Real Men Don't Do Earflaps

Muscovites, ice cream in one hand and a blowtorch in the other, endure a Russian cold snap

ALTHOUGH in these post-Soviet days Santa Claus is being rehabilitated, and the celebration of Christmas along with him, the midwinter festival that most Russians grew up with is New Year's Eve.

Just as a mythical Santa Claus descends on Christmas Eve to distribute presents to American and European children, a similarly rotund, white-bearded, and red-suited figure hands out gifts to Russian kids on New Year's Eve - Dyed Moroz, or Grandpa Frost.

But Grandpa Frost's favorite weather came early this year to Moscow, with record lows of below minus 25 C degrees (minus 13 F.) just before Christmas.

That sort of temperature is normal enough here for February, and would seem positively tropical to Siberians. But Muscovites were caught by surprise this year - along with this newcomer, who has not worn so much as an overcoat for nine years.

Cold snaps historically are so regular here they even have names, and the one that struck 10 days ago could have been predicted by folklore as the ``St. Nicholas frost,'' marking St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 19.

Two more of these will arrive in the coming month. The ``Christmas frost'' is due around Jan. 7 (Christmas Day according to the Julian calendar that still governs the Russian Orthodox year). The ``Epiphany frost'' - traditionally the fiercer of the two - is expected to follow 12 days later.

They should cut down on the holiday traffic, if December's experience is anything to go by. For three days, when the cold was at its most bitter, driving in Moscow was an unusual pleasure - and not only because of the bright sunshine. Half the city's cars would not start because of the low temperatures, so the roads were half empty.

For a city used to harsh winters, motor vehicles in Moscow are surprisingly ill-adapted. To start with, older batteries just cannot cope with temperatures much below five degrees F. Since many Muscovites can't afford to buy new ones, they often bring the batteries indoors each night to leave them like cats next to the radiator.

But even if your ignition works, you have a problem with fuel and engine oil.

There is so much water in Russian diesel, for example, that it can freeze in your tank, and this leads some drivers to drastic measures: Last week I watched a truck driver on a central Moscow street turn a blowtorch on his fuel tank as he tried to melt its contents, although I did not hang around long enough to see if he was successful.

And with engine oil going sticky when the weather gets cold, truckers prize parking spots over deep enough depressions to allow them to light a fire under their engines in the mornings, to get things moving.

Even when those sorts of remedies are required, though, it is rare to see a Moscow man with the earflaps down on his fur hat.

Only the ill, the elderly, and foreigners are given dispensation from the ``real men'' rule in Russia - flaps are to be kept tied up, regardless of what shade of blue your ear lobes turn.

But it is the Russian habit of waiting until winter descends to eat ice cream that seems the oddest to the Western eye. As the mercury in Moscow's thermometers drops, ice cream sales rise in a bizarre inverse relationship. Winston Churchill is said to have commented once that it was impossible to defeat a nation that eats ice cream at minus 20 C (minus 4 F.).

I have developed my own thumbnail thermometer. It is cold when ice cream sellers keep their wares on top of their ice chests, rather than inside them. It is very cold when my moustache congeals into a solid block of frozen condensation.

And when the hairs inside my nostrils freeze together, it is time to do my interviews over the phone.

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