MOSCOW -- The U.S. Embassy plans to set up letterboxes and billboards in Moscow hotels and offices to help foreign citizens keep in contact with each other if the Y2K bug knocks out Russia's communications systems, a U.S. diplomat said Tuesday.
The embassy planned to send its staff's family members out of the country over the New Year's period, and urged the estimated 10,000 American citizens living in Russia to leave in case the "millennium bug" caused havoc. The bug threatens to shut down or cause a malfunction in computers that cannot recognize the year 2000 on their internal clocks.
Russia is considered one of the countries least prepared to handle problems that could result from certain computers' two-digit chronometers mistaking the year 2000 for 1900.
Even under the best of conditions, Russia's telephone system is quirky and even crosstown calls can require shouting. If computer problems shut down the phones altogether, foreigners might need the drop-boxes and bulletin boards to communicate.
"Deep down inside, I hope a lot of people go home," the U.S. diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Diplomats said the Y2K bug was unlikely to cause life-threatening situations in Russia, but could make life uncomfortable, particularly if the hot water that heats most apartments goes off.
Such shutoffs have become commonplace in outlying Russian towns, and locals tend shrug off the problems and tackle the situations with commonsense solutions like wood stoves and showering at friends houses.
But "Americans aren't used to going without hot water," the diplomat said.
Russian authorities have said their power grid -- a huge, complex system spanning eleven time zones and linked to other countries, will function normally through the New Year. Operators will switch parts of the Soviet-era equipment to manual controls on New Year's Eve to prevent computer crashes, they said.