MiR 075 My Life in Russia Stories – Chelyabinsk Winter

You’re listening to the Mark in Russia broadcast # 075, and I’m Mark.

Today I’m going to continue with my Life in Russia series and I’ll talk about winter, specifically, Chelyabinsk winter.

You really should go to my website at: www.markinrussia.com to listen to this, or at least open the page to read the show notes, regardless of where you are listening to this. The reason for this is because the show notes also include several photos to help you get a better idea about what I’m talking about. I can talk all about “Ice Castles” until I’m blue in the face, but until you’ve seen one in person, or at least a photo, you really can’t imagine one.

When foreigners think about Russia, I think that perhaps the words, “cold” and “snow” are probably among the 10 ten words that they would think of and in many ways this would be correct, but you also have to remember that Russia is really quite huge, equal to nearly twice the size of the U.S. and therefore has a lot of different climates. To be fair though, most are in the colder climates.

Well, I’m just going to talk about the winter in Chelyabinsk, since this is what I’m familiar with. The winter in Chelyabinsk is quite long, typically with some snow starting to fall in October and it can continue until April. This can vary a bit, just as anywhere else, but chances are slim that you will ever be enjoying shirtsleeve weather in any situation between these dates.

With such a long winter, it is important for most people to have a lot of winter activities that they enjoy doing, and most people do. As for me; I’d be quite happy to just hibernate for the winter. I’m not a big lover of this season. Although, I do enjoy the start of winter. The first snow in October can be both exciting and depressing at the same time. Exciting in the respect that if you are a foreigner, you know that you can wow your friends with photos of the snow covered ground in the middle of October. Depressing in the respect that summer’s memories have faded and the promise of a long hard winter now need to be confronted. I actually don’t start to mind winter until about February. By February I’m ready for it to end, but in fact, it’s just a little over halfway finished.

OK, now for some things which were strange sights for me when I came to Russia. It’s about -25 degrees Celsius outdoors (-15 F) and I would see ice-cream stands open on the street with people buying ice-cream and eating it as they walked. I mean, this would be a common sight in any city during the summer, but January? Let me explain the huge contradiction about this, and now my Russian friends will get pissed at me and not see the humor with the following, but what the heck.

Russians as a rule think that drinking or eating anything cold will make you sick. Seriously, this is Russia, the land of cold, but just try to find ice cubes somewhere, you can’t. A cold drink will often be taken out of the fridge and made to warm up to room temperature before being drunk. I mean it, you can’t make this stuff up. A Russian will think that you are a suicidal nut for drinking something cold. It’s almost as if it’ll kill you or something. This seems nutty as hell to me, and I seem nutty as hell to them when I have a cold drink, and this will never change. Of course it becomes tiresome trying to prove your point when you are surrounded by Russians all of the time and vastly outnumbered. Just drink your cold drink and don’t listen to their warnings of medical doom.

So, imagine the strangeness of seeing someone walking down the street when it is super cold and they are eating ice-cream. It’s a bizzaro place at times.

Babushki (grandmothers) never stay home on cold days. Seriously, you see these old babuskki hauling all kinds of bags through the streets and on transport. I saw these old grandmothers out shopping at outdoor markets when it was nearly -40C (-40F). Minus 40 is a unique number and one whose significance is missed by most anyone from a warmer country. The uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the only temperature at which Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same. Now I’m sure that many of you who are listening to this episode have never experienced -40 degrees. I have several times and the thing which is rather cool is that you could easily die in this weather. I will mention one and perhaps the only advantage of having the frozen babushka out and around during such weather is that they won’t sit down on the cold seats of public transport; they feel that this can kill them, so I’m able to come along and get a seat for once.

Here in many Russian cities you’ll see something each winter that if it was in the States, people would drive hundreds of miles and take thousands of pictures. I’m speaking about the “Ice Village” located in the main square of any Russian city. This village is complete with beautiful castles and buildings, animals and even Father Frost, all sculpted from solid ice.

