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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 January 2006, 14:57 GMT
Russians face freezing chaos

By Chloe Arnold
BBC News, Moscow

Russia is in the grip of a bitterly cold winter which is having severe consequences for both its residents and industry. Now the effects are extending to other parts of Europe.

Russian policeman outside the Kremlin
Freezing cold has brought life to a halt in many parts of Russia
It was 32C yesterday. That is, minus 32C.

Russians do not bother saying the minus part because at this time of year it almost never gets above zero.

Of course they are used to temperatures here that we only come across in our deep freezes. But this week has brought the sort of cold that has even the hardiest of Muscovites shaking their heads.

It has not been this cold here since 1979.

It is deceptive, because as I write this, the sun is streaming in through the window and I can hear children laughing and throwing snowballs at each other in the yard at the back of the house.

But when you step outside, the cold hits you like a smack between the eyes, the hairs in your nose start to freeze and unless you wrap a scarf around your face, your cheeks become numb within minutes.

The reason the children are throwing snowballs is that a lot of schools across the capital have closed. You do not have to study here if the temperature reaches minus 30C.

It is so cold that trolleybuses and trams have stopped working. The overhead wires have become so brittle they are simply snapping to pieces.

In any case, it is far too cold to stand at a bus stop waiting for a bus and as a result, the metro is full to bursting with passengers backing up as far as street level at some stations.

Power rationing

A man clears snow near St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square
This winter is colder than even most Russians are used to
Wednesday night saw the highest demand for electricity in the capital for 15 years.

The city's authorities are appealing to people not to plug in extra heaters so that there is enough energy to go round.

The lights above the giant advertising hoardings in the centre have been switched off and casinos have been asked to turn off the flashing signs outside their premises to prevent further rationing of electricity.

At Moscow Zoo all the animals have been moved indoors, even the polar bears
A friend rang to tell me he had been working by candlelight for most of the day. His office has just moved to a former furniture factory and the authorities have switched off the lights in the building.

Tramps who sleep in the ventilation shafts of the metro and are usually asked to move on by the police have been given a special dispensation to stay put until it gets a little warmer.

At Moscow Zoo all the animals have been moved indoors, even the polar bears.

And there are rumours in some of the newspapers that the elephants are being given two litres of vodka a day to warm them up.

Icy dangers

In southern Russia, 10 people froze to death in just one day this week
One of the biggest problems every year comes from people getting drunk outside and then falling over in the snow and freezing to death.

Russians sometimes drink heavily on their own, and outdoors. Every spring when the city starts to thaw, road sweepers discover dozens of bodies under the snow and ice.

This winter, though, it is likely to be a lot worse.

In Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, in southern Russia, 10 people froze to death in just one day this week. All of them had been drinking.

Entrepreneurial spirit

A homeless woman surrounds herself in plastic bags to keep warm(Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
Homeless Russians are particularly susceptible to the extreme winter
But it is not all bad news.

Winter clothing stores are doing a roaring trade and sports shops are selling out of sledges, ice skates and cross-country skis.

With cars refusing to start all over the city, gangs of enterprising young men are riding round with jump leads in their pockets, offering to start people's engines and then charging them a small fortune.

And the cold has not dampened the spirits of that curious breed here known as the walrus.

These men and women regularly strip off and dunk themselves in ice holes in lakes or rivers.

Some of the oil wells in Siberia have frozen, and Russia is producing 200,000 barrels of oil a day less than it was last month
The colder it is, the better, they say, though I cannot imagine many things worse than standing in the middle of a frozen river with no clothes on in minus 32C.

State emergency

But if you think it sounds cold in Moscow, how about this.

Last week, the city of Tomsk in western Siberia declared a state of emergency when temperatures fell to 57C. Sorry, I mean minus 57C.

It was so cold most people's thermometers were no use any more as they do not go past minus 40C.

More seriously, some of the oil wells in Siberia have frozen, and Russia is producing 200,000 barrels of oil a day less than it was last month.

And Gazprom, the state gas company, has had to cut back its exports to western Europe to try to cover demand domestically. That has meant there has been a surge in gas prices in Europe.

But some people are taking it all in their stride.

A man from BBC Radio 3 was travelling to Siberia this week to make a programme about the region. "I'd better warn you that it's below minus 50C there," I told him on the telephone before he arrived.

"Ah," he said. "Well in that case, I think I ought to buy myself a hat."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 19 January, 2006 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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