Cold wind of capitalism whips around the 'babushki'

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.