The cold war that Moscow always manages to win

In Russia, removal of snow and ice is serious business.

'Move your cars!" bellows Nadia Gulyeva into a megaphone to the sleeping residents of a downtown apartment block. "Icicles will be raining down!"

Ms. Gulyeva - whose voice is so powerful that some residents snidely remark that she doesn't need amplification - is on the front lines of Russia's annual war against ice.

In a familiar Moscow winter ritual, men armed with shovels and spades scrape the sloping tin roofs clear of snow and ice, sending down one avalanche after another.

"These icicles are so small," says Ms. Gulyeva of the 3-foot spears hanging overhead. The orange-clad Gulyeva says she has seen icicles as tall as she is, and other reports describe 5-yard-high spires of winter beauty.

While the hunt for icy stalactites may seem quaint to those in warmer climes, it is serious business.

So far this year, seven Muscovites have been wounded by falling spears or blocks of ice. Eleven others, according to the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, have made bogus claims for "moral compensation" after pretending to have been hit.

"It's a very serious problem," says Valeri Frolov, deputy head of utilities for the city administration. "Moscow has 9,000 buildings with iron roofs; the streets are often narrow and difficult to maneuver."

A normal winter here produces 50 snowstorms and so many icicles that 125 miles of warning ribbon are draped across the sidewalks like Christmas tinsel.

Muscovites look skyward while walking on winter days in the city. Call it "defensive walking" - that furtive glance upward every time a Russian pedestrian passes a strip of red-and-white ribbon near a drain spout. The ribbons mark off the many danger areas, where gleaming icicles threaten to transform themselves into daggers.

After Gulyeva's megaphone warning is heeded, two helmeted experts, dressed like mountain climbers, skid down the buildings on ropes from the roof. They attack ice formations built up on drains and balconies with ice axes and hatchets, dispatching boulders of ice five floors down to crash on the pavement.

"I love the fresh air, and it is useful for everyone," says climber Vladimir Akimov, a history graduate who works on the roofs because "it's difficult for a historian to earn anything."

He wears a Balaclava ski mask under his yellow helmet and carries an assortment of carabiners and a belay device. Swinging from metal guard rails that are required by law on every Moscow roof, he hacks at the ice chunks like a lumberjack, and dislodges more with every well-placed kick of his boots.

Mr. Akimov belongs to one of 500 teams that attack the ice.

Coping with winter in Moscow is a mammoth task. Making sure that icicles fall safely - and clearing the capital's 3,000 miles of roads of snow - is a three-shifts-a-day job that employs up to 30,000 people.

Officials speak with pride of their efforts to preempt the effects of major snowstorms by deploying snow plows, trucks, and salt spreaders across the city - with the help of weather forecasts that these days are tailormade and come from four outlying stations.

Snow plows ply Moscow's streets three abreast throughout the night. Vehicles fitted with special conveyor belts and custom-made arms gather snow that has piled up on roadsides, depositing it in dump trucks.

"If we don't work, there will be no food in the shops, kindergartens will be empty, and the city will stop," says Boris Korshukov, who in charge of the city's snow brigades.

"During an official tour of Helsinki, Finland, we passed the presidential palace, and there was a big pile of snow there," Mr. Korshukov recalls incredulously.

"I asked, 'Why is that there?' and they said, "It will melt by spring.' Here, it is forbidden to leave any snow on Red Square."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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