Cold wind of capitalism whips around the 'babushki'

MOSCOW DAYS

Every so often, I return home from work to find nothing in the refrigerator beyond a stump of bread (kept there to avoid cockroaches), a jar of English mustard (inherited from a colleague), and some elderly pickled gherkins (another heirloom). Apart from the absurdly expensive 24-hour supermarket, the local shops have closed. It's time to visit the old ladies.

They usually sit near the street corner, wrapped in scarves and old coats, by the entrance of a dingy grocery store. Each one displays, spread before her on an upturned crate, four or five grocery items, purchased in the hope of reselling them at a small profit. My best haul comprised eight American frankfurters, a lump of wax-like Russian cheese and some unsalted Finnish butter, all for around $5 (pounds 3.25).

The last time I went to the babushki in search of supper, I hardly expected to find them: the cityscape had been reduced to a grey blur by a snowstorm. Yet there they were, huddled silhouettes in the darkness, their eyebrows crusted with flakes, scraping snow off their produce. I asked if it wasn't too cold to be outside. They shrugged, and seemed unconcerned. They needed the cash, they said. Unlike the surrounding shops and restaurants, which generally regard clients as a nuisance, they seem to have grasped the harsher tenets of capitalism.

No one knows how many old people take to selling on the streets to supplement the pension, which now averages $47 a month, but they run into thousands in Moscow alone. The handful of women who work the patch near my apartment are but a tiny fraction of the pathetic crowds of old people who stand in long, silent, lines outside metro stations in central Moscow, holding out bottles of vodka, cigarettes, loaves of bread, and dried fish in the hope of making a few roubles from a passing commuter. Nor do they stick to groceries; sometimes you see them trying to sell kittens, snakes, puppies, birds, even tortoises.

But the old women's lack of concern about the weather reflects a separate phenomenon, which seems to be peculiar to Russians. Even though Moscow now lies beneath a white covering, and even though icicles hang from the eaves, there is a reluctance here to admit that the winter - the annual five or six months of refrigerated gloom - has actually begun. "Still autumn," said my Russian colleague, Pavel, on the first day the streets were buried, several weeks ago. He looked contemptuously out of the window at a grove of snow-laden silver birches: "This is just the first snow. It will melt." After a week of more snow and below-freezing temperatures, I asked him again whether winter had arrived. "Not really," he said, sniffily, "Not cold enough."

To be fair, there were a couple of milder days after his prognosis, but his general theory has been blown apart by a set of alarming statistics, recently released by Moscow's Department of Health.

At least 25 people have frozen to death on the city's streets since the snows began, and hundreds more have ended up in hospital with hypothermia. Officials say they were drunk, a claim that becomes more plausible when you consider that the nation is engaged on a drinking binge of awesome proportions: a Russian adult now consumes an average of half a pint of vodka a day, or its equivalent.

Yet, for all their snobbery about what is and what is not Real Winter, Muscovites do not let it affect their clothing. During the (real) autumn they plodded around in dismal blacks and browns, about as pleasing to the eye as the left-overs from an English rural jumble sale.

When the first dusting of snow arrived, they emerged on the streets like a parade of well-fed tabby cats, wrapped in long, sensual, morally indefensible furs. Only the Moscow traffic police maintained a doggedly autumnal posture; by tradition, they refuse to lower the ear flaps of their fur hats until temperatures reach -20C.

The anti-fur lobby has a long way to go before it wins round most Russians, who know that a fur hat can do far more to resurrect a face ravaged by bad dentistry and heavy drinking than any amount of Western cosmetics or surgery - and are willing to splash out.

Some of the coats among this array of sables, Arctic fox, raccoon pelts and minks are so valuable that they have to be transported to Moscow by armed convoy from the Far East and Central Asia. It is only a shame that, as they sit by their crates in the snow, the babushki never get to wear them.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism