The long, cold winter has a profound impact on almost every aspect of life in the Russian Federation. It affects where and how long people live and work, what kinds of crops are grown, and where they are grown (no part of the country has a year-round growing season). The length and severity of the winter, together with the sharp fluctuations in the mean summer and winter temperatures, impose special requirements on many branches of the economy. During extended periods of darkness and cold, there are increased demands for energy, health care, and textiles.
During the winter the sun sits below the horizon much of the day. When it does rise above it produces only a negligible amount of heat. December is very dark. January and February are brighter because there is slightly more sunlight and snow covers the ground, covering the dirt and grime in the cities.
Hoarfrost is frost from fog and clouds that often forms lovely formations of tree branches. In the freezing cold, breath condenses as ice on men's beards. -50 degrees C cold is cold enough shatter steel, freeze medium size lakes into a solid block of ice and make machines unworkable
Fog normally doesn't exist in temperatures below freezing, yet where temperature hover around -50 degrees F it is foggy all the time. The "human habitation fog" here is crated by the exhalations or people, their homes, their buildings, their homes and their machines. Extremely cold air has virtually no humidity which explains in part why the fog doesn't freeze or gate absorbed into the air.
Long Arctic Nights
Above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines for only two hours a day in mid winter. In the winter there is an eery twilight that runs from midmorning until about two in the afternoon. In the extreme north the sun doesn't rise for months. This is because in the winter some parts of the Arctic don't receive any sunlight at all because the earth is tilted so the Arctic regions are beyond the suns rays.
In many Russian cities there is only four hours of sunlight during winter. At 10:00am it is still dark and by 3:30pm its dark again. The four hours of light are little more that dusky twilight. The night lasts from about 4:00pm to 9:30am. On average, there is only 19 hours of sunlight in Moscow in the entire month of December, which works out to about 40 minutes day. The rest of time it is either dark or the sky is overcast. Daylight only lasts from the morning to late afternoon.
During the Arctic winter streetlight are always on and people always drive with their headlights on. Cross country skiers have to use headlights. Describing a November day in a far northern city, Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker, "The day was sleeting and dark, and remained that way for at least two hour—until the sun began to vaguely skirt the horizon. By noon, waiters were putting candles on the tables of the city's lunch spots. Shortly after that complete darkness returned." One resident of Murmansk told the Washington Post, "The only thing everyone talks about is when the polar night begins is how to survive it."
Russian Winter in 1589
"The whole country in the winter lieth under Snow, which falleth continually, and is sometimes of a yard or two thick, but greater towards the North," Fletcher wrote. "The Rivers and other waters are all frozen up, a yard or more thick, however swift or broad they be: and this continueth commonly five months, viz from the beginning of November,t ill towards the end of March, what time the Snow beginneth to melt."
"If you hold a Pewter dish or pot in your hand, or any other metal (except in some chamber where their warm stoves be) your fingers will freeze fast unto it, and draw off the skin at the parting. When you pass out of a warm room into a cold, you shall sensible feel your breathe to wax starke."
"Divers, not only that travel abroad, but in very markets, and the streets of their towns, are mortally pinched and killed withal: so that you shall see many drop down in the streets, Many Travellers brought into the towns sitting dead and stiffe in their sleds. Divers lose their noses, the tips of the ears, and the balls of their cheeks, their toes, feet, etc."
"Many times (when the winter is very hard and extreme) the bears and wolves issue by troops out of the woods, driven by hunger, and enter the villages, tearing and ravening all they can find" so that the inhabitants are fain to fly for safeguard of their lives."
Life in the Russian Winter
Russians have traditionally stayed indoors and read lots of books to get through the long winter. Some played and listened to lots of music. Others spent time outside skating, sledding and cross country skiing. Today no doubt many are glued to their computers or smart phones. Parks are intentionally flooded to serve as skating rinks. Forest are crisscrossed with cross country ski and snowshoeing trails. Any reasonablypsized hill is filled with sledders. At end of the day, people warm up with vodka and shish kebabs.
To keep warm Russians wear fur hats, sheepskin coats and felt boots. To get enough Vitamin D during the winter time entire classrooms of school children used to be strip down to their underwear and stand in front of ultraviolet lights. Balconies are used as freezers for food storage. ⌛
Apartments in Siberia are sometimes so cold that fluids freeze instantly on the floor. Sometimes housing is so poorly made temperatures are 50 degrees F at eye level and 10 degrees F on the floor. During cold snaps it is not unusual for central heating pipes to burst.
During a severe cold snap in the winter of 2001, when temperatures dropped below -40 degrees C across a large area of the Far Eats, people who were unable to get enough heat had their limbs amputated because of frostbite.
