Russia's old remedy for cold feet Felt valenkis rank up there with nuclear missiles, spacecraft

December 25, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Russia launched the first man in space, achieved near universal literacy and built superpower weaponry, but the real benchmark of civilization for many here is the solution to the problem of cold feet.

Russians claim that nothing works against subzero temperatures like the humble valenki. The stiff, socklike felt bootees resembling medieval foot-swaddling are among the few Russian products that work and are in demand.

"Maybe nuclear missiles are the only thing Russia designed better than valenki," says Andrei Guermanovich, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Moscow State University. He keeps a pair for winter walks.

But the beloved valenki could be dying out, as a long line of disappointed customers found out recently when a local factory's supply was nearly sold out after the first snow of the season.

"If the traditional footwear dies, it won't be because there's no demand for it," says Viktor Timoshenko, manager of the Horizon company, which owns three former state-owned valenki factories Moscow.

He says it will be because in Russia's serious cash crunch, the factories can't get the credit to finance production. With interest rates of 60 percent, factories can only afford to produce valenki for immediate cash.

It's a sad state for the footwear that survived almost unchanged for centuries as an icon of Russian winter culture.

The babushka, Russia's stereotypical grandmother, wouldn't be a babushka without the clumsy gait produced by a stiff pair of valenki.

Ice fishermen, the solitary figures who dot the rural winterscapes across Russia, wouldn't stay warm long enough to hook a fish without them.

Arctic explorers, traffic officers and farmers swear by them.

A pair of cute little valenki figures in every Russian childhood, their muttony smell of warm, damp wool a nostalgia-trigger throughout life.

All servicemen have been taught the old art of tying insulating cloth on their feet before stepping into regulation-issue valenki.

And every Russian knows this one famous verse from a 1940s Russian love song: "Valenki, Valenki, with holes, old ones. If I fixed them I'd be able to visit my love."

The traditional felt boot has no sole. It is boiled, pounded and baked wool formed into a seamless kind of sock a quarter-inch thick. With a natural, heather-brown color, it is worn directly on the dry snow of freezing Russian winters. Short galoshes are often pulled on over them when slush forms because the felt is not waterproof.

Purists object to the "boot" label, insisting that "valenki" is a concept all its own. They don't consider city-style valenki produced with permanent rubber soles and selling for about $18 to be the real thing. Rubber soles, they say, shatter at minus 22 degrees -- a warm day in Siberia.

Valenki's World War II role

And in Russia, where all things native are treasured now that imports have invaded the marketplace, Russians even praise valenki for their heroic impact.

"Valenki really saved the world during World War II," says Timoshenko. While Germans froze to death, Russians in standard-issue valenki kept warm, he says. As a young valenki factory worker, he heard old-timers' tales of recycling used valenki that came straight from the war front.

"The sheep's biological aura affects a person's health positively," says Tatyana Skuba, director of Horizon's central Moscow plant. "People who wear valenki report that arthritis pain disappears, they have fewer colds and better blood circulation."

"The natural sheep wool is really healthy and really warm. There's no comparison with boots," says Svetlana Novosyolova, 54, a bookkeeper-turned-farmer selling her carrots in the 20-degree temperature of the Danilovsky outdoor market last week.

She wouldn't consider standing like that in anything but her $70 handmade valenki, she says. Other vendors in fancy-colored synthetic imports dance around trying to keep their feet warm.

Soviet-era production

During the Soviet period, millions of look-alike valenki were produced to excess by state factories in accordance with five-year economic plans.

"Our three factories used to produce 1.1 million pairs in 1990. This year we'll only produce 150,000 pairs," Timoshenko says.

Most valenki production in the Soviet era was for the military. But the impoverished military has ceased to be a buyer, falling back on its excess stocks of valenki it was forced to buy under the Soviet economy.

Now producing for civilians only, Horizon's three plant directors are at odds over how to solve their problems.

There will be a constant, if not growing, demand among civilians hTC for valenki, they all agree. But meeting that demand would be impossible without investment, and just how to attract investors is the question.

Timoshenko says Ukrainians in Canada have bought small quantities of valenki purely out of nostalgia. But he seems puzzled why he hasn't seen any American interest, given the U.S. craze for L. L. Bean and Eddie Bauer-style outdoorwear and natural fibers.

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