Signs of Russian seasons are distinct, memorable


June 25, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- These are the days of Stalin's curse, when Moscow is covered with summer snows.

Stalin decided Moscow should be green and ordered the planting of trees. He chose a favorite, quick growing and hardy, nearly impervious to the harsh climate here.

The trees were planted all over Moscow, making it very green indeed during the short but richly savored summer. But the trees also fill the air every June with a thick, white blizzard of puffy seed balls.

Stalin's favorite greenery was the cottonwood, and Muscovites suffer dearly for his indulgence every year. All day long, sheets of the seeds -- called pukh -- swirl through the air like a snowstorm.

Parks are carpeted in white. From a distance, the grass looks as if it is covered with newly fallen snow. It blows into apartments and offices, gathering in huge tumbling tufts.

In the evening, children set fire to pieces of it, and sparkling flames float through the air.

The unfortunate cough and sneeze and suffer. Eventually, newcomers are told, the seeds stop falling and the puffballs are washed away by rain. Eventually.

Summer is the time when the city turns off the hot water. The pipes have to be cleaned, of course. All summer long, it's switched off in various parts of the city. In principle, the water is turned off for two weeks. In principle, residents will be warned before it is turned off.

"In principle" is a well-used phrase here, as in "gasoline is available, in principle." In reality, the hot water goes off without warning and stays off for a month or more, while Muscovites arrange their lives to visit one of the public baths or bathe at the home of a relative -- in another part of the city.

The seasons are distinct and memorable here. Spring is late and short. It starts at the beginning of May and ends a few weeks later, when it gets hot for a couple of months before turning into fall.

The moment spring softens the earth, people rush in great DTC crowds to the countryside. On those first warmish weekends, anyone driving outside of Moscow notices endless rows of people crafting gardens out of any piece of ground they've been able to obtain.

As soon as the densely packed, high-rise apartment blocks begin to empty out, the gardeners begin their exercise. They cover the fields for miles and miles and miles; men, women and children, digging with spades, chopping with hoes, gently dropping seeds into the ground.

They have fled Moscow for the day to grow their own food that will help keep them alive through winter.

Watching these people, who work from early in the morning until late at night, is to be amazed anew at the spectacular failure of communism. The system took a people capable of profound industry and turned them into a nation of shiftless, ineffective workers.

The most fortunate of these gardeners own dachas. For all but the very privileged, a dacha is a small wooden shack. It is unheated. It doesn't have running water -- dishes are washed at a cold water tap outside. An outhouse provides the toilet.

For Russians, the dacha offers deep luxury. Friends and family gather, and all anyone remembers later of the hard days of work are the long meals -- made satisfying by intense effort rather than the variety and extent of the ingredients.

Russians seem more a part of their landscape than Americans. Most Americans would consider it scant enjoyment indeed to work so hard to enjoy themselves in such primitive surroundings.

Russians sigh, and they talk about the air and about the walk through the woods. The difference must be the profound effect of the seasons.

The winter is so dark and so long, full of gray skies and snow quickly made filthy by the dirt of the city. Russians turn it into virtue. A complaint that your hotel room is cold is unlikely to produce the offer of another blanket. Drink vodka!

The winter passes, warmed by vodka. In summer, it is all upside down. The light is endless and the darkness of night too short. Russians drink all that warmth and sunshine in, too, exuberantly.

The signs of fall appear in September, when the roads are full of cars stacked high with sacks of potatoes.

In succeeding weekends, the potatoes give way to pickled cucumbers and pickled cabbage and homemade fruit juice.

Winter can come then. Everyone is ready.

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