In the land where winter survival begins in July...

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The Independent Online
RUSSIAN winters do not take prisoners. Their bleak, unforgiving cold defeated the best that Hitler and Napoleon could throw at them, and today, as the country's financial storm intensifies, they add another familiar, but still bitter element to the battle for survival for millions of Russians.

They have learnt the hard way, and from their earliest days they have spent July and August in a frenzy of pickling and preserving to help them get through the coming months of cold.

But there were times when they at least had something to fall back on. Under Communism there was central planning. It wasn't something one necessarily relied on, but for all its ills it provided the outer provinces with a minimum of energy and food, brought in at vast expense by the Red Army from across the Soviet Union. The advent of a free market, and the budget austerity that came with it, caused the system to crumble and provided few workable alternatives. Power cuts, unpaid wages and meagre rations were firmly put on the menu.

Today, with a virtually bankrupt state and a currency worth next to nothing, ordinary Russians will have to work harder than ever to ensure that they can eat this winter. The price of food imports has reached unprecedented heights, and the state has no way of paying for utilities. The choices are hyper-inflation or mass hunger and a winter when temperatures in the coldest parts of the country drop to minus 60C.

So all anyone can count on is their garden. Many city dwellers have a dacha, or country cottage, with a vital plot of land where every millimetre has a practical purpose. And in summer, instead of bathing in the rivers or picnicking under birch trees, Russians cram cucumbers into jars of brine or vinegar, along with oak leaves, home-grown dill and horseradish root.

Berries are boiled into jam that can be spooned into tea to cure the most vicious colds. Whatever grows is stuffed into a jar for the months ahead. Whatever is not eaten is sold at street corners or used as barter for anything from clothes to a dental appointment or a spare part for the car.

Even on a much larger scale, barter is widely seen as a substitute for cash, with workers paid with goods they produce and which they later sell for cash or exchange for something else.

But food is much easier to store than electricity. Once the pickling and stewing is out of the way, it is almost time to start gathering fuel and insulating windows. October heralds the tearing of sheets, which are stuffed in the gap between window and window-frame and secured with thick tape, not to be reopened until April or May.

In a radio address last November, President Yeltsin, while promising he would soon end the energy crisis, still praised "the good householder" who, preparing for winter, "seals every crack in his home so as not to warm up the street".

They undoubtedly will need to this winter, for fuel could again be in short supply - as last year when in the Far Eastern region of Primorsky, the local power plant used a fifth of its winter coal supplies in the second week of September, and, in Vladivostok, some apartments had no water for more than four months. In almost every kitchen outside the largest cities, the walls are lined with buckets, filled to the brim in preparation for the next water shortage.

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