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1 Jan, 2010 05:07

Russian weather: the great national unifier

Russian weather: the great national unifier

The Russian people are no strangers to harsh weather conditions, but to what extent has the occasionally brutal climate played in forging Russia’s national identity?

A popular souvenir for visitors to Russia is a T-shirt that sports the simple phrase: “I’ve been to Russia, there are no bears.” Although not entirely accurate (it’s been a very long time since any wild animals have been reported near Red Square), this bazaar wisdom challenges our deeply entrenched stereotypes about this vast land of 11 time zones.

Although bears are not running wild through the streets of Moscow, there are days in deep winter, when the wind is howling and permafrost covers everything, when one would at least expect to glimpse a penguin family out for a stroll in the city. Indeed, despite the presence of air conditioners in many Russian cities, and dire warnings about global warming, Russian winters show no sign of ending anytime soon.

In late December, Muscovites were bracing themselves against arctic-like conditions that could best be described as painful; any piece of flesh not covered in animal fur, or the next-best-thing, quickly felt as though it was being hit by a branding iron. Even ATM machines were reportedly freezing up across the city.

In the middle of all this frigid fun, the mayor of Moscow berated the meteorologists when a surprise snowstorm snuck in below the radar, bringing the Russian capital to a grinding halt. Now there is loud talk about “seeding” the pregnant storm clouds so that City Hall doesn’t have to spend enormous sums every winter keeping the streets clean, and the meteorologosts can sleep better at night.

So, in light of all this climatic chaos, is there anything beneficial about Russia’s occasionally brutal weather conditions? Are the Russian people, veterans to every sort of climatic outburst, better for the experience? Moreover, does the wild weather actually serve to unite the Russian people in a way that is now largely taken for granted?

First, there are the myriad traditions that are somehow connected to the weather. Indeed, what kind of a national creature would Russia be without those age-old methods for beating the cold, like tea-drinking marathons around the samovar, trips to the banya to remember what heat feels like, and even the occasional evening of cold vodka being chased down the throat with warm toasts? 

A Russian Weather Primer

Russia, thanks to its vast landmass and geographical location, enjoys a diversity of climates. Although a large slab of the country is stuck with a subarctic climate (think Siberia) there are regions of Russia that enjoy  subtropical weather.

The Republic of Krasnodar Krai, which is located in southern Russia near the Black Sea, has a climate that, depending on the place, is either Mediterranean or subtropical. This is the region, incidentally, where Sochi, the host of the XXII Olympic Winter Games, is located. Other parts of Russia enjoy a temperate climate, with extreme seasonal weather patterns, including hot summers.

What these “survival” techniques have forged over the centuries, it seems, is an impermeable bond, not to mention unifying idea, between the Russian people. A national identity forged in ice and snow.

“Russians have become accustomed to the general harshness of the winter months,” commented Antonina Bagdanovich, a Moscow-based psychologist. “And although this has made us stronger, and perhaps more adept at handling difficult life situations, we still like to find relief [from these conditions] through social activities.”

“It is undeniable that Russia’s weather has helped to unify the nation in a variety of different, ways,” Bagdanovich added.

Consider how this national cohesiveness, combined with Russia’s well-known survival instincts, has helped the nation to repel more than one invader.

General Frost, reporting for duty

Russian weather is a double-edged sword: although it has contributed to the early demise of countless Russians (and foreigners), it has helped to save numerous Russian lives as well. The most recent example, perhaps, is from World War II, when the Soviet Union found itself on the defensive from a blistering Nazi blitzkrieg, codenamed Operation Barbarossa.

Following upon some initial successes in his ill-founded campaign, Hitler’s powerful forces, desirous of capturing Moscow, found itself overwhelmed not only by the fierce resistance of the Red Army, but the approaching winter.

General Heinz Guderian of the Nazi Army wrote in his autobiographical work (‘Memoirs of a Soldier’): “By October 7, 1941, the German offensive in this area [around Bryansk] was bogged down. The first snow… quickly melted, turning roads into stretches of mud, a phenomenon known as rasputitsa in Russia. German armored groups were greatly slowed and were unable to easily maneuver, wearing down men and machinery.”

Russian troops, now under the command of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the brilliant military strategist who was forced to rebuild the Soviet Army “from scratch,” regrouped his forces on the outskirts of Moscow.

“The enemy,” as Zhukov wrote in his memoirs, “ignoring the casualties, was making frontal assaults, willing to get to Moscow by any means necessary.”

The fortunes of war passed back and forth between aggressor and defender, and by November it was still too early to predict who would emerge victorious. That is, until “General Frost” entered the battlefield.

By early December, Russia’s most reliable ally to date, Mother Nature, lent her formidable backup support in the battle. Around Moscow, temperatures plunged to -50 Celsius, placing the German troops, largely unprepared for the Russian winter, at a serious disadvantage. Even the German-made machines of war froze up in the freezing cold.

Meanwhile, the Russian troops, camouflaged like chameleons in white uniforms, with special units outfitted with skis and sniper rifles, had the natural advantage of fighting on familiar [Read: Cold] terrain.

The lightning German offensive ground to a halt at Moscow’s frozen doorstep.

As Guderian summarized the plight of the German Army, “the offensive on Moscow failed…. We underestimated the enemy's strength, as well as his size and climate. Fortunately, I stopped my troops on December 5… otherwise complete catastrophe would have been unavoidable.”

