It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Spring

In balmy Moscow, pussy willows bloom, snow is not in sight, people complain

It's not enough that life has turned upside down in Russia in the '90s, that the old Communist heroes are now the bad guys, that the ruble is nearly worthless, that American fast-food is conquering Moscow, that nothing turned out the way they said it would.

No, not enough. Winter itself - the one great certainty of Russian life - had to go haywire.

"Terrible," is the usual comment on the recent weather conditions from young and old alike.

So here we are, December upon us unclothed in the customary layers of snow and ice. Unusual, but nothing shocking in that.

But what about the cotton-like tufts of pussy willow tree blossoms emerging from green buds? Normally, the pussy willow trees bloom just before Easter, when the devout pick sprigs to celebrate the Russian Orthodox version of Palm Sunday.

And what about the mushrooms covering the forest floor under the pines and birches - mushrooms normally not seen past early October? Good ones, too. Anna Nigitichina's neighbors in the town of Bykovo outside of Moscow just cooked some that were picked this Sunday.

All over the Moscow region, people report garlic sprouting already, when it normally begins in spring and is ready to harvest in August. Poplar trees are greening up in downtown Moscow near October Square. Marina Orekhovich looks sadly at the green buds on the black currant bushes in the garden of her parents' dacha. Sooner or later, and probably soon, a hard freeze will stop the buds cold, and no berries will fill jam jars in the spring.

This November, in fact, has been the warmest in recorded Russian history. Russians began recording such things in 1731 and have kept consistent records since 1879. Last month, the average daily high was 9.5 degrees F. above normal, a full degree above the previous record set in 1938, according to the Russian Hydrometeorological Center.

The warmth - if 38 degrees F. can be called warmth - is not all bad. Pensioner Sergei Korshunov is still out cutting flexible lengths of straight twigs from bushes in the village of Dzerzhinsk for weaving baskets. Usually, the cold, dry winds from the north have already dried them out and rendered them too stiff for weaving.

More significant, the factory-size heating plants that supply nearly every building in the city with hot water for their radiators have saved some money on natural gas, though not much, says Anatoly Gertsen, head of the city department of heat and gas supply.

For some reason, the weather in central Russia this fall has come from the central Atlantic, blowing rain, humidity, and relatively warm air north. The arctic winds have not blown.

Russians, as a rule, do not like it. The cold, they believe, is healthy. It is certainly cleaner. Moscow is a muddy city under bare tree limbs in wintertime without a hardening freeze and cleansing blanket of snow. Besides, says Ms. Nigitichina, standing at her outdoor vegetable stall near a bus station in Bykovo, "Each season is supposed to have its own temperature."

This is the nub of the matter. Russians, even urban Muscovites, are close to the countryside. Most have use of a simple, cottage-like dacha and grow a surprising proportion of their own food in garden plots. So they know the seasons well and prepare for them. This one is confusing the crops and extending the season of mud.

EVEN the seemingly all-powerful Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has not been able to change things. Mr. Luzhkov sometimes tinkers with the weather when important outdoor celebrations are planned, but the last time was in May 1995, the 50th anniversary of Victory Day, when cloud-seeding was used to dump rain due for Moscow onto western suburbs instead.

December too, by the way, is forecast to be warmer than usual, says Anatoly Yakovlev, senior researcher at the Hydrometeorological Center.

At the Sprint sporting goods store in suburban Moscow, Boris Moiseyev stands in front of full stacks of skis and poles, with sleds arrayed on the floor before him, and says that he would be sold out by now in any normal year and ordering his second delivery.

Who knows, if Napoleon had invaded in a year like this, winter might not have helped defeat him, and history would have taken a different turn ....

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