As much as people complain about the cold they complain even more about unreasonable inter warm spells. Streets and skating rinks our to slush. Cross-country ski trails become mud tracks. ice sculpture competitions have o be canceled. Snow that melts during the day freezes at night, creating hazardous condition for driving and even walking. Sometimes subway stations are closed because of worries about flooding. Zoos have to contend with bears emerging from hibernation prematurely.
Russian Cold in World War II
The winter of 1941-42, the fist winter after the Nazi invaded, was among the coldest on record in Russia. Describing the fighting in Russian cold the German infantryman Benno Zieser wrote: "The icy winds of those great white wastes which stretched forever beyond us to the east lashed a million crystals of razor-like snow into our unshaven faces, skin now loose-stretched over bone, so utter was the exhaustion, so utter the starvation. It burned the skin into crumpled leather, it lashed tears from the sunken eyes from which over-fatigue could scarce be kept open, it penetrated though all uniforms and rags to the very marrow of our bones."
Alexander Werth, a correspondent for the BBC in Russia in World War II, described Russia in February this way: "In the morning it had been only minus 20°, and then it was minus 30°, then minus 40° and finally minus 44°. One has to experience 44° of frost to know what it means. Your breath catches. If you breath on your glove, thin films of ice immediately forms on it. We couldn't eat anything because all our food—bread, sausage and eggs—had turned into stone. Even wearing valenki [felt boots] and two pairs of woolen socks, you had to move your toes all the time to keep circulation going. Without valenki frostbite would set in, and the Russians had no valenki...Your only real ally, apart from clothes, on such occasions, is the vodka bottle. And bless it, it didn't freeze, and even a frequent small sip made a big difference." [Source: “Russia at War 1941 to 1945" by Alexander Werth, 1964]
Describing a the Red Army on the move Werth wrote: "Between two streams of traffic, there was now an irregular wall of snow that had been thrown up there by wheels and hoofs. Weird-looking figures were regulating the traffic—soldiers in long white camouflage cloaks and pointed white hoods; horses and still more horses, blowing steam with ice round their nostrils, were wading through the deep snow, pulling guns and gun-carriages and large covered wagons; and hundreds of lorries with their headlights full on...and even camels pulling sleighs—several of them stepping sedately through the deep snow as though it were sand." [Source: “Russia at War 1941 to 1945" by Alexander Werth, 1964]
"To the side of the road an enormous bonfire was burning, filling the air with clouds of black smoke that ate into your eyes; and shadow-like figures danced around the bonfire warming themselves; then others would light a plank at the bonfire, and start a little bonfire of their own, till the hole edge of the road was a series of small bonfires. [Ibid]
Many Russian soldiers tried to escape the front by injuring themselves. A nurse, whose job it was to determine if a wound was self-inflicted or not, told Time: "I had to make reports on the size of the wound, the distance of the weapon from the wound, the seriousness of the would. Sometimes the boys wound shoot each other in the arm, leg—somewhere that wouldn't maim, but would get them out of this gruesome war. If I identified such wounds, the boys were taken off and shot...I was known for my precision.”
Winter in Moscow
To clear snow, Moscow employs 20,000 people and has 6,000 vehicles, including plows and wheeled vehicles, called golden claws, with crab-like claws that scoop up piles of snow and toss them into trucks. Describing the system at work, David Holley wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “They emerge onto major thoroughfare a bit before midnight, their crab claws gobbling up snow piles in huge pincer movements as attendant dump trucks trail obediently behind....These humble but hefty snow loaders” are “virtually unchanged from models used four decades ago.”
There is often so much snow that it simply can not be pushed aside without disrupting sidewalks and roads. Some of the snow is dumped in the Moscow River. Much of it is taken to melting stations that can handle 12,000 truck loads of snow a day. The melting stations remove litter and sand from the snow and were developed because dumping the snow into the river was a major cause of water pollution. In the old days many vacant areas were set aside for snow to be piled up (and often remained there until mid summer). A few of these are left. Development has occurred on many of them.
At the melting stations, the snow is mixed with hot water provided by power plants. Pollutants are removed in sewage treatment plants. The snow contains a lot of petroleum products and chemicals that are used to melt the snow. After the snow water has been treated it is released into the Moscow River.
A great deal of effort is also placed on removing snow and icicles from roofs. People are routinely injured by dagger-like icicles. In the 1990s, two people were killed by falling icicles in Moscow. Experiences spelunkers are hired to knock down icicles on buildings,
Russian Winter Freezing Deaths
A total of 557 people froze to death in Moscow in the winter of 1998-97. Some were people who became exhausted and slipped and fell and caught hypothermia but most were either homeless people or drunks who passed out or couldn't find their way home. According to statistics 74 percent of the cases involved vodka and 40 percent were homeless.
