Snow isn’t Red, Snow isn’t Blue; Ice Hurts, and Your Back will Too

6 February 2019

In his latest blog, Brian discusses the Russian winter and his attempts to escape it!

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The heaviest snow in years, with more than 40cm in one night. Ice five inches thick. Falling so hard on said ice that I thought I had broken my tail bone. Frost on my eyelashes after half an hour outside in -20°C , and actual concern that I had a frostbitten hand. Being ‘rewarded’ more recently with snow every time I have said that Spring has arrived. I could probably spend this whole blogpost lamenting the cold reality (ha.) of Russian winter. Instead I will talk about my attempts to escape it, before the arrival of..not-Winter.

Moscow Snow

To get away, in February I took a weekend break to the southern city of Rostov on Don of “Those-soldiers were just in Ukraine as tourists” fame, where at +3°C it was considerably warmer. A subsequent day trip to the seaside birthplace of Anton Chekhov yielded the uniquely Russian experience of finding an empty whiskey bottle, placing a handwritten message inside, and casting it with childlike glee into the Azov Sea. Obviously, it being Russian winter, the bottle merely bounced off the surface with a sad *clonk* that any English literature student will recognise. 

Back in Moscow, the capital’s many sights and amenities offer respite from the cold. There are art galleries and museums rivalling those of London in the prestige and pedigree of their exhibitions; huge architectural monuments such as those cheerfully described by expats (maybe just me?) as ‘Stalinscrapers’ which after more than fifty years remain visible above the rest of the metropolis; seemingly a church for every day of the year; more ice rinks, cosy cafes and thriving bars than you can shake an ushanka at; and of course, the Kremlin and its Red Square. It’s all there for the taking. 

Engaging with sports clubs and societies, on the other hand, is made difficult by the language barrier. Consequently, foreign students who aren’t full degree students mostly socialize with each other if they haven’t become fluent in Russian through some freak accident.This comes at a price. A certain ritual exists in the dormitory or obshag, whereby every Friday and Saturday students participate in an elaborate game of Cat and Mouse with the babushki, whose enforcement duties include the repression of all drinking related activities in the dorm. Part and parcel of this tradition is the mad scramble to stow the vodka bottles, cigarettes and illegal guests in the cupboard or under the bed that follows the ominous knock on the door after 11pm. After ejection from a particular kitchen or bedroom, groups of inebriated refugees can be seen searching for safe havens at various times of the night. 

Moscow Sunshine

The administration isn’t all bad. A sudden show of humanity came with the arrival of a father-son pair of security guards who regularly played table tennis in the foyer, and were actually capable of interpersonal communication. The son even spoke some English! (This is a much bigger deal in Russia.) We clearly didn’t deserve them, and the powers that be must have agreed. They disappeared soon after the son was allegedly found in a student’s room, having clearly not been shoved into a closet in time. This followed the suspected exile of a cat (among other darker fates that have been suggested) who became the dorm’s mascot for one glorious week during my first semester. As the Russians saying goes, zhizn’ takaya: such is life. If not-Winter doesn’t arrive soon, I might start to agree with that sentiment. Until then, #FindKatya.

By Brian O'Connor