VOZHEGA, Russia -- It's 13 below again and Elka is blowing off steam, warming up whole neighborhoods in this snow-bound and cash-strapped northern Russian hamlet.
"She helps us survive," Alexander Romashov, director of the village train depot, says through a mustache sparkling with icicles.
Elka is the name railroad workers have given to a rusted, tar-black hulk of a steam engine that was new nearly half a century ago. They have taken the decommissioned train engine out of storage, welded on a system of jerry-built pipes and fired up the old workhorse to run as a stationary heating system for the village.
In these days of chronic financial emergency, when the central government can't pay pensions, workers wait months for their wages and struggling towns such as Vozhega have trouble scraping together money for coal to heat their homes, the Russian provinces are falling back on homemade solutions.
Russia's cash crisis is a subject of constant debate in Moscow. President Boris N. Yeltsin, upon his brief return to work after a six-month convalescence for heart trouble, lashed out at his government for failing to efficiently collect tax revenues and pay its obligations to pensioners and officials.
But the crisis is relatively muted in the capital and other big
cities; their local economies have the advantage of successful new businesses and wealthy banks. In the provinces, reliant on ailing factories and failing farms for revenues, officials are having to run their cities on barter and community spirit.
"Big cities like Moscow are not Russia," says Mikhail Vyeselkov, mayor of Vozhega, a village of 7,000 about 450 miles northwest of the capital. "Life in remote places like this operates according to different laws and different pressures."
His village, for example, has few money-making businesses. Many of its residents are pensioners who abandoned even more remote villages and dying collective farms for the small comfort of subsidized apartments. The only potential money-maker is the lumber business. But it hasn't developed enough to turn a profit and, in turn, pay its taxes.
Vozhega relies on aid from the central government and from larger cities in the province in order to pay its employees' salaries and to cover pensions, basic operating expenses and social services. That money is slow in coming.
As is true throughout Russia, pensions here are paid at least one month late. Only one month's salary has been paid to public employees since May. The few private employers are several months behind in paying wages.
Workers at the train depot stand in line in the freezing storage sheds for cheap meat offered by the village in lieu of cash. In a budget crisis earlier this winter, the village didn't have money to buy coal from its Siberian supplier. For 10 days, many small apartment buildings and old wooden houses were without heat.
To save money on fuel, Vozhega turned to its Stalin-era fuel-economizing steam engine, which was moved out of storage in September to the edge of the village. A crew of 12 men works outdoors in the freezing weather, enveloped in a cloud of steam from leaky pipes, to keep it running around the clock. It heats a laborers' hostel, 18 apartment buildings, four city-owned businesses and a handful of small stores.
As they always have, Vozhega citizens depend on the kindness of their neighbors.
"In small places like this, people are more kind. They're less interested in money," says Lizabet Tolstikova, a 74-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives in a tiny two-room apartment that is subsidized by the village government.
She lives on a pension of 372,000 rubles a month, the equivalent of $69. She is never sure whether it will be paid from one month to the next. Sometimes her former students bring by a sausage, some fruit or jam made from a lovingly tended garden. But she considers herself lucky. So far, she has no major medical problems. While health care is still free in the village, medicines are not.
"I'm not afraid," Tolstikova said. "I worry about the young people. They're not working. They're not producing. We old people have lived our lives. What will happen to them?"
In the provincial capital, Vologda, a three-hour drive south through frozen expanses of pine forests and marshes, the city government is forced to collect taxes in goods instead of cash. One hard-pressed factory paid in cloth, which the city made into bedsheets for the local hospital. Another pays in furniture.
In turn, the city will pay in those bartered goods -- optical equipment, tires, cloth and other products -- for the natural gas it buys for the electricity and heating needs of its 306,000 residents.
Salaries for city workers, including teachers, doctors and museum attendants, are overdue by 2 1/2 months.
"We have vegetable gardens. We borrow from banks or more often from friends who are working," says Tatyana Naleuchin, a doctor at a Vologda hospital, who hasn't seen her salary of 500,000 rubles -- $90 -- in three months.