Russia, Melting

Jim Heinz, Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press, reports:

As Moscow’s record heatwave began, I threw open all the screenless windows in my apartment, hoping for some breeze — but mostly what I got was visits from bugs and, briefly, an inquisitive crow. Then, tendrils of the acrid smoke from the peat-bog fires surrounding the city wafted in, bringing nausea and dry-mouth.

The recommendation of Russia’s top doctor to hang wet sheets at the windows to block the smoke just makes the rooms more stifling. With no end in sight to the misery, another doctor’s advice may be the only one thing that brings relief — think as little as possible. In my 11 years in Moscow, the most frequent question from friends abroad has been “Aren’t the winters tough?” Maybe so. But Russians handle winter with aplomb — fur hats, afternoons in steamy bathhouses, long evenings gulping warming vodka around the table in toasty kitchens.

The country’s not geared for summer, however.

Air conditioning is rare, many apartments are laid out in a way that discourages air circulation, and their brick and concrete walls tend to hold heat like a pottery kiln. Even appliances aren’t up to coping with heat: a colleague complained with amused outrage that the ice in her freezer was melting.

Usually these summer snags are little more than a brief irritation; a few days of 30 C (85 F) heat, followed by rains that cool things off to around 23 (75 F). This year is different — several unbroken weeks of temperatures as high as 38 (100 F). Moscow, a city that has beaten back huge military assaults and survived horrifying terrorist attacks, is under a quiet siege that it seems helpless to repel.

Moscow’s aggressive and autocratic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, in the past has made headlines by claiming the ability to control the weather, seeding clouds on the city’s outskirts to ensure that rain doesn’t spoil parades and ceremonies. He can’t be a rainmaker this summer — climate scientists say there isn’t enough moisture in the air to create rain artificially.

Subway riders, generally docile even in the system’s appalling crowds, have suddenly grown restive, demanding that authorities start putting air conditioning on the trains. Each day the rides become worse, as trains acting like giant pistons suck smoke from the outskirts’ fires into center-city stations. The official response hasn’t brought peace of mind. The Emergencies Ministry announced it was buying more firefighting planes — Russian-made Be-200s that the ministry touts as the best in the world for the job — but they won’t be ready for years.

State-controlled television news shows plodding footage of leaders meeting with officials and telling them to work diligently. President Dmitry Medvedev this week pointedly told the country that even though he was in the resort city of Sochi, he wasn’t on vacation. Relentless heat, thickening smoke, dubious officialdom — it’s a lot to have on one’s mind, and a prominent Russian physician warns that worrying about it all could be dangerous.

“It’s been shown that mental activity in the heat unfavorably affects the nervous system,” Igor Stupakov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Medicine’s Bakulev heart surgery center, was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency. But it’s hard not to think about it. The usual Russian strategies for escape are dachas and drinking, but neither seem attractive this summer. Dachas can be lovely, but only if the forests around them aren’t on fire. Personal experience suggests that the morning-after effects of a few drinks are significantly aggravated by a night of breathing in peat smoke.

And thinking actually can help Muscovites get through the heat, at least in the cold-comfort sense of realizing that much of the country has it worse. The city’s not in flames. Residents are trudging and griping, but not yet fleeing and weeping like thousands of people in the fire zones. That point came home this week in the office, when I was sweating and griping after a 10-minute walk from the grocery store. A colleague who had spent the day amid fires about 150 kilometers (100 miles) outside the city came in and exclaimed:  “Moscow smells great!”

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One response to “Russia, Melting

  1. There is a saying in Italy that Russia has “six months of winter and three months of Hell” (Sei mesi d’inverno e tre mesi d’inferno”). So news of the ferocity of Russian summers has gone around.

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