How Russians Deal with the Cold

Surviving a Russian winter

Bit nippy out


How Russians Deal with the Cold

In a country where the temperature can sometimes drop even lower than -50 degrees Celsius in winter, you'd expect the natives know something about how to deal with this face-numbing level of coldness. For a start, they can give you a rough idea of the temperature by gauging certain factors; if the mucous in your nose has started to freeze (an odd but not unpleasant feeling), it must be around -20C. If the water in your eyes starts to freeze (most uncomfortable), the temperature has hit somewhere near the -30C mark.

Most foreigners will be kindly warned that below -25C it is inadvisable to spend more than 20 minutes outside. It is also wise to breathe through your nose not your mouth, as the nose warms up the air before it gets any further into your body. Breathing solely through your mouth runs the risk of your lungs freezing and then possibly collapsing. Not a very nice prospect. In fact, people who are indigenous to the region show two main facial features that are meant to combat the cold climate. One is that they have relatively small eyes, which is supposed to help against snow-blindness, and the other is that they have large noses. A larger nose means that air entering into it spends a longer time there, hence more time to get warmed up.

Unlike many other countries in Europe, Russia doesn't tend to spread salt on the roads. Instead, they will normally put down sand. The reason being that salt water freezes at about -4C, so when the average winter temperature is -15C, using salt would be pointless. Changing car tires to studded ones also ensures a really solid grip on the ice.

Getting around on foot can also be tricky. When the paths are covered in sheet ice, it’s very difficult not to turn a casual walk into what looks some bizarre dance that ends up with you flat on your backside. So why is it that you never see Russians slipping and ending up on the floor? It’s not that they have special shoes with spikes or grips, it’s because nearly every Russian knows how to either ice-skate and/or ski. Once you have these skills, you develop a different sense of balance that helps to compensate for walking on ice. After a few weeks in these conditions, it is possible to learn this sense, but only after a succession of embarrassing falls.

If you can’t be bothered to walk, then why not ski? Cross-country skiing is not just a sport, it’s a way of getting down to the shops or visiting your granny. It’s a lot harder than it looks to get the hang of, but once you’ve cracked it, you can get up to 15 mph if you really push yourself. It is also possible to go uphill by pointing the skis outward and waddling like a duck, but it’s hard work.

And then there's what to wear. Most Russians will initially put on some kind of one-piece undergarment similar to long-johns. This is usually followed by woollen tops and heavy cotton trousers. Whether you agree with it or not, fur is commonly worn, both for fashion and warmth, with reindeer hide being considered the best for snugness. A popular choice of footwear among the older generation are valenki. These are boots made of sheep wool and look very warm but also slightly comical.

Last but not least is the big, squarish hat that everyone associates with Russia. A fur or sheepskin affair with big flaps to cover the ears. Yes, Russians do wear these and they are actually quite common, and with good reason, they are really cosy and warm!

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How Russians Deal with the Cold
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