Currently, sunrise in St.Petersburg is around 9:40 am, with sunset at 4.40pm (again approximately), giving the residents a mere 7 hours of light per day. We could subtract an additional two good hours from that paltry remainder; when the day fades in and out of darkness at each extremity. Also, the sky-filtered greyness that comprises this fleeting sunlight may feel to some like short change, after the all-consuming blanket of extended night grudgingly half-retreats.
That doesn’t leave much for humans to enjoy; sufferers of S.A.D. must be going through the mill right now. Even my hardy contact, living a few hours North East of the city is feeling decidedly “under the weather”, an expression that takes on a whole new perspective when comparing the extremes of Russia’s winter with our own in the UK. It’s that feeling of never getting out of first gear, the one that drags you back to bed for an hour’s top-up and still delivers you back wanting more, or pulls you under whilst innocently sitting in your armchair, backed by a murmur of T.V. No, even he is feeling the relentless grey grind. As one English ex-pat described it, “These are the times that try your soul”.
Not only can it test your soul, but your body too of course, even, tragically; to terminal extremes.
I have heard apocryphal tales of a city being so frozen that the authorities effectively shut it down and sent everyone indoors; lest the population die from the simple act of just being in the street. There are always casualties, someone told me; even amongst the locals who are accustomed to the seasons around them. Someone may get too drunk and carelessly wander out to meet their demise in the grasp of the Earth’s raw elements, unbound. There are also tragedies involving massive, lethal icicles descending at terminal velocity into hapless pedestrians below; a problem exacerbated by the tendency to house the population inside towering blocks of brick and concrete where the wet run-off can freeze and perch precariously on high.
At least the temperatures around St.P are not so bad, in the most relative of terms. It’s been a positively balmy -4° Celsius, with an average of (roughly) -8° waiting around the corner as winter’s pinch reaches its nadir in the next few weeks (January and February are the worst, incidentally). That’s surprising, isn’t it? These could be English temperatures! No -30 in sight? Well, it’s down to its Gulf of Finland location on the doorstep of Europe, raising the bar (and the mercury) by a good margin. The fact that its waters remain unfrozen for ten months of the year is also one of several advantages over the White Sea ports, which it superseded historically. In spite of that good news, the record low was -35.9°C (!), but that was back in 1883 – I’m just saying.
A visitor had better be thankful for this annual freeze though, as late autumn means: rain, and early spring means: thaw, ie: grey slush giving way to mud. So, particularly for tourists, it can be viewed as a window of opportunity, whilst the locals, having enjoyed the recent holiday season; straighten their apparel and coax themselves back into the working year. You have of course, missed the party by now, decisively so. That’s two Christmases’ (counting optional Western and official Russian variations) and two New Years, with a week of holiday/celebration/events across/between them. GoEastEurope surmises the preceding highlights thusly:-
“…traditional Russian song and dance, games, crafts, food… traditional folk crafts, including nesting dolls, wooden toys, and painted boxes are sold…as well as Christmas ornaments and traditional winter-weather wear like shawls and valenki… ice sculpture, take troika rides… decorations that light up the night… New Year’s trees… Swings – replicas of those used in 16th century Russia…fur fashion shows and balalaika concerts…”. There’s bound to have been more but frankly; you missed it.
The second, ‘Old New Year’ is acknowledged, although (usually) still a working day. However this year, it’s Eve fell on a Friday (13th), so there were bound to be a few sore heads last weekend – no doubt about it.
However, a party is perhaps not what you had in mind in any case. Let’s face it – it invariably means that you have to talk to, well: “people” really. There’s still much on offer in the crispness of a winter city, whose magnificent architecture is decked with snow and ice, and its edges trimmed with frost. That’s even (or perhaps: especially?) when the crowds and festivities have gone. In mid autumn the transformation from day to night on Nevsky prospect is remarkable, with the sheer amount of illumination highlighting and shadowing each edifice in glorious contrast. Now it gets the same treatment with winter’s decor – have you ever seen a snow-blanketed classical city that looked “disappointing”? Well, being a mere 500 miles from the Arctic circle, St. Petersburg was designed to wear such trappings like a luxurious gown. The rivers and waterways freeze, the icing sugar of winter descends to dust the stonework and statues, the snow piles and the residents just carry on in furs and thick work gear. If just being there isn’t enough, if you actually want to do something; well, we can talk about that later.