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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Winter Freeze Brings Cheer to the Crotchety

Russians love to grumble. Everybody knows this. Fortunately, in Russia, there are ample reasons to indulge in this pastime. Ever uncertain politics, an economy in permanent crisis, corrupt government officials and unpredictably frightening election results are just a few examples.


The most universal complaint is, of course, the weather. I myself remember how in more than one of my columns, I -- as much as my fellow Petersburgers -- whined about the city's wretched climate and especially its endless dark winter.


The worst thing about recent winters, however, is that they have been barely recognizable. Mild temperatures would always render beautiful, newly fallen snow into an ugly mixture of slime and mud. Low, gray skies and gusty, bone-chilling winds made every outing an ordeal.


This year, at last, we are having a real winter. For nearly a full month the temperature never surpassed zero Celsius. But it seems as though Petersburgers have forgotten how to behave in a real winter. Traditional winter sports have become nearly extinct. Little boys in my courtyard play ice hockey without wearing real skates. There is no skating rink anywhere around, although there is more than enough space to make one. Fewer and fewer people own skates and skis, and even fewer know how to skate or ski. It's as though people refuse to believe winter is here.


The weather was especially generous last Sunday on Orthodox Christmas Day. With family and friends, I went to Pavlovsk, one of the city's suburban gems with an exquisite palace and magnificent park. The day was exceptionally beautiful: dim winter sunshine playing on the snow-covered trees and reflecting on the rounded contours of the gilded palace, children riding in Russian troikas driven by ruddy-cheeked girls bundled up in sheepskin coats.


Still, it was sad to see the splendors of nature and architecture being enjoyed by so few on such a gorgeous day. The museum tries hard. What I remembered from old days as a stinking, Soviet-style cafeteria with musty cheese sandwiches and lukewarm tea has become a stylish restaurant in a newly restored palace interior.


There is some magic in the current string of holidays: New Year's Day, Christmas and then Old New Year's Day. The last one sounds like a complete oxymoron and is a uniquely Russian phenomenon. Old New Year resulted from the adherence of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Julian calendar, which most of the world abandoned in 1582. All the same, Old New Year's Day is a fitting closure to a spellbound Russian fortnight. At this time of year, life almost stands still in the frozen winter air. Some offices let their staffs off for the entire two weeks. People doze between parties.


It's at times like this when Russians are hard put to find much fodder for grumbling.