Out of Russia: A liberating winter for snow-women

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - The snowflake that fell on Britain this week, causing wonder in the parks and chaos on the roads, was blamed by weathermen on icy winds blowing from Russia.

Michael Fish and his forecasting colleagues were right. The former Soviet Union is indeed experiencing an unusually chilly November, with temperatures as low as -15C, and Russians are torn between apprehension and joy at the prospect of a crisp winter, after several years of more slush than frost.

For those who put their faith in folklore, the signs of a hard winter have been there to read since early autumn: fish are said to have migrated from the northern reaches of Siberia's rivers; the first snow fell when the leaves had not finished yellowing on the trees; and the mountain ash has produced plenty of red berries for the birds.

The experts of the Moscow city weather service confirm the amateurs' assessment. Such cold Novembers occur only once in 10 years, they say, and a 'real Russian winter' is now expected.

This could bring hardship to many. Seven Muscovites have already died of frostbite - not apparently any of the growing army of the homeless, which takes refuge in underpasses and railway stations but, health officials say, drunken revellers who collapsed in the street and failed to recover their senses before the cold killed them.

Most Russians will escape such an extreme fate, but their fuel bills are steadily creeping up from the ridiculously low levels, when the Communist regime subsidised everything, to charges nearer those in the real world. That is, if they have any power in their buildings to pay for.

Vladimir and Yelena live in one of Moscow's supposedly prestigious 'wedding-cake' skyscrapers, where the temperature is not much warmer than on the street because the heating system has been switched off for what looks like being a lengthy repair. 'You would have thought they could have got the repair work out of the way in summer,' Yelena complains. 'We have all got stinking colds - we are all in a rotten mood.'

With every drop in temperature, Russia's fuel consumption goes up. The recent mild winters have masked an energy shortfall, but now power stations, which normally consume about 80 tons of heavy fuel a day at this time of year, are burning 170 tons.

And the Fuel and Energy Minister, Yuri Shafranik, has proposed that Russian coal exports be reduced, and has called for 'strict economy in the use of electricity and thermal power'.

So far the dreaded phrase 'power cut' has not been uttered publicly in Moscow, although Ukraine faces black- outs because Russia has decided to exclude it from the old Soviet electricity grid for non- payment of debts.

The Armenians, however, are even worse off: during the transport blockade by their Azeri enemies over the past four years, they have cut down all their trees for fuel, and have nothing left to burn.

Yet not everyone is glum. Many Russians, especially youngsters, are positively looking forward to a winter of deep snow, blue skies, air so cold it hurts when you breathe and temperatures so low that car tyres crack. That is better, they say, than 'English winters' of permanent cloud cover, slush and puddles.

Russia is indeed most truly Russian in winter when, according to the fairy tale, the Snow Maiden accompanies Grandfather Frost (until she unwisely falls in love and melts in spring); when the golden cupolas of the Orthodox churches glint against a white landscape and azure sky; when the old men fish through the ice and children skate, ski and build not snowmen - but snow-women (this is Mother Russia).

Dima and Masha are wildly excited. At 13, Masha remembers the joys of skating, but Dima, 7, has never done it, and is dying to get down to the Clear Pond on the Moscow Boulevard.

Some adults are happy, too. 'I cannot understand the attraction of the Tropics,' says Dasha, a stylish young translator. 'I like the different seasons, and especially winter because I can indulge my love of coats. I have lots of coats, and all kinds of coloured hats and gloves to go with them.'