Usually in late November large blocks of ice are cut from some of the local lakes, when I say large I mean up to about 3 meters (10 feet) X 1.5 meters (5 feet) and usually about 25 centimeters thick (10 inches). The 25 centimeters is the thickness of the ice on the lakes in late November. Anyhow, these are trucked to the main square by the hundreds and workers begin by attaching together as many as needed using additional water until the correct height, length and thickness is reached. After they are solidly frozen, in come the ice sculptures.

These craftsmen, artists, or whatever you want to call them are really talented. No less talented than those who work in stone, except that sculpting ice is faster than stone. A large variety of sculpting tools are used, although at the very beginning, sometimes a chainsaw will be used to get the object into the approx. shape. After that it is a longer process, which has amazing results. When the sunlight shines through these sculptures it seems as if they are made from a single huge diamond, such is the skill and resultant beauty.

From late November until perhaps March, hundreds of thousands of people will make the trip to Revolution Square to see the Village. It is not only a place to view sculptures, but also a place where you can actually go inside of some of them, while others have been formed into huge “ice slides” for the kids to speed down. In addition to the sculptures, there are even a couple of carnival type rides, though not made from ice. One of these is typically a “flying swing”, you know, with people all sitting in swing type seats, then flying almost parallel to the ground as centrifugal force has its way with you. Now think about this for a minute. In the US we have something called the “wind chill factor” which adjusts the winter temperature downward depending upon how much wind is present. In Russia is called something like the “comfort factor”, but its purpose is the same, to show that the stronger the wind on a cold day, the colder the temperature will feel. Now think about really cold temperatures amongst an “ice village”, now factor in the wind chill as you are speeding through the air on a “flying swing” and I’m also sure that some of these people have an ice-cream that they are eating. These are some tough cold weather people, just ask Napoleon’s army or for that matter the Nazi army. While other nationalities are left on the ground as frozen corpses, these people are flying through the frozen air eating ice-cream. I know who I want as my winter buddies.

Russians certainly believe in the practice of layers of clothes in the winter. Especially mothers dressing their children for the outdoors. An onion has fewer layers than a Russian child. A young child will have so many layers on them that they are round as a ball. Seriously, if the chains that held the seat on the “flying swing” gave way and the child flew through the air, chances are that they would not get hurt at all, just bounce a lot.

There are no school buses in a city, so a child walks to school, is driven, or takes public transport. Schools do close when the temperature is too low, in the case of 1st through 3rd graders, the school closes when the temperature is less than -25 C (-13F) and the older kids stay home if the temperature is colder than -30 (-23F), well, this is cold. About 5 years ago there was a 12 day stretch in January that was colder than -35C (-31F) the entire time, and I’m not even located in a northern area of Russia. These areas, and people do live there, get as cold as -55C (-67F), which is like Mars at night.

Many housing complexes have an outdoor skating rink set up in the yard for the kids in the winter. We do and it is really nice to have it there. Our kids learned how to skate when they were quite young and skate outdoors quite often. Services here can be pretty dismal overall, but I do have to say that they take good care of this skating rink; plowing it after it snows and flooding the ice when the surface starts to get too scarred up. So we have two enclosed balconies in our apartment. Each overlooking the opposite sides of our complex. So, from one you can look down at the skating rink and from the other you overlook a nice little Park where there are “snowslides” set up each winter. The city where we live is not full of hills as some cities are, so this is compensated for by constructing hills for sleds during the winter. Most yards will have a giant pile of snow that is pushed into a mountain by bucketloaders. These piles are then made into a big slide made of snow and ice, complete with stairs made from ice to get to the top of the slide. Kids will spend hours flying down the manmade hills, having a blast. The park next to us has a rather large on constructed of wood and steel, actually a couple of these of varying sizes. These are assembled each winter and the spray with water in order to form a nice icy surface for sliding. The landing area is also ices for a distance of about 25 meters (80 feet) and the kids use up every bit of this as they fly down the ice hill on their sleds, cardboard or even just on their bellies. It looks like a ball and I wish I had these when I was growing up. But, where I grew up in the state of Connecticut the slide would need to be refrigerated because although winter can get cold, even in January it can still often be above the freezing mark. No frozen slides or “ice villages” there.

