More info from a Russian tutor in London which you may find interesting but not learn in a Russian course!

Russian winter

It's not always cold in Russia!

Teaching Russian lessons in London, I am often asked questions about the Russian climate, and particularly, what winters are like. To a British person who has never been to Russia it is associated with eternal cold and snow. Just to set the record straight: most of the territory of Russia is very hot in summer, much warmer than the UK. But to balance that we have cold, and sometimes very cold winters.

How does one live when it's minus 20 outside?

Talking to my students I have realised that what we, having grown up in Russia, take for granted, may be curious and useful to know for foreign visitors. So Russian lessons aside, let me tell you what happens in Russia in the winter.

What is it like to go about your daily routine in minus 20 degrees? Believe it or not, it’s not as bad as it sounds to a British ear. It’s just hard work because you have to put on and take off tons of clothes all the time! Lots of my students who come back from Russia and Kazakhstan (where winters can be extremely cold), start recounting their experience with “Well, actually, it was OK. It was cold outside but hot inside. And since we didn’t stay outside long, we ended up being hot quite a lot of the time!”

Here are the facts:

Winter temperatures in Russia

In the European part of Russia (Moscow and its surroundings is what I am familiar with) winter usually lasts from the middle of November until the middle of February. Winter for us means snowdrifts, frosty temperatures, and lots of ice. Temperatures vary from plus 3C to minus 40C (extremely rare, only occurs at night). The normal winter temperature is about minus 10, which feels like minus 1 or 2 in London. Russian cold is dry, so it is not as penetrating as English wet cold. On nice days, when the sun shines, the skies are blue and the snow sparkles, minus 10 is a very agreeable temperature.

How long is the winter?

Winter lasts about 5 months of the year, so you cannot stop to wait for it to pass. In all areas of life, it’s business as usual in winter: transport runs normally, kids go to school, planes take off, shops are open, people do sports and walks. We are used to winter conditions, so we just get on with it.

Efficient heating is a must

Cold temperatures outside do not mean that you should freeze in your home. Contrary to British stereotype, Russians are a nation of softies who love being warm! Flats in big cities are centrally heated 24 hours a day with huge outside communal boilers, servicing a whole area. The heating is turned on in October and turned off in April. There is a period of 2-3 weeks in summer when heating systems are serviced and flats are left without hot water – the price of efficient heating in winter. You cannot adjust the temperature in your flat, the state is heating it for you. People who are not warm enough use electric heaters in addition to radiators. People who are too hot open the windows. Heating is vital for survival, so it is subsidised by the state and the temperature in your house does not reflect your income. It’s more of a “postcode lottery”! Blocks of flats in the centre of Moscow are the most heated ones. The average temperature in winter inside is plus 20-23C, however cold it may be outside. It is often impossible to tell what the temperature outside may be, and if it’s very frosty, it hits you in the face giving you a nasty shock as you open the front door! Most people wear T-shirts around the house even when it’s -20C outside. British people usually find Russian homes too hot!

Russian countryside in winter

If you live in the country, however, you have to heat your own house. Most country houses have huge wood burning stoves, so one of your chores is to prepare enough firewood for the winter. A traditional Russian stove is made of bricks and in the old days used to be the most important thing in a country house: a family cooked in it, sat around it, slept on it (on a sort of a shelf on top of it). These days the stove powers the central heating, so that the heat is evenly distributed.

Needless to say, all houses have double and sometimes triple glazing.

Public transport in winter

Public transport in Moscow does not stop in any weather. Buses, trolleybuses and trams are pretty robust, they just plough on through the snow. Trains are built like tanks, they are about 1.5 times bigger than British trains, with huge wheels, and the wire for the electric supply is suspended above the track. Platforms do get very slippery though, and small suburban platforms are not cleaned, so passengers need to make tracks through the snow and hold on tight while entering the train. The tube is totally impervious to the weather since it’s underground. But the granite steps leading to tube stations can be very slippery!

Cleaning the snow and ice

In the city of Moscow there are about 15,000 snow ploughs and all sorts of snow cleaning machines, clearing the snow off the streets 24/7. Snow cleaning machines look like combine harvesters – they pick up the snow and spit it out into lorries that accompany them. The lorries then dump the snow on the river (I think…) Pavements are cleaned manually by an army of street cleaners with shovels and crowbars (to break the ice). Both streets and pavements are sprinkled with chemicals and salt which help to melt the snow but ruin your shoes and car tyres. I hear that dogs’ feet suffer too! A typical Moscow winter sound at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning is the sound of scraping of shovels on the pavement. All these activities must cost a fortune, but without them life would be impossible.

Getting out and about

So if you live in a big city, you can confidently leave your house in the morning, knowing that you won’t get stuck in the snow and will get there. If you live in the country though, it’s a whole different ballgame. You are on your own against the elements: cleaning your own driveway/footpath, shovelling the snow off the roof, breaking off the icicles and taking care of the area around your house. It’s hard work, so no wonder Russians love to live in towns!

It's seriously slippery!

Even in big cities pavements get very slippery, especially when a thaw is followed by frost. You need to take extreme care when walking on ice, and it makes walking much slower and sometimes quite painful! Most people develop a sort of penguin walk, slow and balanced, but falls are very common, often resulting in broken limbs. I used to fall quite badly at least once every winter, but got away with it. And I do hugely appreciate London’s non-slip pavements in winter!

Russian winter footwear

What do you wear on your feet, leaving your warm centrally heated house in the morning and stepping on a snow free but icy pavement? If you are a woman, high heels, of course! Russians wear fur-lined boots in the winter, and lots of younger women balance on high heels because it looks good. I used to do it myself, and still do (although the height of the heel has considerably gone down), and can testify that it is possible and relatively safe.

Russian winter clothes

Clothes wise, you need a very warm coat and of course Russians love their furs! If you go to Moscow in winter, be prepared to see a “carnival of animals”: minks, foxes and raccoons are leading the way, followed by humble rabbits and sheep. Worn by men, women and children alike. Apologies to animal rights supporters.

The killer icicles

Everyone has heard of icicles falling off the roofs killing people. Yes, it is true but extremely rare. Icicles are cleared off the roofs regularly, but they grow back with a vengeance. The latest tragic incident was about a month ago in St Petersburg, when an icicle killed a baby in a pram. The mayor promised to punish those responsible – the municipal services…

Driving in winter

Finally, how do people drive in the winter? The answer is – with difficulty at first and then you get the hang of it. Everyone has winter tyres which are put on in November. It's a legal requirement. There is a fair bit of skidding and sliding. And it takes a while to start your car in the morning and defrost it! One of the new gadgets is a remote control device that lets you start your car before you leave your house (it looks like a telly remote control), so that by the time you come down from your 10th floor, the car is warm and running! Pretty cool but expensive.

The days when it's best to stay inside

And there are of course days when the cold is so extreme (extreme cold starts at about -30C) or the snowfall is so fierce that even the well-oiled Russian winter fighting machine does not cope. Cars get stuck. Children do not go to school. And you can only get from your house to the tube in two or three goes, making survival stops in all the shops on the way. But it’s rare and doesn’t last.

It's an experience!

Still planning to visit Russia in winter? It’s certainly different, but the odds are that you may arrive there and it’s plus 3 with terrible slush under your feet… So good luck, and brush up on your Russian swear words in case you fall over… I can’t tell you any. I am a strict Russian teacher. But listen to the people in the streets.