Exploding TV's -- Electronics, Soviet-Style

KIEV - The Dnipro Hotel dining hall in the center of this lush Ukrainian city features decent food, nice waiters and exploding chandeliers.

At a recent luncheon, when the elegant room was filled with well-dressed Soviet businessmen, tourists and journalists in town for a visit there by President Gorbachev, one of the big fixtures suddenly made loud popping noises, sending some guests scuttling under the tables.

Out of a huge crystal doughnut on the dining-room ceiling came a shard of plastic, burning like the tail of a firecracker. It landed a few inches from the shoulder of a Russian woman eating lunch.

A group of Americans, alarmed by the fireworks and the acrid smell of blackened plastic, paid their bill and rushed outside into the fresh air. The rest of those in the restaurant decided against such rash behavior. A group of men in dark summer suits lit up cigarettes - to wipe out the odor. And the Ukrainian woman moved her plate to a seat that was not directly under the still-smoldering chandelier.

It was an odd scene, especially because the Soviets did not seem to think it was odd at all. They viewed the spectacle wearily. There we go again, they seemed to be saying, another exploding chandelier, another electrical fixture that performs in strange and alarming ways.

The Soviet chandelier, and other Soviet appliances such as television sets, provide a kind of electrical version of Russian roulette. Some of these things work fine; some don't. Some are perfect; some are dangerous. The reasons are as complicated as the wiring inside a Soviet fuse box - a sight to be endured only by the bravest electrician.

The hotel chandelier exploded that day because light bulbs here sometimes have a flaw that causes them to stop burning not with a flicker, but with a bang. In our apartment, we first witnessed the event when we turned on the living-room light one night and it exploded, sending small triangles of light bulb all over the room. From that point on, we learned to step away from any light we were preparing to activate.

A Russian journalist explained that when purchasing Soviet light bulbs - and almost anything else made in the Soviet Union - it is a good idea to check the date it was manufactured. Items made near the beginning of the month tend to be made better than those made at the end of the month, he said.

Why? Simple Soviet economics. By the end of the month the workers are scrambling to meet their quota. If they forget a wire or two as the month draws to a close, the bulb still gets counted as newly produced - no matter how it works when put to use weeks or months later.

Bulbs that do work have a long life here that extends past their ability to shed light. Instead of being thrown away or used as a form for darning socks (a lost art in the West but still practiced here), some of these light bulbs sell in local markets for a few kopecks.

People buy these used bulbs and carry them to work. At their offices, they take out a light bulb that still operates and replace it with the dud. Then they call the plant electrician and complain: How are they supposed to work without proper light?

In this country where light bulbs are often in short supply, such a maneuver is completely understandable - you get a 60-kopek light bulb for 3 kopeks. The problem is that even the dimmest plant electrician eventually figures things out.

Some electrical problems are not simply due to the rhythms of the Soviet production line. Several years ago, one popular type of television set tended to overheat and explode, not only when it was operating for a long time but also when it was plugged in for a long time. Exploding televisions became such a problem that the Interior Ministry put out a public-service film about how to operate a television set safely.

The main precaution, the government said, is to unplug the set after use - a habit still encouraged in most hotels where, upon arrival, one finds the set with the plug noticeably draped over the picture tube. Unfortunately for foreigners, the warning is written in Russian.

The second precaution, according to the film, is when the television set is on, the area around it should be well-ventilated. This is not a problem, of course, except in the winter.

A journalist colleague recently visited a light-bulb factory in Armenia where he asked the director why Soviet light bulbs sometimes explode. The director became quite upset. His response was clear, simple and very Soviet: "Our light bulbs don't blow up," he said indignantly.

The journalist's Russian translator, who had been trained as an electrical engineer, waited until the two of them were out of earshot of the director. "Soviet light bulbs explode for one simple reason," he whispered. "They are made in the Soviet Union."

(Copyright 1991, Washington Post Writers Group)