It’s already been snowing here in Russia for weeks.
I love Russian winter, even though it’s hard, bitter and extreme. For a British guy who grew up with only a few days of snow a year being in Russia is just like living in Narnia.
I actually enjoy waking up and looking at the thermometer to see how low the temperature is. I even get a kick out of going for a walk in -40c or worse, just for the extreme experience of course. An interesting question for those who have never visited Russia is this: How do Russians survive winter?
Russian public transport in winter
I’m always amazed how well Russians cope with extreme weather, they never complain or get annoyed or angry, they just get on with it. Everything still works, the roads, public transport, trains and planes never get delayed or cancelled. I’ve flown across Russia in -30C and never had a problem. Last winter I flew on an ancient creaking Yak42 jet from Moscow to Izhevsk. The airport in Izhevsk is very small, it has one tiny terminal building and doesn’t have a single airbridge. Yet despite the snow and ice and -40c temperature, the runway and airport remained open. I’m sure airports such as these have a rather smaller budget than Gatwick and Heathrow. I’m sure UK airports could learn a thing or two here. I guess British airports prefer to save money rather than prepare for winter.
In good old England the entire country turns into a great big pathetic traffic jam when just a couple of centimetres of snow falls. People complain, blame the government, council, global warming but rarely themselves. It’s as if winter shouldn’t happen. They expect the council to grit every square inch of the city and complain when they skid on ice, even though this is usually caused by their own insufficient winter driving experience.
People drive like fools, expecting their slippery summer tyres to provide grip in winter conditions.
The secret of surviving winter?
So how do Russian people cope with the winter weather ?
Easy, they prepare, expect the worst and just get on with it. Winter comes every single year so they deal with it. Winter isn’t unexpected when every year brings the same conditions. Russians are the ultimate preppers.
Russian Winter Clothing
In Russian winter nobody leaves the house unless they are dressed properly. Getting ready is like preparing for an Arctic expedition, it can take quite some time. First off all I wear heavy fur lined boots (bought in Russia as I’ve never seen them in England) over a couple of pairs of thermal socks. Thermal long johns, jeans, a tshirt, a few layers of sweater, fleece and then a goretex coat to keep out the snow and rain. It’s also essential to wear a hat, scarf and gloves. Don’t think of going outside without a suitable hat, your head will hurt and you will quickly die! Gloves are also utterly essential, without them you will quickly lose the feeling in your hands and your fingers will fall off!
Children are wrapped up in layer upon layer of clothes, until they can barely move their arms or legs. They often resemble the Michelin man!
Many women wear long expensive fur coats, its very cruel to the animals but my Russian friends and family tell me that fur is much warmer than anything else and will last longer. I still think it’s cruel though. The fur coats are often teamed with skimpy blouses underneath, fashion of course is important even in the winter.
Russian men wear heavy leather or sheepskin coats and hats and many are even known to wear women’s tights under their jeans to keep their legs warm.
There is a famous saying in Russia – “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. This is very true.
Every Russian flat and office has double or triple glazed windows. Soviet era windows aren’t fancy, they simply have a single pane of glass, a few inches of space to trap air and then a further pane of glass.
Despite being old tech these windows work really well. Balconies are often fitted with windows as well, although usually only a single pane which means they are cold, but they still act as a buffer zone and keep the flat a little warmer.
Some richer Russians install modern double glazing but I do wonder if this works as well as the old system ? Double glazing only has a few millimetres of space between the panes of glass, as opposed to a good few inches of air between the panes in older windows.
How do Russians heat their apartments ? How the hell do they afford to keep warm in arctic temperatures ?
The answer is they don’t. The council provides heat and hot water through vast networks of district heating.
Just like the good old days of the CCCP the local council takes care of everything. Every apartment has a few central heating radiators, which are switched on around October and work 24/7 until April/May. There are NO on/off switches or controls to raise or lower the temperature, the Soviets didn’t think this was necessary, the main thing was keeping everybody as warm as possible. When the heating is on, its on until the council switch it off, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Needless to say, this means that it can often be stiflingly hot and stuffy in a typical Russian apartment.
I often think of the poor old pensioners in England who suffer damp houses, illness and possible death because they can’t afford to put the heating on for a couple of hours, due to the ripoff prices of English utility companies, but that is another story. In Russia the heat is on permanently all winter, it never goes off.
The only possible temperature control for apartments is opening and closing a small square window in the top of a larger window.
This does work, although if you have a Russian wife or family they will quickly run over and scream “сквозняк” (draught).
It’s a widely held belief in Russia that any slight draught will kill you!
Try to open a window for fresh air in any Russian office, train, school, shop or apartment and within seconds hordes of angry Russians will quickly descend and kick your stupid foreigner ass for daring to make them sick.
Hot water is made either in the basement of the flats, where I imagine some poor guy sits sweating all day and night shovelling coal onto a furnace, or remotely in a Soviet hot water factory (which also produces the heat) and piped underground throughout the city! District heating works very well.
However it arrives, it’s amazingly hot, almost superheated.
Bathrooms are even worse than the rest of the apartment as they have no windows and usually feature a helpfully heated towel rail/water pipe which acts as a little radiator. This means that ever time I go for a bath or shave I’m close to collapse from the ridiculous temperature. Who needs a Banya( Sauna) when you have a Russian bathroom? If possible I try to leave the bathroom door open to try to cool the bathroom.
Winter Driving in Russia
All Russian cars change over to winter tyres before the start of the winter. I’ve got no idea whether this is the law or not, but if you want to live then you must change your tyres.
This must be expensive, having to keep two full sets of tyres and finding a place to store your other set of tyres.
If you try to use summer tyres you will die or get stuck every few metres.
Winter tyres are heavily studded and have good tread patterns for the snow. Every vehicle from the smallest Oka supermini to the largest 4×4 or Kamaz truck is fitted with viciously studded snow tyres.
Even my local Produkti (food shop) has sets of studded tyres for sale.
Winter tyres don’t defy the laws of physics but they do provide a reasonable amount of grip in the worst winter conditions.
Russian Roads in Winter
Russians like to keep all the main roads open, vast armies of snow ploughs and gritters are sent out every time there is new snowfall.
Thousands of people are employed by the local councils to grit and shovel the snow away from the entrances to apartment blocks and to clear the pavements.
Again, there is no need for expensive equipment or hi-tech toys, I’ve often seen old women use wooden boards and a shovel to clear a path around the apartment.
They will spend hours hammering out chunks of ice from the sidewalk and brushing snow off the paths.
Apartment block entrances and shop entrances receive the most vigorous attention, although I find that deicing these areas often makes them more slippery than if the people had just left them alone. When the snow is removed ice usually forms instead. Fresh crunchy snow offers better traction than sheet ice.
Thats all for today folks, just remember – be prepared for winter!