When it comes to forecasting the winter, Russians trust berries over bureaucrats

Mountain ash or meteorologist. Which do you trust? If you're a Russian, the answer is easy: the mountain ash. The ones flanking the walkways in the Lenin Hills overlooking Moscow are burdened with bright red berries, bowing the limbs and speckling the sidewalks with crimson.

That, to most Muscovites, is a sure sign of a hard winter. After all, one woman says, nature knows that the birds and squirrels will need more food to make it through to spring.

In truth, most Soviet citizens probably trust such signs far more than they trust the government weather service. Maybe they have good reason for doing so, because so much about the weather - like so many other things here - is secret.

Last winter seemed milder than usual in the Soviet Union. But don't try to prove that with statistics: The government weather service refuses to provide them. Data on degree-days and the depth of snow cover, after all, allow inferences on petroleum consumption, hydroelectric generating capacity, and crop prospects - subjects that are, in the government's view, too sensitive to be made public.

Now, just in time for winter, the weather service has a new director, Alexander Vasilyev, the former deputy head of the agency. No mention was made of the fate of his predecessor.

Presumably, Mr. Vasilyev's mandate is to revamp the agency and increase public confidence in its performance. It will not be an easy task.

In an interview with the government newspaper, Izvestia, he confirmed that ''for various reasons'' the weather service sometimes gets only about 75 percent of the information it needs to make a forecast. Maybe that's why Muscovites place so much faith in mountain ash berries.

''We like cold weather,'' a woman says. ''We think it's healthy for us.''

For that reason, she was cheered by this year's early snowfall in Moscow - on Oct. 16.

So was a middle-aged man, who tersely summed up the Muscovite view of winter: ''Snow (pause), frost (longer pause), nice (end of sentence).''

In fact, Soviet parents dutifully expose their children to the elements practically every day, regardless of temperature or precipitation. In rural areas, babies nap outside in midwinter - protected, of course, by untold layers of swaddling.

This Russian predilection for cold, coupled with a tendency to overcompensate for it, permeates the society. Many buildings are overheated in winter, and the residents - lacking their own thermostats - throw open the windows. The escaping heated air sends ripples into the wintry atmosphere.

The resultant energy loss would appall many Westerners. But, since heat is included in rent payments - and rent payments are extremely low - it bothers most Muscovites not at all.

Still, when the ash berries are gone, many have to fall back on yet another unorthodox source for weather prognostication: babushki (literally, grandmothers), the legions of elderly women who are willing to dispense advice on practically any subject, including the depth and duration of winter. This year, the consensus of the babushki is to hunker down for a deep, long freeze.

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