Russia suffers its coldest winter ever

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The Independent Online
Russia is experiencing its coldest winter for half a century. As Phil Reeves reports, it is causing chaos.

Children under 11 have been ordered not to go to school. Metal cables that power Moscow's trolley buses have frozen and snapped. Hundreds of people have been treated for frostbite and hypothermia and one person has been killed by a falling icicle.

Few nations are more hardened to hostile weather than Russia, whose deep chill wrecked Napoleon's army and kept the Nazis at bay. But even this tough country is struggling against a cold snap that has sent the mercury plunging to -32C in Moscow, freezing to death five people in one night.

There has been no repetition, officials say, of an incident on New Year's Eve several years ago when a woman had to be cut out of her frozen nylon stockings. But problems there have been aplenty. The last time the capital had such cold weather was in 1940, when temperatures hit an all-time low of -42.2C. Since then car ownership has risen, but driving skills have not. Of 25 people run over in Moscow during this cold snap, police attribute 17 to the amount of clothing worn by drivers - who can barely move behind the wheel - and the hearing difficulties of fur-hat- wearing pedestrians with their earflaps down.

Russians are no less fascinated than the British by their climate. This month the magazine Stolitsa devoted an article to the subject which included the claim that in the winter more people die in their cars having sex. This, the author alleged, is because they leave their engines running to keep warm, killing themselves with carbon monoxide.

More plausibly, the magazine also revealed that the women who run Moscow's street stalls wear up to four pairs of underpants to keep out frostbite. One of the products that the women were selling yesterday was ice cream, which Russians eat in any weather, despite their conviction that cold drinks give you a cold. While they continued to work despite the weather, so did the widely loathed traffic police who carried on flagging down cars for fines or bribes.

The police can expect to be busy in the spring. When the snow melts each year, they find the corpses of homeless or drunk people who are among the dozens who freeze to death in the open air. These, in the grim argot of the force, are known as "snowdrops". This year is certain to be no exception.