On one particularly cold day in Moscow in 1997, nine people froze to death and 162 were hospitalized. On average about 500 people die every winter in Moscow's streets, mostly alcoholics and homeless people.
In the winter of 2001 more than 200 frozen corpses were found in Moscow's streets, abandoned buildings and stairwells. About ten times that number were treated for hypothermia. Most of them were bomzhi.
More than 400 people died as a result of cold weather in Moscow during the winter of 2001 and 2002. An equal number died for the same reason in the winter of 2002-2003. Many of the victims were homeless or drunks who fell asleep on the streets at night. By one count there were 389 homeless people died in Moscow between September 2002 and April 2003.
One forensic official told the Los Angeles Times, "We sometimes have very intelligent professional people who die...It's a friendly get together or banquet. A person has had way to much to drink, and he's on his on his way home. He feels very warm but it's an illusion. He decides to sit down in a snowdrift for a rest. And he dies. Unfortunately, that's life."
Most of who die are not homeless. One homeless man told Reuters, "It’s either drunks or people who aren't prepared that freeze. For a homeless person to freeze is very difficult. It is a myth that many of them freeze to death. They know where to find a place to spend the night and not die."
Winter and Russian Moods
It is said the long Russian winters give Russians a subdued and slightly melancholy disposition. Some view winter in stronger, bleaker terms. Describing the Russia winter, the famous poet Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1915, "Within these empty, frozen walls, the deadly black days I don't count." Russian President Boris Yeltsin once said: "Winter is nearly a natural calamity in Russia. Every year it is as if it hits us like a bolt from the blue, the same problems all over again." In Oymyakon— the world's coldest inhabited place—a few people commit suicide very winter.
In the old days, winter was a chance to get some rest, and a time to gather inside with family and friends. Anthropologist Antoly Yamskov told the Los Angeles Times. "There was no field work to be done. Spring was for planting, summer for tending and there was the big job of harvesting in the fall, but winter was the closest Russians then came to a vacation."
"Cold is part of the Russian character," Russian sociologist Oksana Fais told the Los Angeles Times. “When it was still mild and gray in November, everyone was complaining and demanding, 'Where is winter?" It was like waiting for guests who are late." In the extreme north the sun doesn't rise for months. One resident of Murmansk told the Washington Post, "The only thing everyone talks about is when the polar night begins is how to survive it."
People drink more in the winter and alcohol treatment centers report a huge influx of patients. Whether one enjoys winter or not perhaps depends mostly perhaps on how much they like outdoor winter sports like cross-country skiing, sledding, skating and ice fishing. But according to an old Russian proverb, "he who likes to go sledding had better also like to pull."
Yakutsk and Oymyakon
Yakutsk (on the Lena River) in the Russian Far North is a foggy, smoggy, city of 200,000 built around some of the world's largest reserves of diamonds, gold and oil. It is the capital of Sakha and only large city in the world built on top of permafrost. Building built on stilts bored 10 meters in the ground stand upright. Those on concrete foundations, which melts the permafrost, tilt and sag.
Oymyakon (600 kilometers miles northeast of Yakutsk) is the world's coldest inhabited place. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it has unofficially recorded temperatures as low as -72 degrees C (-98 degrees F) . It officially recorded -67 degrees C (-90 degrees F) in 1933 and -71 degrees C (-96 degrees F) in 1964.During the winter the mercury hits -45 degrees C (-50 degrees F) nearly every day and routinely drops to -62 degrees C (-80 degrees F). But even in these temperatures reindeer herders in the region camp outside in tents and herd their animals.
It is surprising that Oymyakon is so cold because it isn't even above the Arctic Circle. Towns further north are not as cold because they are near the sea. Even the a frozen over Arctic Ocean has a warming influence on the land. Oymyakan on the other hand is hundreds of kilometers away from the ocean and mountains surround the town which prevents the wind from blowing away the thick layer of frigid air.
Verkhoyansk (400 miles north of Yakutsk) hold the world's record for greatest temperature range. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it boasts a range of 188 degrees (from -90 degrees F to 98 degrees F).In the winter of 1994, the temperature in Verkhoyansk dropped twice to -80 degrees F. Verkhoyansk doesn't have any restaurants, hotels or supermarket. The Yana River is frozen nine months of the year. Everything is expensive because it has to be brought in from outside. Because nothing grows all food has to be brought in expect meat from hunted animals such as reindeer, moose and rabbits. There isn't much to see. On the unpaved road to Batagay there is a shaman's post.
