Making spirits brrright

Moscow: A hearty people warmly welcome winter's snowy but dangerous beauty.

January 06, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - With scores of citizens freezing to death on its streets, icicles the size of tree logs crashing onto the sidewalks and pedestrians tumbling down slick sidewalks, the city of Moscow is a perilous winter wonderland.

Which is just the way most Muscovites seem to like it. While biting cold always seems to catch American cities by surprise, Muscovites welcome it as a familiar - if somewhat dangerous - old friend.

Recent winters have been messy affairs. There were alternate freezes and thaws, with little snow to speak of before January. This season is Dr. Zhivago-perfect. Snow has fallen almost every day since the middle of last month, and temperatures have remained well below freezing since mid-November. Moscow, normally brown and gray this time of year, is a sparkling white.

"This December was very unusual," said Gennady Yeliseev, deputy director of the Russian State Committee on Meteorology. It was only the third December on record when temperatures never rose above freezing. Now the forecast calls for temperatures to slip to a bracing minus 12 tomorrow, the Russian Orthodox Christmas. And the rest of the month is expected to be unusually cold.

Russians don't find this particularly alarming. Winter only slows life but never stops it. Cross-country skiers slide through wooded parkland, and ice fishermen flock to the Moscow River, where they swig vodka and angle for chemical-resistant fish. Theaters, museums and circuses are crowded.

Even swimmers are undeterred. In Moscow's Timiryazev Forest park last weekend, passers-by watched two men chop a hole in the ice covering a pond, strip off their clothes and jump in. On New Year's Eve, with temperatures about 15 degrees, revelers descended on Gorky Park. A few hardy souls rode the giant Ferris wheel, and others zipped around in a roller coaster resembling a green dragon - throwing off sparks and generating a wind chill factor too cold to contemplate. (The amusement park has never closed for weather.) Ice skaters spun around the park's labyrinth of paths, and children careered down a slide made of blocks of ice.

Gorky Park Deputy Director Ludmila Kozlovskaya said parents don't usually bring toddlers or younger children to the park in biting cold. But last week, crowds of children showed up for festivals and events - including a visit with Ded Moroz, Russia's Father Frost. A hardy 1,000 to 1,500 visit daily - no matter the cold.

Moscow's zoo has never closed because of cold. One zoo worker recalled Jan. 1, 1979, when the temperature dropped to a record minus 40; a family showed up and eagerly roamed the exhibits. The family had traveled from the Yakutia region of Siberia and wouldn't let a nip in the air keep it from enjoying its trip to Moscow.

They know cold in Yakutia: The town of Oymyakon, in Yakutia, recorded 90 degrees below zero Feb. 6, 1933, a record exceeded only by 129 below zero July 21, 1983, in what was then Soviet Antarctica.

When the temperature drops sharply, the Moscow zoo moves indoors the animals not adapted to the cold. Thousands of Moscovites are less fortunate.

As of Friday, the new year was barely 4 days old - and 14 people had frozen to death on Moscow streets. Hypothermia has claimed 281 lives this winter, a record for so early in the season. Most of the victims are homeless men, alcoholics who die because they fall asleep in doorways or parks. Passers-by - who will rush to the aid of a woman who slips and bumps her knee - generally ignore vagrants.

The cold isn't the only killer. Falling icicles are a major peril, bludgeoning or spearing the unwary. Squads of city workers climb to the top of buildings and chop at accumulated snow and ice while others below shout and wave at pedestrians, forcing them to veer off the sidewalks into the streets - often into Moscow's wild traffic.

Side streets are more clogged with snow this winter, and sidewalks are unusually slippery. In part, that's because the city government decided to reduce the use of snow-melting chemicals. City officials say they are concerned about the effects of the chemicals on city flower beds and parks. But millions of Muscovites are opposed for less environmental reasons: The chemicals rust their cars and ruin expensive boots.

People cope because they know how to dress warmly. Some Russians break out their valenki, or traditional, knee-high felt boots in the winter. Everyone wears a hat, even if it's only a knit watch cap. Even the humblest restaurants have coat rooms.

Fashion sometimes takes precedence over comfort - or even safety. In overheated Metro cars, bundled-up Muscovites never take off their hats or unbutton their coats, apparently out of fear of appearing slovenly. Moscow's stylish young women, all of whom seem to wear extravagant furs, clomp down icy sidewalks in patent leather boots with spiked heels.

In Russia, a "Christmas frost" is a legendary early January cold snap, said Yeliseev, the meteorologist. And that's exactly where Moscow might be headed.

He seemed delighted by the prospect.

"At last, we will be able to experience what `Christmas frost' really means," he said, "about which we have heard so much but didn't have a chance to live through."

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