30 Below: Russia shivers in the big freeze

As the mercury drops to record lows, cash machines have frozen solid and trolleybus cables have snapped. Russians are finding that ordinary life has been put on ice. By Andrew Osborn

The elite guards who keep a stock-still vigil beneath the Kremlin Wall at Russia's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are not supposed to show emotion or so much as a twitch. But yesterday, as the mercury broke through the -30C barrier, one of them, encased in an open-fronted glass sentry box, looked embarrassed as a commanding officer cleared frost from beneath his nose before de-icing his beetroot-coloured ears.

His colleague emitted an unhealthy cough, sending a plume of grey breath into the freezing air before sharing a black joke about the weather with a superior. Military protocol and many other things in Russia were put on ice yesterday as the country shivered in the lowest temperatures for half a century.

Red Square in Moscow seemed more cemetery than parade ground. No more than 30 brave souls could be spotted traipsing across its treacherous icy cobbles. The busts of famous Communist leaders stared eerily across the deserted plaza while beneath the Kremlin, the Moskva river was frozen solid, snaking like a white ribbon through a megalopolis more reminiscent of Gotham City than Europe's most populous urban area.

Cash machines along Tverskaya, Moscow's main thoroughfare, were frozen solid, the city's small army of cranes was motionless, and lifts were shut down in many apartment blocks. The overhead cables for the Soviet-era trolleybuses snapped in the brittle cold, and people listening to personal stereos looked on bemused as their earphone wires transmogrified into stiff television aerials on contact with the outside air.

With the temperature in Moscow fluctuating between -32C and -28C and set to plunge still further, even the city's stray dogs headed for the only sensible place to be for those with no fixed abode - underground. The metro and the city's maze of underpasses were awash with humanity yesterday. Homeless drunks, their faces scarred by the cold and alcohol, crowded into dark, warm corners, pulling heavily on filterless cigarettes while periodically gulping down cold beer. Mongrels curled up on underpass steps and begging babushkas stood swaddled like newborn babies against the wall, their faces barely visible.

Russians revel in their famously cold winters but the temperature in Moscow is currently 20 degrees below the seasonal norm and the mercury has not finished falling. Some forecasters predict that, in the weeks to come, the temperature could begin to approach that of the Russian capital's coldest winter, in 1940. On that occasion the thermometer went just beyond -42C. Temperatures yesterday were the lowest recorded for 19 January since 1927, meteorologists said. So far, this year is the coldest since the winter of 1978-79, when temperatures dropped to -38C. Today is forecast to be its coldest yet, possibly going beyond the -33C threshold.

That it is -50C and even -58C in far-flung parts of eastern Siberia in the Asian segment of the country is nothing new. What is unusual is that Moscow, St Petersburg and huge swaths of European Russia have come, in the past few days, to resemble the Arctic. Despite its enormous reserves of oil and gas, the country is now stretched to capacity merely keeping itself warm and illuminated. Europe, dependent as it is on Russia for much of its energy, has also felt the pinch as electricity and gas earmarked for export has had to be diverted to the domestic market. Gas deliveries to some European countries such as Hungary are reported to be 20 per cent down and yesterday the Russian authorities warned that they might be forced to cut the electricity supply to Finland by one third. Demand for electricity and gas across the world's largest country is currently at its highest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Many "non-essential" businesses have had their power cut in Moscow, which is consuming up to 40 per cent more electricity and gas than usual. Newspaper kiosks have had their lights switched off, Moscow's famously glitzy neon billboards are shrouded in darkness, and even some of the smartest casinos have been forced to tone down their extravagant Las Vegas-style external lighting.

