Icy Moscow lowers its earflaps Record cold causes traffic cops to lose cool in passing cars

December 17, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The fearsome traffic police have lowered their earflaps, ordinary people are starting to quote Winston Churchill and 17 Moscow pedestrians were hit by cars in one day.

This can mean only one thing: The temperature has gotten cold enough that even Russians are noticing it.

Early yesterday, temperatures ranged from 19.8 degrees Fahrenheit below zero in the center of Moscow to minus 25 on the outskirts, breaking the record for Dec. 16. The old record of 18.4 below zero was set in 1902, according to Russian weather officials. December is usually considered balmy, with seasonable temperatures ranging from highs of 21 to lows of 9.

But no Russian worth his vodka (guaranteed, by the way, to ward off a chill) will be deterred by a mere thermometer. Outdoor ice cream stands operate as usual, and many people like to quote Winston Churchill, who purportedly observed after a winter visit here that no one could ever defeat a people who eat ice cream on the street in below-zero temperatures.

Traffic police keep standing in the street for eight-hour shifts, striking terror in the hearts of drivers who fear a black-and-white stick will point in their direction, forcing them to stop and embark on negotiations that can only end in money changing hands, through a fine or bribe.

The kind of traffic policeman who can stop a speeding car, while on foot, by pointing a stick, is the kind of man who doesn't like to make concessions to human frailty, like lowering the earflaps on the traditional Russian hat. So when the cops lowered their flaps yesterday, everyone knew it was cold.

"The men who stand out in the streets are allowed to put the flaps of their hats down when the temperature gets below minus 20 centigrade [4 below zero Fahrenheit]," said Alexander Mantsevich, senior inspector of the Department of Propaganda for the Moscow GAI, as the traffic police are known. "But they can never leave the street in any weather."

He advises the frozen gaishnik, as traffic policemen are known, to stop a car and hop inside for a few minutes. "And then you go back on the street because the working day lasts for eight hours and you cannot make it shorter because the weather is playing tricks," he said.

He also reported that 17 pedestrians were hit by cars Monday, when the temperature was minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Drivers can't move because they have so many extra clothes on, the windows are frozen and they can't see anything," Mantsevich said. "The pedestrians put their collars up and flaps down and are so wrapped up they can't turn and look for cars. They can't see anything when they're crossing the street."

Many pedestrians make it a habit to walk in the street all winter long, so they won't be killed by falling icicles.

City officials reported that one person has already been killed this year by falling icicles, which are enormous and hang from the roofs of most tall buildings. Several people are killed and others injured every year.

About a dozen people have reportedly died from exposure in Moscow over the past few days. And there are other, hidden, dangers.

Couples, who have few places to tryst in a country short on living space, leave the shelter of bushes in cold weather and get into cars, parked in garages, for sexual encounters, according to the Moscow magazine Stolitsa.

Many people leave their cars in garages all winter. Others bring temperamental batteries inside every night. Truck drivers, who have to work, are often observed applying blow torches to frozen fuel tanks. They light fires under their engines to get them started.

"I never drive my car in frost," said Yuri Shlyachtin, an engineer. "It takes so long to warm up, you get frostbitten in the process. I prefer the bus."

His neighbor, Nikolai Slivkin, makes a living giving rides to street traders -- who stand on the streets selling in the cold. He gets up at 3 a.m. to start his car.

Valery Stasenko, head of Weather Modification for the Russian Hydrometeorology Service, can do nearly anything with weather. diverts hail in South America. He makes rain fall anywhere else but on Moscow when there's a big celebration. He has even made it snow out in the countryside to cut down on plowing costs in the city.

But he doesn't fool around with the cold.

"A human being cannot do anything about it -- yet," he said yesterday. "All you can do is switch on your heaters at home."

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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