Russians keep their cool in the cold No sweat: The temperatures may plummet, but Muscovites won't even lower the earflaps on their fur hats.

February 03, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Tell a Muscovite that a lot of Maryland school districts closed yesterday morning with less than 2 inches of snow on the ground and he'll laugh as if it's the punch-line to a how-many-Americans-does-it- take-to-screw-in-a-light-bulb joke.

In a city where forward progress in any endeavor -- from making a left-hand turn to registering for school -- is notoriously complex, the storied Russian winter is just no big deal.

Sub-zero temperatures are actually considered healthier for strolling your infant than temperatures that are "too warm," like 10 degrees.

The subway -- which 90 percent of this city's mostly car-less population relies on -- always runs, and besieged snow-clearers in America might take a lesson from their Russian counterparts. Streets are always cleared and passable here.

A legion of "yard-keepers" -- mostly hardy women -- sweep and shovel snow off the intricate foot-paths and courtyards of the city. The task includes cutting away huge icicles that seem to grow as long as 12 feet overnight. All this is finished by sun-up at 8 a.m.

Winter in Russia is always portrayed outside Russia as an epic struggle.

Indeed, a visitor's first glimpse of an old woman hobbling out of the snowy haze, wrapped in a blanket framing her face, teetering under a load of groceries is enough to conjure up the worst catastrophes that have befallen the Russian people.

But the poet Aleksandr Pushkin said Russians love the "mischief of dear Mother Winter." And no matter how severe that mischief may seem to those from warmer climes, it's hard to find a `D Muscovite with bitter complaints about the winter.

Winters are definitely more intense here than in the eastern United States, although a 2-foot snowfall like that of last month's blizzard throughout the U.S. Northeast would be unusual here.

Moscow sputtered on without pause last week after a foot of snow sifted down Saturday, followed throughout the week by daily sprinklings of snow and highs of just 16 degrees. This season's temperatures and the snowfall of about 3 feet so far are considered "normalno" after almost a decade of milder winters.

But "normalno" does have its tragic and comic dimensions.

Just since Nov. 1, 384 people have frozen to death within the Moscow city limits.

That's a normal figure, not any indication of a more severe winter or homelessness, says Igor Nadezdin, spokesman for the Moscow Medical Department. They died drunk.

A fatal nap

As the always officious government news agency Itar-Tass put it: "Despite constant warnings from medics, intoxicated Muscovites continue to take strolls, slumber on a bench for an hour and fall asleep forever."

For others, the colder it is, the healthier it is.

Russian mothers, who won't allow their children to have iced drinks in the heat of summer because they think it causes colds, prefer their children to play in sub-zero temperatures.

"It's the dryness," they say.

On Thursday, for example, when the temperature at mid-day was a numbing 9 degrees, Daria Azizova, 34, was unpacking her 1-year-old twin girls, Alya and Galya, out of their stroller at Chisty Prudy, a long park and pond situated down the middle of Moscow's Boulevard Ring.

She wanted them to have fresh air -- which could get to them only through the small face-hole in their snowsuits.

Their playmate, Vasya Vasilov, 2, had already been playing for two hours on the frozen pond. His mother said that on a "cold" day he'd only be allowed to play for an hour and a half outdoors.

Across the pond, philosopher and former political prisoner, Dmitry Markov, 66, was being taped for a television documentary. During a break, he shivered uncontrollably, threw back a shot of vodka and said that the even-lower arctic temperatures where he served time in Siberia for distributing anti-Soviet literature were better than Thursday's Moscow temperature.

"Because it's drier," he said.

One of the first signs of winter here is when the coat-check ladies show up in all public buildings around the end of September.

Mostly elderly women supplementing their pensions, they have a front row seat on Russian winter and society -- and they don't mind telling you about it.

Coat checks

They'll snap your head off if you try to go into a building with your coat on -- this being "nekulturni" -- which is to say, uncivilized. Also, you're not too civilized if the coat they have to hang up doesn't have a sewn-in loop to hang it with. Their response to this could possibly bring new meaning to "thrown for a loop."

At the Duma -- the lower house of parliament -- coat-check ladies Tamara, Yulia and Zina, who wouldn't give their last names, agreed on one thing: the often rabid and always entertaining nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is their most stylish client.

The man has a beautiful long fur coat, they said. And, by their estimation, he has the most incredible hats. They fell into a dispute over the description of one hat in particular: "It's cut sheepskin." "No, no. It's longer hair, like fox."

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