It is beyond doubt that Russia is only just coping with the freak weather conditions. Viktor Khristenko, the Energy Minister, revealed yesterday that the country had already started dipping into its own strategic energy reserves, the precise quantity of which is a closely guarded state secret. Last night tens of thousands of tons of coal and diesel fuel was on its way to St Petersburg, where the air temperature was a bracing -29C. Newspaper headlines had something of the apocalyptic about them, with some drawing comparisons with the Hollywood film about global warming, The Day After Tomorrow. "Crescendo!" screamed the daily Vremya Novostei, referring to the fact that the cold snap was set to get worse and last until the end of the month, while the sober Vedomosti business daily led with an unusually sensational headline: "The country does not have enough gas." However, the general atmosphere was more carnival than funeral. For some Russian men the extreme cold was an opportunity to flaunt their macho credentials and prove that they were mujiki (real men).

Russians take pride in the fact that their harsh winters defeated both Napoleon and Hitler and believe they are better equipped physically to survive extreme cold than foreigners. They even have a dark, joky saying about it: "What is good for a Russian spells death for a German." Yesterday, the feast of the Epiphany in the Russian Orthodox Calendar, was the perfect excuse for them to show off.

A ceremony called the Blessing of the Water is supposed to symbolise Jesus's baptism in the river Jordan. After cutting holes in the ice with chainsaws, the faithful plunge in for a few heart-stopping seconds before downing a shot of cognac. The ritual is supposed to wash away the sins and improve the body's immune system.

Doctors this year advised extreme swimmers, who call themselves morjy or "walruses" to stay at home because of the extreme temperatures. "It is categorically not recommended to drink liquor before swimming," a government official was quoted as warning. "After swimming ... it is all right to drink to warm up, but not vodka - 100g of cognac, since it quickly warms the blood."

Few paid any heed. Russian TV was awash yesterday with men in tight Speedos standing around on the ice extolling the virtues of taking a dip at -30C.

If they didn't feel the cold, some sections of Russian business did. Those working in fast-food trailers had to shut up shop. Restaurants and bars also saw custom fall away as people opted to stay at home in the warm.

Many, however, complained it was too hot. Soviet-era radiators were not fitted with thermostats and therefore cannot be regulated and are notorious for emitting fierce industrial heat. Moscow's metro was one of the few organisations to benefit. Crowded at the best of times, with nine million people using it daily, yesterday it was even busier. The authorities said that the extreme cold had given them a further half a million passengers.

Bizarrely, ice-cream makers were also doing a roaring trade. Ice-cream in deepest winter is a favourite Russian treat, and the sub-zero temperatures meant they could turn off their freezers, thus removing one of their biggest overheads. "The walls of the cold rooms where we keep the ice cream have frozen over, allowing us to minimise electricity use," crowed Valery Yelkhov, the head of the Russian Ice-cream Makers Union. "We're saving cash."

But the icy weather was bad news for pollution. With many industrial enterprises still located in the centre of Moscow, plumes of grey smoke hung in the air for much longer than usual and visibility was poor.

Meanwhile, reports that zoo keepers across Russia were fortifying their animals with alcohol proved controversial. Moscow Zoo, which frowns upon the practice, condemned other zoos, saying that they must be run by "uneducated" people and pointing out that imbibing vodka in such a freeze actually makes people and animals even colder.

A quasi-patriotic fit of rationing also appeared to grip the country. The nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky told the nation to turn off their fridges and store food products on window sills instead. His colleague Aleksei Mitrofanov MP boasted that he had stopped ironing his trousers. "Turn off your iron and save the city," urged the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda above a list of the most electricity-hungry appliances.

Some commentators remarked that the Russians had finally become like the British and could talk about nothing else but the weather. Indeed, many conversations seem to now end with the predictable: "Don't freeze!" It's said semi-jokingly, but the weather has been the cause of serious human tragedy.

Since the Siberian cold front descended on European Russia at least 31 people have died, many from exposure. Two more people died yesterday as yet another minibus plunged through a frozen river. In separate incidents, five other people were reported to have frozen to death overnight on Wednesday. Many of the victims were homeless or drunks and Moscow's infamously intolerant police have been given orders not to drive them from the metro stations where many seek shelter.

A total of 116 people are reported to have died of exposure since October in Moscow alone. If this is what a cold snap can do to Russia, a country inured to harsh winters, one can only wonder what it would do to Western Europe or the United Kingdom.

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