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The 5 Stages of Enduring a Russian Winter

Moscow Narrative
by Jonathon Engels Jan 23, 2014

I never thought Moscow would find me wanting for snow. November had teased with light dustings, hardened puddles of ice forming an obstacle course for the neighborhood Metro station. In late autumn, sporadic inch-thick blankets would melt in the day, either disappearing by the walk home or freezing into perilous slicks.

But this was not what I’d expected: It was nearly Christmas and not even one blizzard yet.

Stage 1: Fearing the drop

Most of the summer, I’d worried over the Russian winter beating me into submission. My guidebook said temperatures would drop in late October. By the end of November, it would be full frost. It didn’t warm up until April or May.

Family and friends had mocked my wife Emma’s and my decision to spend the better part of the year here. “You’re going to freeze.” In September, new colleagues and students continued to stoke my fears, quoting bottomless temperatures, recounting tales of people freezing to death. Grimacing at the thought of winter, they’d sum it up with the simple affirmation: “It gets cold.”

Soon, things began to change. The market merchandise turned thermal, shoppers preparing for the polar drop. Our landlord replaced our apartment windows with new energy-efficient models, explaining, via charades-style shivering, that these would be better. The heating — tenants don’t control their thermostat — kick-started far too early, making our apartment unbearably hot. “Just open the window,” we were advised.

One student bought me a valenki, traditional woolen boots stuffed in galoshes. On my birthday, the local staff had given me an ushanka, those trademark hats with fluffy ear flaps. The gestures seemed half gag, half warning.

Stage 2: Waiting out global warming

Decisively, all pedestrians took on precautionary measures. Furry head gear became standard. Bodies grew plump from puffy jackets. When Emma and I didn’t prepare accordingly, our coworkers hounded me about getting her a thicker coat. “She doesn’t have padding like you,” they joked. Finally, our Russian “Director of Studies” offered to bring in an old coat for her.

The temperature settled just below zero and hung there like the calm before the deep freeze. I was feeling disappointed. All my worry had been for nothing. I checked the weather, hoping for snow forecasts, impressive chills to write home about. Some part of me, the part not celebrating the fact I wasn’t freezing my ass off, felt cheated, like Mother Russia was taking it easy.

I visited my first Russian bath in November for an office party. I’d learned, between sauna sessions, that people go outside to roll bare-chested in the snow. Sometimes, they cut holes in the ice and jump into frozen lakes. “All men do it,” my class told me, big smiles. They assured me there would be fresh powder. But an unexpected heat wave reduced the landscape to large patches of slush, not enough snow for proving my manhood.

That’s how it continued through December: I sat, a week before Christmas, all mitten-ed up and no snow to throw. I looked to those fear-mongering students and coworkers for answers, but they only shrugged, changing their catchphrase to “global warming.” I didn’t know if they were serious. Every now and then, students would give me meteorological assessments, like small doses of hope: “I think it’ll happen this weekend,” or “It always snows on my birthday.” They even seemed to be getting impatient.

Stage 3: The first snow

The Sunday before our Christmas (in Russia, “Christmas” is on New Year’s or, if you’re Orthodox, in mid-January), I left work in a flurry. Having never lived where people expect snow, I always imagined the snowstorm as mystical, crowds joining hands, a Whoville-type chorus.

Going home, snow pelted my face, making it impossible to behold any beauty and, for some odd reason, leaving me very aware my eyebrows were wet. I wrapped a scarf around my face, pulled down my hat, and walked with my shoulders raised, my head sunken into them.

Inside, I stripped off layers as fast as my fingers could thaw, left my boots by the door, finally crusted in white. I turned on the kettle and sat at the window, safe and warm behind new energy-efficient glass. The wind came in bursts, twirling snowflakes in the gusts. The lake across from our apartment, the highway, the parked cars, trees, fields — everything became a monochrome impression of itself.

I couldn’t wait for Emma to get home. She would understand my sense of victory over those people who’d laughed. We had snow!

Stage 4: Sledding

It came down every day that week. The streets hid under sheets of white, the parks covered over. The roads and sidewalks were shoveled free, snow-blown, and plowed.

By Thursday morning, I broke down and bought a cheap plastic sled, bright red. I had my first few goes amongst a group of toddlers on fancy wooden versions. Dads would push them down the hills; moms would cheer them on from the bottom. Emma took pictures of me, the only adult participating in the fun.

I told my students about my new toy. One of the boys, Alex — completely fluent, with an impeccable impression of Russians speaking English — looked at me surprised. “Really?” he asked, a tone implying that might be okay for children, but…had I at least done it bare-chested?

Emma and I began sledding late at night, after the children were gone. With waiting cans of beer buried in the snow, we’d take turns seeing who could glide the farthest.

Stage 5: Four months later

I walked to school again in “a low snow drift”. It’s been going on all week. There’s frozen dog shit everywhere. Snowmen are eaten away with yellow streaks. My eyebrows are soaked. Enough already.

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