Russia's new cold war: -96 degrees F.

It has to be awfully cold before most Russian men will abandon their traditional machismo and lower the earflaps of their fur hats. Normally that pegs one as a wimp - or a foreigner. (Though Canadian, I've long-since adopted Russian ways and watch the other guys on the street before deciding whether to lower my earflaps.)

But it's been strictly flaps-down weather for over a week, as a relentless Arctic deep freeze strains the country's patience - and its sagging infrastructure. Moscow has endured bone-chilling temperatures, hovering between 4 and 29 degrees below zero F. for the past eight days, with another wave of frigid air in the offing.

Meteorologists recall that thermometers plunged slightly further, to 36 degrees below zero F., during a bitter 1979 cold snap. But no one can remember anytime when it was this cold for this long.

"We get a cold snap like this maybe once in 50 years. This isn't normal," says Nadezhda Satina, a leading specialist at the Moscow Weather Bureau, which has been deluged with calls from anxious Muscovites all week.

But despite their concern, Russians are proud of their winters, which have helped to defeat invaders from Napoleon to Hitler. So when the mercury nose-dived last week, the nation's traditional display of bravado went into high gear.

Thousands came out to mark the Orthodox holiday of Epiphany last week with the famous rite of plunging three times into icy waters and crossing themselves to affirm their faith. At Bezdonnoye Lake, in northern Moscow, the dippers included dozens of shivering politicians who vied for the attention of TV cameras.

Ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhironovsky, wearing a floral-patterned bathing suit, emerged from his dive with frosty hair and flung a taunt at the outside world: "The reason Americans and western Europeans don't understand Russians is because they don't commune with nature like this."

But Mr. Zhirinovsky also implicitly acknowledged that much of the country's Soviet-era infrastructure had seen better days, instructing his chilled compatriots to turn off their refrigerators. Men should stop using electric razors and women forgo their daily TV soap operas, he added. And, oh yes, everyone should eat more high-calorie ice cream to stay warm, particularly the popular Zhirik brand - in which Zhirinovsky reputedly has a business interest.

But many Russians are resorting to a more traditional ritual to stay warm: drinking a few shots of vodka. Sales of alcoholic beverages soared by 30 percent over the past week, according to the Moscow-based National Alcohol Association. And in the town of Yaroslavl, about 180 miles north of Moscow, an elephant went berserk and ripped his cage apart after zookeepers fed it a bucket of vodka in an attempt to help it feel warmer.

Moscow shops report a huge surge in the sale of valenky, the toasty warm Russian peasant boots made of felt that have long been spurned as unfashionable. "People come in, buy valenky, put them on and leave the shop," says Viktoria Dubrovik, director of the Bitsa clothing shop in Moscow.

Of course, it's all relative. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Moscow, according to the city's weather bureau, was 47 degrees below zero 1940. For Russians in the country's vast Asian landmass, Siberia, that's a typical winter's day. Thermometers in the northern Siberian city of Yakutsk hit a numbing 96 degrees below zero F. last week.

Still, international crises such as Iran's nuclear gambit and Palestinian elections have dropped from sight as Russian TV scrambles to cover the fallout, some of it grim, from the pokholodaniya, or freeze.

The cold has killed more than 150 people this winter, about a third of them in the past week. In several Russian towns, central heating systems - once the pride of Soviet engineering - have been knocked out by burst pipes, leaving tens of thousands without heat in their homes.

Fires have multiplied in Moscow apartment buildings, due to overuse of electric heaters, makeshift fireplaces, and gas stoves left unattended, says Yury Nernashev, head of the State Fire Prevention Center.

And Monday the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems imposed power cuts on hundreds of factories and businesses as electricity usage soared beyond the grid's capacity. As voltages plunge, lights dim, TV screens flicker, and microwave ovens simply stop working.

But even if household freezers fail, at least that Zhirik ice cream won't melt anytime soon.

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