskovoi Lane, taking over the sidewalk, arching high above side streets and gliding past balconies and windows.
This monstrosity is hated by its neighbors, but it is an essential element of Russian life: The pipes are the tip of a vast subterranean network that delivers heavily subsidized heat to every home in Moscow for just a few dollars a month.
They also are a monument to waste, inefficiency and centralization that illustrates how far the New Russia must travel to build a market-based economy. At a time when government agencies cannot even pay wages and pensions, the Moscow heating system annually consumes as much natural gas as all of France, officials say.
"All our salaries and pensions are burning up in the stoves of municipal heating stations," First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Y. Nemtsov complained shortly before he was named to his post last week by President Boris N. Yeltsin.
In Russia, central heating means something different than in the West: Here, homes, stores and offices do not have their own furnaces. Instead, Moscow's 10 million people are warmed by immense government heating plants that pump steam to radiators in every apartment, workplace and school. Individual thermostats are virtually nonexistent. The government turns on the heat at the end of October and keeps it on until early May.
The level of indoor heat is set for all of Moscow by a few anonymous administrators.
The temperatures are capricious, leaving some residents to shiver while others swelter. When Muscovites get too hot, they simply open their windows to let the heat escape even in midwinter, giving little thought to energy conservation.
"At the beginning of winter, they wait to turn up the heat very late and you freeze," said Julia Biryukova, 20, whose balcony overlooks the exposed plumbing on Raskovoi Lane. "Then sometimes they turn up the heat so high you feel like you're in a sauna."
With indoor temperature swings of more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit, many residents would like to be able to control the heat themselves, but they acknowledge that few Russians would be willing to pay the enormous cost of conversion.
In addition to heat, the system produces some of Moscow's electricity and all of the city's hot water. Adding to residents' inconvenience, the hot water is shut off for at least a month every summer for maintenance.
Some of Moscow's new buildings are being constructed along Western lines with their own furnaces, thermostats and water heaters. But retrofitting the entire city to give people control over their comfort would cost billions of dollars.
When the system was first built in the Stalinist era of the 1930s, it was a great socialist improvement that eliminated the burning of coal and gave many residents reliable heating for the first time.
During the Soviet era, prices were kept artificially low, and heat cost only a few cents a month.
"On an individual basis, it did not make sense for a person to pay attention to conservation because we were paying almost nothing," acknowledged Anatoly A. Zhuravov, general director of the Moscow city heating agency, Mosteploenergo. "It was wrong."
Today, there are 172 heating plants serving Moscow--an average of one giant furnace for every 58,000 people.
In recent years, prices have gradually risen, but they still come nowhere close to the system's true cost: The bill for heating an average Moscow apartment is $7 a month.
The dilemma for administrators now is how to build market principles and inject economic incentives for conservation into this centralized system. Raising prices to reflect the cost of providing energy would be politically impossible when many people earn as little as $100 a month. And even if the government wanted to charge people according to their consumption, that would be very difficult: The system was built without meters to measure use.
"It is impossible to change the system overnight," Zhuravov said. "When the system was built, the idea was to economize. No meters or thermostats were built to regulate temperature."
Zhuravov is one of the rare people in Moscow with a thermostat. He keeps it in a cupboard in his office and, on certain occasions, wistfully takes it out to demonstrate how such a device would work if it could ever be hooked up.
Not long ago, his agency conducted an experiment, installing thermostats in two new apartment buildings but not in a third, identical building. The study suggested that adding thermostats to the existing system would cut energy use by 15% to 20%.
Muscovites like to complain about their unpredictable heating system as much as they do about the city's notoriously cold weather.
Based on outdoor temperatures and weather forecasts, Zhuravov's agency and one other--which operate the system together--frequently adjust the temperature of the steam from a low of 230 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 300 degrees.
But it can take as long as 12 hours for an increase or decrease to travel through the pipeline network and reach homes and offices. And, of course, when the forecast is wrong, the entire city can be too cold or too hot.
The heat also has trouble reaching buildings when the city's aging pipes are corroded or leak, leaving some residents without heat for weeks or months at a time.
Most of the ducts run underground. But when there are problems--which is often--"temporary" pipes are installed above ground without concern for appearances or the concept of property values. In neighborhoods all around Moscow, pipes like the ones on Raskovoi Lane have popped up along sidewalks to bypass rusted-out segments of the pipeline.
"There is nothing more permanent than temporary," goes a popular Russian saying, and most Muscovites are resigned to the fact that such eyesores are there to stay.
"Of course nobody consulted us," said Natalia Shevchenko, 36, whose balcony also overlooks Raskovoi's ugly twin snakes. "In the West, they discuss it. They find out everyone's opinion. But not here. We live by the Soviet tradition."