Almost two centuries earlier, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote the memorable words the Germans failed to heed: “Of the fifty battles I have fought, the most terrible was that before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy victors, and the Russians can rightly call themselves invincible.”

According to historian Adam Zamoyski, out of Napoleon’s invading force of about 600,000 soldiers, less than 40,000 made it back to France alive. The remainder remained in Russia “in one condition or another.” In addition to the retreating army being hounded by the Russian army, not to mention the incensed villagers, French forces were decimated by “snow, starvation and disease.”

More than one French soldier was probably asking himself: “Why is our great Napoleon so desirous to be in possession of such a land!”

Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s "grand army" did more than just fuel the production of Russian war medals; it sparked a wave of cultural productions (Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, and Tchaikovsky’s uplifting 1812 Overture) that provided moral and spiritual inspiration for the Russian people in later times of troubles.

Literary quest for warmth

Russia’s extreme climatic conditions often serve as allegorical element to add a sense of desperation to many a Russian novel.

In Dr. Zhivago, Pasternak’s celebrated novel, the protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, attempts to escape the horrors of a world wracked by war and violence and sets off on a slow, tortuous journey to Siberia. There, in a place seemingly beyond the pain of war, and the deprivations of communism, Zhivago attempts to find peace with himself. The omnipresent snow and ice symbolizes innocence in a world gone mad.

Or consider Alexander Pushkin's melodramatic story “The Snow Storm," where the omnipresent white stuff provides the cool background to an illicit love affair.

Pushkin introduces us to Maria Gavrilovna who fell head over heels for Vladimir Nikolayevich, a poor sub-lieutenant in the army. But her doting parents “observing their mutual inclination, forbade their daughter to think of him.”

Nevertheless, Pushkin’s lovers “saw each other alone in the little pine wood or near the old chapel,” where they “exchanged vows of eternal love, lamented their cruel fate, and formed various plans.”

And then along came Old Man Winter, of course, to extinguish the flames that the adamant parents could not. After all, this story took place before the advent of instant messaging and four-wheel drive vehicles.

“The winter came and put a stop to their meetings,” Pushkin tells us, “but their correspondence became all the more active.”

Eventually, Maria and Vladimir decide that a little thing like the Russian winter would not get in the way of their affections. So, despite the bad season, and stern parental warnings, the lovebirds devised a plan to elope and get married in secret.

So off went the impulsive Vladimir to steal away his future bride, until, yes, Father Frost intervened yet again. Things quickly go from bad to worse for our smitten sub-lieutenant.

“Vladimir discovered with horror that he had entered an unknown forest. Despair took possession of him. He whipped the horse; the poor animal broke into a trot, but it soon slackened the pace, and in about a quarter of an hour it was scarcely able to drag one leg after the other, in spite of all the exertions of the unfortunate Vladimir….”

Will Vladimir survive the snowstorm and meet his beloved Maria in time to complete the nuptials? Or will he die of exposure en route to the altar? Perhaps he doesn’t make it to the church and poor Maria, in a state of irreversible distress, tosses herself from the church's bell tower. After all, any ending, however tragic, is imaginable when the Russian winter is involved.

But it is exactly these harsh conditions that have given the Russian people their perseverance in the face of hardship, as well as an unadulterated passion for life, and quite possibly a national unifying concept.

Cheers to the Russian toast

Outside of the insulated world of literature, the cold weather has played a large part in promoting another popular Russian event: drinking. Admittedly, this pastime has been a persistent problem for the Motherland since that first peasant squeezed something drinkable from a simple potato.

At the risk of glorifying drinking, the Russians, perhaps due to the innate desire to add warmth to every setting, have turned simple alcohol consumption into something of an art form. This is not due to the alcohol per se, but rather to the famous Russian toast, which has evolved into something of a national treasure.

Even the loquacious British, despite their profound mastery of speech and articulation, are quite content to utter a simple “Cheers” before tossing back a cold one. But for the Russians, the toast provides some sort of pretext for getting together with friends and family in the first place.

“I would rather live in Russia on black bread and vodka,” quipped Isadora Duncan, an American-born dancer who is considered by some to be the mother of modern dance, “than in the United States at the best hotels.”

It was certainly not the vodka that impressed Duncan, but rather the atmosphere of warmth in which it was consumed. Perhaps to a large degree the occasionally grandiloquent Russian toast can be traced back to Russia’s brutal weather, which has a way of making a person feel like a survivor.

And for survivors there is nothing better than to be in the company of good friends. So when in the company of good friends, when everybody (still) has their health, not to mention their lives, it is essential to mark the moment with heartfelt words to accompany the firewater.

It’s as if the Russians are saying, ‘We have survived everything and more that Mother Nature can throw at us, so now let’s sit down and enjoy the fact that we are alive and be merry.’

A final question, which seems appropriate in our crazy modern age when so many people have come to believe that every problem can be solved by a trip to the pharmacy or psychologist: Does the severe Russian cold preclude trips to the psychiatrist or anti-depressant medication when life becomes too stressful and even unbearable? Does this explain Russia's healthy and natural state of mind?

Historically, the Russian people have largely shunned 'over-the-counter' methods for beating the blues in favor of more socially related remedies (more than one Russian problem has been solved over hot cups of tea in the kitchen). After all, what better way of beating the blues (or cold) than in the company of friends?

So the diehard Russians toast to the tainted memory of Dr. Freud and get on with the great act of living – despite, or because of, the weather outside.

Robert Bridge, RT