This weekend I followed the progress of a blizzard which hit Southern New England really hard and it brought back memories of similar blizzards (the blizzard of 1978 stands out in my mind), where the temperatures are killer cold, the winds are hurricane force and the snowfall is 2 to 4 feet (600 cm to 1.25 meters) in the course of 24 hours. These are strong memories to all of us that have experienced them, and typically not bad memories. In my 11 years here I’ve never experienced such conditions and as a matter of fact the most snow on the ground at any given point of the winter may only be about 30 cm. (12 inches), but it’s not for lack of trying. It snows a LOT more often than where I grew up in New England, not every day, but certainly several times every week. I don’t know why there isn’t more, but I suspect that part of the reason is because the air is quite a bit drier here and therefore even snow can evaporate when the sun is shining. The snow is almost always powdery because the air is dry; not often any good for snowmen or snowballs.

Well, so far this has been an overall positive episode in terms of winter in Chelyabinsk and because there are many things to do in winter, this is understandable. Now however I’m going to speak of something which can’t be spun as positive and that is the winter condition of roads and sidewalks. To be a pedestrian here in the winter, and most are, is a very unpleasant experience on the best of days, on the worst days it can’t accurately be described. Almost nobody shovels or plows any of the sidewalks here, instead they are just trampled snow trampled as if by cattle, but the cattle are the people. People, including old people, fall and get badly hurt all of the time and nobody seems to care. Upon your arrival at your destination after your journey on foot, you are tired and your muscles are sore and this is due to two factors, first, for every step forward you make you slide back half a step, and secondly, your body is so tense trying to prevent a fall while walking that your muscles are actually sore later. This is nothing to be explained away or laughed at; personally I feel that it is shameful and does not indicate a feeling of much self worth here.

The roads are often very bad and are never plowed until long after the storm, often not until they have had a chance to freeze solid. I saw pictures of the major streets in Boston the day after the huge blizzard today that was, and the black pavement was clearly visible and the sidewalk was very clean of snow or ice. This can be done, I just don’t understand at all why not here? There are often BS excuses I hear from people here about the valid reasons why this is such, and how it is actually better somehow. I guess the difference is that I’ve lived where this was done and more importantly, where people expected and demanded that it be done. When it’s done it makes you feel like you have more human dignity and this is a nice feeling.

I don’t want to finish this episode on a negative note, so I won’t.

Here in schools and universities as part of physical training, or PE, you’ll see groups of students cross-country skiing during the winter, which is a great idea in terms of exercise, but it also can develop a lifelong habit. On more than one occasion I’ve seen some pensioner getting on or off the bus with their cross-country skis in hand. There is also a nice cross country skiing center, with the entrance located right on a well served public transport route. In addition to cross country skiing, there is also some good skiing at a couple of ski resorts in the area. One is just over an hour from Chelyabinsk and others ranging from 2 to 4 hours from Chelyabinsk.

I mentioned the skating rinks in many different apartment complexes, and there are also a number of larger rinks located at the various parks here, although you do pay to skate at these rinks. Additionally, in recent years a new indoor rink was built called “Ural Molnia” or “Urals Lightening” and this rink is huge. It is so big that a standard hockey rink is set up in the center, yet the area left for public skating all of the time greatly exceeds that of the hockey rink. This is a very popular destination for young people throughout the year. It can also be noted that the World Curling Championship was held there two years ago. Not bad for a city, like the rest of the world, which had really no idea what curling was. There is now a deepening interest in the sport.

Well, as usual; I’ve reached my self-imposed length limit for the episodes of this series and I’m sure that I’ve left a lot out. I do hope that I’ve given at least a general insight into winter in Chelyabinsk. It is actually really important that you go to my website, www.markinrussia.com in order to view the many photos which form a part of this episode.

I hope that you return next week to listen to my next episode, or better yet subscribe to my podcast on my website and get it delivered to you. But, until that time, this is Mark in Russia saying, GoodBye!

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