MOSCOW -- This may be a sign of curious perversion, but I find Russian winters rather erotic.
It is something to do with women's eyes, which are usually the only feature you can see as they wrap up against the cold in thick fur collars and hats. The eyes of Russian women flash in a quite remarkable way. The women tend to have plumply rounded cheeks, pale skin and delicate small noses, and to trudge through the snow is to experience a constant barrage of their twinkles and gleams and mysteriously penetrating looks.
It is all quite harmless, a matter of the briefest eye contact that is in no way an invitation to stop and converse, still less to plow through the layers of winter clothing to the woman underneath. But there is something more sensual, more exciting, in these bright eyes flashing through the snow than in any number of bikinis on a beach. Eyes are ageless. These bold visual challenges come from grandmothers and schoolgirls alike, from women whose waddling walk suggests an ungainly dumpling beneath the coat and from the sveltest of Svetlanas.
There is something quite magical about this. Many Russian girls, when you see them indoors, have a characteristic coloring of white skin, very pale blue eyes and wispy blond-white hair that makes them look seriously anemic. But wrap them in fur and clap a winter shapka on their heads, and the eyes suddenly blaze out fiercely, dark and strong.
Russians will tell you there is a reason for the endless celebration of Russian eyes in poetry and prose. They say it comes from the habit of tightly swaddling Russian babies, wrapping their little limbs so closely that they learn to communicate with their eyes alone, flashing invitations from the very cradle.
There are other sensual pleasures of winter. Few sensations so combine heat and cold as kissing the superchilled cheeks of a woman who has been walking in temperatures of 20 degrees below freezing. And few scents are quite so intoxicating as the freshness of a woman coming in from the cold. But the great mystery is what on earth the Russians do about this constant current of deep-frozen eroticism. The Soviet Union is officially a rather strait-laced society. Casual sexual encounters are not encouraged by the system.
Amorous Russianscannot quickly check into a hotel, not without showing the papers that say they are married. And the Soviet housing shortage is a far more effective prophylactic than any passing worries about AIDS.
Human nature being what it is, solutions have been found. One, or rather two, can take a night train to Leningrad or the Baltic city of Tallinn, booking one of the two-berth cabins. In summer, there are the river steamers, again with two-berth cabins. This can be fun. The bunks are so narrow and the train ride so bumpy that anything more than the most casual amorous dalliance requires a sense of balance and a readiness to undertake physical contortions that put the Kamasutra to shame.
But tickets for two on a night sleeper cost more than 60 rubles, or a week's average pay. Such a trip is not, therefore, a common resource. And that great standby of Western courtship, the car park, is less than attractive in a society where cars are few and the outside temperature low enough to freeze the locks, if not the passions.
From my own strolls through parks and countryside, I can confirm that the Russians are among the world's most enthusiastic practitioners of the splendid art of love-making in the open air. Indeed, in the long grass of Izmailovo Park last summer, a friend of mine was flying a kite and broke his leg when he tripped over one enraptured couple.
But a superhuman degree of passion is required for alfresco frolics between November and March, and so the perennial lovers' question of finding somewhere to be alone has a particular intensity in Russia.
Russians are not a prudish people. They could not be, speaking a language so marvelously rich in earthy jokes and bawdy oaths. So flats and spare rooms and dachas are made available and borrowed among friends almost as a matter of course. But probably the majority of young Russian single people, whether students or young workers, tend to live in hostels and dormitories, where real privacy can seldom be found.
Interestingly, there is no single Russian word that can be translated as "privacy." There are circumlocutions about the state of being alone, and the privacy of thought has to be expressed in Russian as "one's secret thoughts."
And so I was not surprised when a straw poll of those friends to whom I am close enough to ask about this sort of thing found that only one in four had not at some point made love in public, or with only a thin curtain around the bed to shield them from others in the same room.
This must mean silent love-making, I observed to one chum.
"Who needs to speak," he said, "when it can all be said in the eyes?"