Russia's summer of sizzle

How hot is it? Yeltsin says it's too hot for fishing and one woman boils water to cool off.

Boris yeltsin dashed to the Kremlin from his countryside residence on Tuesday, cutting short his summer vacation by two weeks and shutting himself in his office with his ministers.

In political circles, ears pricked up. When Mr. Yeltsin unexpectedly returns to the capital, it usually means a political crisis is percolating and heads will roll.

The only crisis, said the Russian president, was the "unbearable heat": a whopping 79 degrees. "I decided I might wait until autumn [to finish the vacation]," he told reporters. "Right now, this heat is just impossible."

The news media speculated that the heat was barring Yeltsin from his favorite vacation pastimes: fishing and hiking. The Kremlin press service had already blamed the heat for one presidential vacation glitch earlier this summer. Yeltsin had to leave his Tver region hunting resort because it was dangerously close to the forest fires that have spread across Russia during this summer's drought.

And Tuesday's temperatures were far from the worst of Russia's summer heat - which, according to Moscow's Meteorological Bureau, averaged 40 degrees higher than the norm. The they are the highest recorded in more than a century.

For many Russians, even 80 degrees seems hot, especially with the humidity in the 90s and half the normal rainfall. In a place where winter temperatures sometimes hover around 20 below zero for weeks, the weather seems positively tropical.

The Russian language has a special word, znoi, for heat like this: hotter than hot, damp, and unrelenting.

The poet Alexander Pushkin summed up a popular Russian attitude to summer in his famous ode to cold, a poem called "Autumn": Oh, lovely summer, I would love you if not for the znoi, the dust, the flies, and the mosquitoes."

Written in the early 18th century, the poem does not mention the exhaust from Moscow's 1 million cars, nor the smoke from burning peat bogs on the edge of the southwestern suburbs. It creeps across the city some mornings, filling the air with a smell like burning coal and leaves.

In the Russian countryside, families can be seen sunbathing in their underwear, and even babushki wear bikinis while digging in their potato patches.

But the popular Russian solution to heat troubles is the same as the solution to cold: embrace it. Just as Russians eat ice cream and swim during the freezing Decembers, in July some people here concoct elaborate methods of overheating themselves to make the znoi feel like blessed relief.

Anna Antonovna, a Moscow pensioner and concierge, for example uses the following remedy: boil four or five large leaves from roadside plants in a gallon of water for half an hour. "As soon as you can, when the water is very hot, you should put your feet in the water and keep them there for half an hour," Ms. Antonovna says. "After this hot bath, even hot weather seems to be a relief."

Air conditioners, however, are growing in popularity, especially in the workplace. Russian media reported their sales spiked this summer when the temperature reached record highs in the low 90s in late June and early July.

Nowadays, air-conditioner dealers are among the only Muscovites to complain when the temperature drops.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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