Dealing With Winter Hazards

Winter in Moscow must be beautiful!" a friend of mine said in a recent phone call from sunny Australia. No doubt she was imagining sunlight dancing off the snow-covered cupolas of St. Basil's Cathedral, soft white powder blown from tree branches by a gentle wind, or glistening flakes falling softly on ice skaters on Red Square.

But anyone who has experienced the winter months in Moscow will tell you that the reality is, at times, somewhat bleaker. "I just suffered my first fall," a friend told me last week. "No one really took any notice, apart from one woman who asked me whether I was still alive."

Under Stalin, armies of dvorniki, or street cleaners, were charged with sweeping Moscow's sidewalks clean of snow and ice. Nowadays, the battle against ice on the sidewalks and roads has become more high-tech and, more recently, eco-friendly.

The main weapon is de-icing chemicals, which have often been blamed by Muscovites for damaging their footwear and even for the death of fish in the Moscow River into which the chemicals flow.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Moscow's snow may make for some beautiful winter scenes, but danger is never far away for those not watching their step.
But Pyotr Biryukov, the city's first deputy mayor and municipal services chief, is so confident that new chemicals to be used this year will not damage your footwear that he has announced that the city will reimburse anyone whose shoes are damaged.

"If people's footwear suffers from the de-icing agents used by the city, the city budget will compensate for the damage," he said at a news conference at the beginning of November. Claiming such compensation may, however, prove to be rather complicated -- damaged footwear must undergo laboratory tests to prove that the chemicals were to blame.

The new chemicals have undergone extensive testing for their ecological cleanliness and, Biryukov said, their effects on footwear. "We will use chemicals that don't cause damage to their surroundings." In addition, 150,000 tons of stone chippings were prepared to be spread on sidewalks, bus stops and in courtyards instead of the chemicals.

Practical advice for avoiding falls includes taking small steps, investing in shoes with good grip and avoiding ice. One Russian friend swears by her stiletto heels as the best way to stay on her feet by piercing the ice and providing extra grip -- naturally, not an option for all of us. As icy conditions hit Moscow at the beginning of November, Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Sergei Vlasov recommended sticking bandages or sandpaper onto the soles of shoes.

Ice on the sidewalks is just one of the winter hazards that pedestrians face in Moscow. The danger of falling icicles means that the threat can come from above as well as below. It may sound like something out of a low-budget comedy film, but icicles falling from roofs are responsible for dozens of deaths and injuries every year.

The removal of icicles longer than 10 centimeters from buildings is required by law and enforced by the city. Every day, local authorities check no fewer than 1,500 buildings, and fines await those who do not take the appropriate measures to deal with the buildup of ice and snow.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Traditional methods of removing ice from buildings are often the most effective.
But if falling ice does injure a passer-by, those responsible for not clearing the roofs have more to worry about than just a fine. In a case in Nizhny Novgorod seen as a legal precedent for Russia, former student Dmitry Nekrasov received 1.2 million rubles ($50,000) in compensation last February after being seriously injured by falling ice -- the largest sum ever awarded in such a case. The incident happened in 2003, but the legal process dragged on for several years as courts tried to establish who was to blame. Eventually, both the owners of the building and the city administration were found responsible.

Avoiding the danger from above is a matter of watching out for roofs that are iced over, particularly during thaws, as this is when ice is most often dislodged. And if you see a metallic red pyramid with the sign opasnaya zona, or dangerous area, with or without some red-and-white warning tape attached, it's best to walk around if you want to avoid a lump of snow or, even worse, an icicle plummeting toward your head.

But perhaps the only approach to the dangers of a Moscow winter is a characteristically Russian acceptance of fate: "Let what happens happen." After all, the only possible way to completely avoid the hazards of a fall or a shower of snow is not realistic -- staying inside all winter.