Big Chill Is No Snap For Needy Muscovites

It's payback time for Mother Nature.

After one of the balmiest autumns on record, winter has blown into Moscow with a vengeance, putting lives at risk and the goodwill of Muscovites to the test.

By late Thursday afternoon, the temperature had dropped to minus 24 degrees Celsius, a numbing cold that immediately began taking its toll on the city's less fortunate residents.

On Thursday alone, 40 frostbite sufferers were taken to hospitals, where two of them died, Interfax reported. Agence France Presse reported 38 people hospitalized for hypothermia, or severe exposure, and five deaths since the cold snap began last weekend.

Many of the victims are bomzhi, or homeless drifters, among them a nameless man whose lonely death on a Moscow street Tuesday was recorded by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Eighteen degrees of frost turned out to be too strong for the sick old man with neither a passport nor a hope in life," the paper said.

While authorities this week announced plans to rid the city of its homeless in time for Moscow's 850th anniversary celebration next summer, a few private charitable groups and businesses sought to provide some relief for the unsheltered, underclothed and underfed.

On Thursday, British Airways teamed up with the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy and the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim to feed hot meals to more than 1,000 bomzhi at Kazansky Rail "They were wearing what we might wear just to run from the office to the metro. I wouldn't want to spend the night on the street in what they were wearing."

The international medical organization M?dicines Sans Fronti?res has been active trying to meet medical needs of the homeless. And in another example of Muscovite winter goodwill, an unidentified local television station has been operating a night house for the homeless at 2 Ilovaiskaya Ulitsa, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported, adding that the station plans to expand the shelter into a neighboring restored building.

The icy cold also has been devastating for another group of homeless Muscovites -- the city's wandering cats and dogs. While cats find it easier to find a bearable place to hole up, dogs are often left to the elements and their own wits. Dr. Vladimir Fedorinov, the chief veterinarian at the Center for Emergency Veterinary Care, said hunger makes the animals all the more susceptible to the potentially deadly cold.

"The main thing is to eat. Lots of meat, lots of fat," he said. He said people could help the animals a great deal simply by giving them table scraps.

With assistance from the charitable organization Animal Rescue Fund, which Fedorinov helps direct, the center offers to help for any animal brought in.

"People bring strays in out of humanity," Fedorinov said. "We take care of them. And we sterilize them so there won't be even more homeless animals out in the cold."

As for animals that do have homes, Fedorinov advises that owners keep the walks short and that they provide some clothing for short-haired dogs.

In comparison with past years, just how cold is it? Anatoly Yakovlev, a spokesman for Roskomgidromet, which monitors weather in Russia, said that since consistent monitoring began 117 years ago, there have only been six New Year's nights on which the temperature was colder than minus 30, the last one in 1979. The coldest was 1905, at minus 33.6. Fifty-two percent of New Year's nights have been between minus 5 and plus 5, so this year's temperatures look to fall on the cold end of the scale.

Many in a crowd waiting 20 minutes for a bus outside the Savyolovskaya metro station took the cold in stride.

"Ah, it's ordinary," said Yevgeny Provotorov, at 70 a hardened veteran of Russian winters. "There's always frost. For a while it was strange, with no snow, but now everything's back to normal."

Natasha Gurina, 15, said that while "at New Year's there should be snow," the cold weather sometimes makes her just want to "sit home under a blanket and sleep."

Anyone wishing to donate clothing for Moscow's homeless can call the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim at the St. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church at 261-6654. The Animal Rescue Fund can be contacted at 248-7044.