It’s no accident that pelmeni, frozen dumplings, are a cherished national dish, created by Siberian travelers who could carry the foodstuff for weeks across icy terrain. At day’s end they could build a fire, melt a pot of snow and throw the pelmeni into the boiling water for a hot and nourishing dinner.
So a warmish December in Moscow was a real koshmar, a total nightmare, an affront to the national image and imagination. It seemed to rain more than it snowed. Fishermen complained bitterly about thin ice at their favorite fishing holes. The only reliable outdoor skating in Moscow was at Gorky Park, where long pathways were kept frozen by an expensive new underground cooling system. Shockingly, it was possible to venture outdoors hatless without risking a scolding by the elderly women who enforce common sense.
The record-setting temperatures — it got up to 39.4 degrees Dec. 27, the warmest for that day in 113 years — proved as short-lived as a winter’s day, however. (In December it wasn’t getting light until about 10 a.m.) Inevitably, real Russian winter arrived. Now life is normal, with snow on the ground, limb-threatening ice on the sidewalks and the thermometer dancing a mercurial jig around the zero mark.
Russians couldn’t be more satisfied, and we foreigners in the capital are trying to keep a stiff upper lip. Actually, that’s not so hard. A lip stays nicely frozen in place as your scarf traps your breath and turns it to ice.
If real winter sounds enticing, don’t forget that old cautionary saying, Washington: Be careful what you wish for.
The high-pressure system that finally brought the cold here has been pushing the frigid air westward, through Ukraine and on into Western Europe. Italy reported its coldest week in 17 years, and Rome got its first serious snow since 1987, paralyzing the city. In Ukraine, more than 100 people have died, most of them homeless. And in Russia, 64 died from the cold during January.
Ukrainian authorities sounded impatient with citizenry showing weakness in the face of mere weather. Viktor Baloga, the country’s emergencies minister, told his countrymen to deal with it by running five to six miles every morning and taking a bath in cold water every day.
“Take active exercise and work,” he admonished.
Russians in general are well prepared for the cold and accept it as a normal state of affairs. One winter when I was flying with a friend out of Moscow, we asked a flight attendant whether the airplane would be de-iced.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured us. “As soon as we get up a little speed the ice will fall right off.”