When to call the fire department in Russia

So about six o’clock this evening we got back to our apartment building from church. Sitting outside our building was one of our young neighbors who lives on our floor. I hadn’t seen him in a while and he was likewise by his facial expression a little surprised to see me. Expecting pleasantries and lots of questions as to our whereabouts these past few months I mentally prepared all of the answers only to be caught off guard by the question of “Is it your apartment that’s on fire?” I’m not sure how everyone else would react to that kind of question upon arriving home, but I immediately went into a mild panic and was sidetracked from anything I had been thinking of up until that moment.

I jumped in our elevator and went up to the third floor. I immediately smelled and could see the smoke, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from exactly. In our little corridor there are four apartments, 181, 182, 183, and ours 184. The people in 182 were already standing in the hall and asked again if our apartment was on fire. I told them I would check. Running inside I was relieved to see that everything was in order. This left two possibilities. I immediately became suspicious of apartment 181. An elderly lady lives there and constantly is cooking something. My first thought was that she had perhaps left something on the stove. I pounded on her door, but no one answered. After some investigation we determined that the smell was actually strongest by 183, the apartment right next to ours. We pounded on the door. No answer. I ran back down to the entrance of our building where two ladies who buzz people in and out of our building, (called a concierzhka) were frantically asking me questions about the situation and trying to figure out what to do.

Now I quickly learned some things in this situation. First, when the building is made entirely of concrete and there are no gas lines, the situation doesn’t necessarily warrant calling the fire department. I can somewhat see the logic in this. Outside of the contents of an apartment, there isn’t much that can burn. The walls, floors, ceilings are all concrete, sometimes covered in plaster, or perhaps some wood panels on the floor but ultimately concrete. This means that when the neighbor’s apartment is on fire our biggest danger is smoke, not necessarily having the contents of our apartment burn up. I was reminded of this when I quickly suggested to the concierzhki that we call the fire department. “Oh, it’s not going to burn the building down or anything”. How comforting. Still, I would have thought that fire is fire, and when it’s occurring somewhere that it shouldn’t and is uncontrolled, that one needs to contact the people who can bring it back under control.

I also learned that breaking and entering is basically not acceptable under any circumstances. This is, of course, a universal rule, but there are exceptions at times. But apparently the whole principle of breaking into your neighbors house if it’s on fire to put out said fire is not universal. When my other neighbor and I determined that the smoke was indeed coming from 183 I suggested getting my tools to pry off the lock and get it and put it out. Believe me, if it were my house I’d be thrilled if one of my neighbors did this. But she quickly threw cold water on this idea with a “Are you crazy? You will most certainly go to prison.” Not hot on the idea of being in a Russian prison, and not extremely confident in my own government’s abilities to negotiate my release, I quickly nixed the idea.

Back downstairs with the concierzhki I discussed with them what to do. They apparently thought I had all the answers for some reason, because they began asking me my suggestions. I couldn’t help but see the humor in the situation. Here I was the foreigner, fresh off the plane just yesterday, merely renting the apartment and I’m being asked what to do. Having no real clue as to what else could possibly be done, I simply said “Well, I’m not really sure what else to do. Usually in America if our neighbor’s house is on fire, we call the fire department.” Still not convinced this was necessary, they began discussing the option of sealing up the apartment door from the outside so the smoke wouldn’t bother anyone else. I listened philosophically to their suggestion.

All of this was happening so fast I had overlooked the idea of calling our landlady and seeing if she knew how to contact the neighbors. She also suggested sealing up the apartment, but also wanted to talk to one of the concierzhki. I handed the phone over to one of the ladies and ran back upstairs. Isaiah was past due for one of his catheterizations, and I needed to get one out of his room. When I got back downstairs she told me that my landlady suggested calling the building superintendent to get his advice. We waited outside on the street and by this time could see some smoke coming from the third floor balcony of our neighbor’s apartment. Our friends in 182, didn’t seem particularly worried, and went back up to their apartment, opened the window and smoked a cigarette. We chatted for a moment, me on the street, him looking out of the window escaping the smoke while inhaling his own.

The superintendent suggested something completely novel and extraordinary: “Call the fire department”. It took all of my restraint not to be an “I told you so.” I told the concierzhki that we were going to run out to a cafe and get some supper. I left my number for her to call me when the situation was back to normal. As we walked away I heard one of the ladies asking the other “So what’s the number for the fire department”? About a block away from our building I heard the fire truck and saw it pull in by our building. About 30 minutes later as we ate our meal I got a call, “All clear” the little voice said. We finished our supper and headed home.

Our apartment is fine. There’s a lingering dull smoke smell in the corridor outside of our apartment, and I still don’t know exactly what happened, but apparently the situation has been resolved. We’re fine, and all of our stuff is fine, so we’ll sleep well tonight. Good to be back in Russia.


  1. Our neighbor’s house was once flooded by a broken washing machine, and some friends called to ask for a pump to clean it out. I had no pump, so headed to the grocery store, where I met the neighbors in aisle 10. Assuming they were shopping because their house was now in order, I asked them if they had cleaned up the flood. Their confused looks quickly alerted me that they had not been home all evening!

    This story came immediately to mind with your neighbor’s casual, “Is it your apartment that’s on fire?” Glad it wasn’t!

  2. Glad you all came through unscathed. What’s a missionary’s life without some adventure? Ok, it’s still cause for much joy, but you know what I mean.

    I find such quirks of cultural logic that are so central to these kinds of stories to be rather endearing. When I get to talk to Paul, I plan to ask him for the stories like this that DIDN’T make it into the Bible that helped endear to him the people that he encountered. Paul has to have some great stories. “And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them,” seems a little dry. Some great things had to happen in there that just didn’t fit in a larger historical account.

  3. So extremely ordinary in this land. One day in mid-August as I was in the Metro (Moscow) I saw an elderly man standing in a corner, hand open with coins falling to the ground. It was then that I noticed the twisted contortions of his face and his body shaking.

    Beggars, especially poor pensioners, are common in the Metro. Not only is Moscow the biggest city in Europe, but more people ride the underground Metro subway in Moscow (11million+ daily) than any other city in the world. So as you can imagine beggars are a part of daily life.

    He wasn’t begging, however. The son of medical missionaries–my father was a priest and doctor and mother a nurse, I sensed a heart attack or stroke and raced to the полиция (police) cubicle in the station interchange. There the officer on duty yawned and said “somebody will report it if it is serious.” “Well, it is serious and I’m reporting it” was my reply. There was no hurry and when I left he was finally being attended to but there was still no rush although it didn’t look good. I made the sign of the cross and prayed the Orthodox prayer for the dying and later stopped in a church to light a candle and pray again for the unknown (unknown to me, but certainly known to God) old man.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s