In this final peek at the Russian winter (from behind the safety of my laptop), I’m scanning around for some insight into how the season is stoically dealt with by those who experience it, either as a native or a visitor.
One point that keeps coming up is the effect that moisture has upon the perceived temperature – it’s huge! Naturally we view the oft-repeated sub-zero numbers through the lens of our own experience. Here in the UK we don’t suffer similar extremes, and fellow Brits are usually wide-eyed and open-mouthed upon first hearing of just what Russia and Siberia are capable of. However, we do have a persistent cross to bear in the form of humidity – which frankly makes the highs and lows feel significantly worse than the thermometer may suggest.
It’s a cold that works its icy tendrils into your skin and bones, aggravating your joints and any associated medical conditions, so much so that visitors from dryer Northern Europe, as well as Russia, remark upon it. It can feel worse than a dryer, deeper low. Our winters tend towards slate grey curtains of half-hearted icy drizzle. Russia winters arrive like a bulldozer to freeze the lakes and rivers, blanketing urban and rural life in deep snow and ice.
On a working visit to outlying Russian sites, a fellow Brit felt precious degrees of heat being stolen from him every time he stepped out of his host’s car for a tour. Even though wrapped up, the relentless leeching continued, briefly abated by road-time where he warmed up in the heat of the car. The winter was winning: seemingly one degree up, then two down for every stop throughout the day whilst his guides plodded nonchalantly on.
“Siberia is cold” is a rule that is engraved in our Western minds as fact – forgetting of course that Siberian summers can be blisteringly hot. Similarly the ‘dry-cold’ of the Russian winter is not absolutely true, everywhere, absolutely all of the time. Whilst the scenery often displays a splendour of arid, crystalline white, clouds of ice-fog may also descend to grey-out a city or a region, reducing visibility to mere metres and rendering landmark features to dull, looming shadows. Out on the streets of this shadow world, stoic legions of shadow-people tread, bundled in excessive furs and long coats as they meander through their day. It looks extreme to us – but ‘normal’ is merely what we are familiar with, whatever side we are on.
Footage of the more extreme examples of winter excess make for interesting viewing. I’ve seen pans of boiling water tipped over balconies, with the contents landing as snow on the street below. Occasionally, gravity wins on frictionless streets of solid ice, and vehicles – like abandoned toys – slip, spiral and side-swipe their way relentlessly down urban hillsides to their conclusion, much to the dismay of dodging pedestrians and drivers alike.
In another example; opening a window to the Russian night at -48° C results in a visible breath of cold wafting in to steal 8° C of room heat in a mere 20 seconds. Washing left out on the line reduces to brittle planks of cloth, ready to be torn like cardboard.
Barriers and barricades to the cold have to be erected at every level of experience, personal or otherwise. It’s a level of cold that you simply cannot mess around with. The locals swear by fur, although modern synthetics are also available. I hear repeated reference to ‘layers’ to trap insulating air, long thermal coats, warm hats, gloves and careful choice of insulated boots, – otherwise the cold will suck the heat right out of you and into the ground. Yes, there is a tourist industry during winter (though not on the same scale as summer) – so if your are thinking of going, do plenty of safety research beforehand!
[Photo by jackiebabe]