Living in the Super Cold
In regions of permafrost, buildings must be constructed on pilings, machinery must be made of specially tempered steel, and transportation systems must be engineered to perform reliably in extremely low and extremely high temperatures.
Cars in Omyakon and Yakutsk often last only a couple of years. The windshields have double panes with air between them to keep them from becoming opaque with ice. Sometimes it is so cold tires split open and brittle metal cracks when you hit it. People often drive in groups. One man got a flat tire and while he trying to change it his hand froze to the wheel. He tried to chew his hand off but before he could finish he froze to death.
At -35 degrees C (-31 degrees F)the strength of steel is compromised and steel structures can become brittle and collapse When it is -62 degrees C (-80 degrees F) spit freezes before it touches the ground, expensive down parkas break like glass and frostbite can ravage an uncovered nose in minutes. Journalist Dean Conger was walking the streets of Yakutsk when somebody stopped him and told him to rub his nose because it was white. He laughed and said, "But I've only been out of my hotel for five minutes." Then he notices his nostrils were clogged with ice and every breath caused a stinging in his chest. He took up the advise and starting rubbing.
Everything is expensive because it has to be brought in from outside. Nothing grows locally. The only locally produced meat comes from hunted animals such as reindeer, moose and rabbits. It takes seven truckloads of wood, costing $1,650, to heat house in the winter. Many people have been forced to leave because with the lose of government subsidies they can no longer afford it.
Working in the Cold
Work goes on in the cold temperatures of Siberia. Mortar is heated so bricks can be laid when it is -45 degrees C (-50 degrees F). When the temperature drops to -51 degrees C (-60 degrees F) cranes don't work properly. To construct a house steaming hot water is used to melt the permafrost so that piles can be sunk seven meters down. When the soil refreezes the piles are is anchored firmly in the ground at a depth that won't melt in the summer. Houses that don't have such piles sink and shift in the permafrost during the summer.
Mining gold in the permafrost is a two year operation. The first year the surface is melted. The area is then flooded with water which freezes down to about two meters. Insulated by this top layer of ice, the subsurface water continues thawing during the early winter. The next spring dredgers break through the ice and mining begins.
Orange, Smelly Snow in Siberia Caused by a Kazakhstan Storm?
In February 2007, people in the small southern Siberian village of Pudinskoye woke up to the sight of orange snow falling from the sky. Luke Harding wrote in The Guardian, “ In fact, three regions of southern Siberia — a vast area of industrial towns, pine trees and the odd bear — reported the same mysterious phenomenon. Not only was the snow not white, it also smelt bad. Most of the snow was orange. But some of it was red and yellow as well, officials confirmed, after scrambling to the affected areas to dig up samples. And it was also oily, they discovered. [Source: Luke Harding, The Guardian, February 2, 2007 ^|^]
“Russian officials in the Omsk region, 1,400 miles from Moscow, swiftly warned local residents not to touch the snow or feed it to their animals. "At the present moment we cannot give explanations for the snow, which is oily to the touch and has a pronounced rotten smell. We are waiting for the results of a thorough test on samples," Omsk's environmental prosecutor, Anton German, said this morning. ^|^
“Russian scientists trying to solve the mystery faced a tricky problem. The region is home to so many polluting industries it was hard to identify which one might have been responsible. Could it have been the nuclear plant in nearby Mayak? Or the metallurgy and chemicals factory in Ust-Kamenogorsk? The region is next to north Kazakhstan, a vast area of steppe used by the Soviet Union to conduct its nuclear tests. Or might the rogue snow have been caused by fuel from the space rockets launched in Kazakhstan? ^|^
“Environmental campaigners said that Russia had suffered decades of pollution — nuclear, industrial, and radioactive. "I have to admit yellow snow is pretty unusual," said Vladimir Sliviak, the chairman of the Russian environmental group Ecodefence. "I can think of only two other cases in the last decade. "This area of Siberia is beautiful. It's classic Russian forest. There is a lot of snow. There are a few bears and plenty of wolves as well. It's OK in terms of biodiversity." ^|^
“Russia's emergency situations ministry offered an explanation. Officials said a storm in neighbouring Kazakhstan had swept up clay and dust, dumping it on parts of the Tomsk and Omsk regions. Not everyone was convinced. Russia's environmental watchdog said the snow contained four times higher than normal quantities of iron as well as acids and nitrates. "I don't believe this came from a storm. If we discover that it is an industrial entity that produced this pollution criminal charges will be opened," said Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of Russia's environmental watchdog.” ^|^
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016