December 17, 1997 in Nation/World

Moscow Faces Cold War With Vodka, Grit

Alessandra Stanley New York Times
 

Vodka sales are up, primary schools are closed, outdoor vendors and prostitutes have fled indoors, and even hardened Russian men have pulled down the flaps of their fur hats. It is bitterly, unseasonably cold in Moscow - minus 4 Fahrenheit and dropping.

Five people died from the cold, and 138 were hospitalized on Monday night, when the temperature dropped to minus 26, the coldest temperature for that day since 1882. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported Tuesday that as many as 700 people were injured falling on icy sidewalks or being hit by falling icicles.

Russians are reacting with their customary blend of personal fortitude and callousness.

“What can we do about it?” Andrei Varchenya, a spokesman for Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, responded when asked about special measures the city was taking to cope with the severe temperatures. “Why should we do anything about it?”

Varchenya did not seem too worried about the city’s growing numbers of homeless, estimated at around 300,000, who are most vulnerable to the freezing temperatures.

“They should live in houses, not on the street,” he told Reuters. “There is no reason to live on the street.”

Those fortunate enough to have permanent shelter made a point of shrugging off the icy winds that kept the city’s schoolchildren at home and drove many vendors who throng the outside of subway stations to skip work.

Larisa and Eduard Simeryuk, a couple who sell candy and cigarettes in a kiosk near the subway, showed up for work as usual, bundled in three layers of sweaters and coats. Larisa Simeryuk wore a fur coat draped over her wool coat. They took turns racing into the subway station to warm up.

“It’s incredibly cold, but what can we do?” Simeryuk said.

“We have to earn money. Anyway, Russians are used to the cold. We’re born with the ability to withstand it.”

Fires have broken out over the city, mostly caused by people burning wood in basements to stay warm. Firefighters have been hampered by frozen hydrants.

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