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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ice Sculptures: Bringing Joy to a Frozen City

For thousands of Muscovites subdued by sunless days and weeks without warmth, Gorky Park's weekend ice and snow sculpture competition marked an explosive release of long-stifled joy.

"After looking at this, I can feel the happiness, the beauty within me," said Yelena, a Moscow doctor, 36, as she left the park Sunday afternoon with her two children. "It improved my mood."

It was children who seemed most enthusiastic about the huge outdoor display as they romped on a big slide made of ice blocks, climbing and poking unguarded sculptures and played with dozens of small, ornamental fairy-tale ice figures.

In a nearby cafe, waiting for their order, a young Moscow couple echoed the mood of many.

"Muscovites are sick of their normal lives, so they need this kind of recreation," said Marina Novoceltseva,18, a sales clerk in a hard currency store.

"There were smiles everywhere. It's freezing, but they are happy," said her companion, Dima Vlasov, an unemployed 22-year-old. "Moscow needs more of this."

Most of the 2 million people expected to view the scores of ice and snow sculptures now in Gorky Park through Feb. 20 come for a day outdoors and a chance to see the work of international artists.

But for Nikolai Fomin, captain of a five-man team of snow sculptors from Kargopol which won first place last year, there is something bigger going on at the Russian Open Snow and Ice Sculpture Championship.

"One of the reasons that this is so important is because it marks a renaissance of Russian folk art," said Fomin, 35, whose team captured second place in the snow category with a seven-meter high "Gulliver." "We have to renew our heritage, our ancient culture."

While there is a centuries-old tradition of winter sculpting in Russia, this is only the third year for the privately sponsored Moscow competition organized by the Ministry of Culture. With 22 teams from eight nations, the competition has grown to become Russia's biggest such event, according to spokeswoman Marina Rybina.

Winners in the contest's two main categories -- team sculpting in ice and snow -- were announced Saturday with Russians finishing in the top spots. An American team from Portland, Oregon, was the only foreign team to win anything third place in the ice division with "The Sailboat." Victors received a 1 million ruble (about $640) prize for first place, 700,000 for second and 600,000 for third.

Weather permitting, the sculptures will remain intact, and in some cases under militia guard, until the Feb. 20 end of the 16-day Vyogovey All-Winter Russian Festival, which includes folk dances, troika rides and an ice-disco show. The works are in both Red Square and the park, where admission is 2,000 rubles.

By early Sunday afternoon nearly all the sculpting teams had departed. Fomin sat alone outside the competition's Gorky Park office, smoking Bursa cigarettes, waiting to make the 12-hour train trip back to Kargopol, about 600 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

Talking with animation about his craft, Fomin said: "Last year, our first, we brought only an axe. But we learned from the other teams and this year we had axes, knives and barbed wire."

Using wood frames, they compacted the snow in blocks, which were then soaked with water.

Fomin said his Gorky Park audience is comfortable with snow as art. Not so in Kargopol. "The skeptics," he said, "think we come here for the money. That is not true, but when we came back with first prize, everybody was bowled over."

This year's top honor in the Moscow snow division went to a team from the Moscow Textile Institute for "I Love." They created an intricate 2 1/2 meter-high sculpture of two peacocks side by side with plumage forming a concave.

On Sunday, one of the most popular attractions was "The Musician," a violinist with an open case at his feet.

Watched by a young guard, children would approach the statue, take a warm coin from a pocket and stick it on the ice man, making him look like a chicken pox victim.