The first flakes are unmistakable. They don’t fall like the fluffy white powder of December, so much as slap you in the face with the full force of October’s wet promise of the six months of gloom that lie ahead. So it was at 11.30am on Saturday. The immediate response is confusion – why is my coat turning white? Then comes denial – is it just oddly coloured rain? And finally, acceptance – here we go again.
Winter is, of course, Moscow’s natural state. The slightest hint of frost brings Russians fumbling for their furs, checking skating rink schedules, ensuring soup ingredients are in full stock. And yet there are constant attempts to challenge its inevitable path. Moscow’s former mayor, Yury Luzhkov, devoted enormous effort to dreaming up snow-fighting schemes. In 2009, he proposed deploying jets to the skies outside Moscow to disperse snow-heavy clouds before they managed to reach the capital. It’s a commonly used technique in rainy Moscow, one that sees the jets spray rain clouds with liquid nitrogen and silver on big parade days. Any health effects, you might ask? Probably. Is that ever discussed? Nope.
Some thought the practice would end with Luzhkov’s dismissal on the eve of last year’s winter. After all, it’s not cheap – the 2009 proposal came with a 300m rouble (£6m) price tag. Luzhkov’s replacement, Sergei Sobyanin, has yet to comment on his feelings about snow or winter or anything really.
The new mayor, a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin, remains a nonentity after one year in office. Despite his origins – born and raised in Khanty- Mansiysk, in the darkest depths of Siberia – he also appears to lack much- needed knowledge on the science of snow removal. Sobyanin’s one tangible move as mayor has been to dig up many of the tarmac-like pavements that line Moscow’s main roads and replace them with cobblestones. They make for lovely summer strolling. And will likely turn the city into even more of an icetrap once the snow settles into their cracks for good. Navigating Moscow’s traffic-crazed streets is a stressful experience at the best of times – in winter, it’s downright exhausting.
But, thanks to outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, Russians will have one less worry this winter. Last year, Medvedev made what will remain the hallmark of his placeholder presidency: he cancelled daylight saving time. Using uncharacteristically tough and decisive language to announce the move last year, he said that time changes (or, as he referred to them, “the troubles”) brought on “stress and illness”, “upset the human biorhythm”, and, perhaps most importantly, caused unhappiness in “cows and other animals that don’t understand the clocks changing”. So when most of the rest of Europe changes to daylight saving in two weeks’ time, Russia will remain firmly planted. The cows will be happy – bankers, traders, and western journalists less so.
But for now, Saturday’s brief snowfall came and went like a message from the near future saying: “Don’t forget what you’re in for.” The city maintains 30,000 employees and 15,000 snowploughs in its snow-fighting arsenal and devotes around 500m roubles (£10.3m) to the great battle annually. And still every year it’s a disaster, with pedestrians killed by falling icicles, the city brought to a standstill in great serpentine traffic jams. Every year the snow comes, and every year it’s a surprise.
Russia’s political season officially ended last month when Putin announced he was returning to the presidency. So local newspapers have turned to what they report best: horrific crimes and mass food poisonings.
Rarely a day passes without news of entire schools or army regiments falling ill. On Monday, 41 children were hospitalised after eating bad food at a canteen in the port city of Sarapul. On Sunday, an investigation was opened in the Siberian town of Bratsk after 30 people fell ill and were hospitalised from eating bad eclairs. Investigators who visited the bakery that produced the eclairs spoke of paint chipping off the ceilings, mouldy shelves and employees who didn’t pass the most basic of health inspections.
Yet even they have nothing on the Moscow chef who killed his father-in-law and then allegedly served him to customers at his restaurant. According to police, the 54-year-old chef at the unnamed restaurant, well-known for its chebureki, or big meat-filled pastries, killed his 82-year-old father-in-law during a drunken brawl. Police refused to confirm or deny a report by tabloid Life News that the chef then ran his father-in-law’s body through a meat grinder in order to fill his chebureki – and serve them to customers for three days before being caught and sent to a psychiatric institution.
These tales would fill most readers with horror, but in Russia they are so commonplace as to barely inspire a raised eyebrow. What’s more, the system is such that whistle-blowers are actively discouraged from speaking out.
Last month, a Russian army major was jailed for four years by a military court in the far eastern city of Vladivostok after revealing that an officer was serving his conscripts dog food re-labelled as canned beef. The court found Igor Matveyev guilty of neglect and abuse of office in a case unrelated to the dog food scandal, but he insists it was cooked up for retaliation after he produced a popular YouTube video exposing the offence. And the officer who fed his conscripts dog food? He got a 202,000 rouble (£4,150) fine.