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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

To Survive the Winter, Look on the Bright Side

Winter in Moscow.


At times it can be enchanting: ice skating to music at Gorky Park, long nights spent with good friends and good wine, strolling along Red Square on a snowy New Year's Eve or buying cheap tickets to a local hockey game.


Other times it can be downright miserable, an eternity of cold, dark weeks, separated only by weekends spent lying lethargically in bed. Or worse, weekends spent hacking and wheezing in pain while in bed with the flu, wishing desperately for a burst of sunshine.


In any case, it is almost winter again in a nation known for its treacherous cold spells. And ready or not, the weatherman predicts that the change in season will send the city's snowplows rolling in a couple of weeks.


While the lucky leave town to soak up the sun, it never fails that part of Moscow's 10 million residents are drowning in cough syrup, or at least in vodka, clutching their throats, heads and thermometers, desperately trying to battle off the winter's dreaded flu.


"Last year it was a brutal [flu] season," said Timothy Meade, medical director at Moscow's American Medical Center. According to Meade, poor indoor air circulation -- and not overexposure to chilly weather -- is one of the main ways the highly contagious virus infects individuals.


The outlook for this year is no better. According to a report recently released by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one strain of this year's virus has been linked to "severe symptoms," suggesting that this year's attack of the influenza virus could be worse than in the past.


While predicting the severity of the upcoming flu season is not an exact science, CDC officials said, they recommend that people in high risk groups -- namely the elderly and people already afflicted with health problems, such as heart disease, anemia and diabetes -- get vaccinated with the flu shot.


Moscow is prepared for the flu onslaught with vast quantities of the influenza vaccine. Shots are currently available at most of the city's public and private health clinics. And there is no time like the present, doctors say, to roll up that sleeve: The recommended vaccination period lasts through the middle of November.


And if fighting off the all-consuming influenza virus is not enough, as the hours of daylight become drastically shorter in the Russian capital and the Northern hemisphere's winter darkness slowly consumes the bustling city, many people find themselves trying to fend off the "winter blues," struggling to stay cheery as they wake up, work, eat, socialize and sleep in a city enveloped in darkness.


The "winter blues," say psychiatrists who have researched the relationship between daylight exposure and moods, is a serious matter. In fact, scientific research has shown that "seasonal affective disorder," or SAD -- a form of depression stemming from lack of sunlight -- affects 10 percent of the population in Finland, Iceland, Alaska and the former Soviet Union.


"There is a lot of research in Scandinavia [about SAD]," said Dr. David Griffith, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. Moreover, Griffith said, research has shown that the best treatment for SAD is light therapy, which exposes people to special luminous fluorescent lights for periods of up to a half an hour daily.


"When correctly diagnosed, light therapy can show results in three days," Griffith said. "Take away the light, and the mood symptoms come back."


"We see it every year," said Meade from the AMC about SAD, which is characterized by lethargy, a change in appetite, and an overall depressed feeling. "Patients complain that they have a change in their sleep patterns -- there is a general feeling of depression," he said. "A lot of people [erroneously] think it's stress related."


Last year, at least one expatriate American family in Moscow decided to take action against the possibility of SAD instead of taking a chance. Before moving to Moscow last year, Bruce Bean, a lawyer at Coudert Brothers, bought a device from the Sun Box Company in the United States (tel. 301-869-5980) which was designed to provide light therapy for his family during the winter. Starting in November, Bean said, his wife and two children ate their breakfast while exposed to the bright light for 15 minutes every day.


Whether it was with the light's help or not, Bean's family had an unusually good winter. And for Bean, who said he used to cope with winter by going to the Caribbean, his first winter in Moscow changed his lifelong aversion to living in the cold.


"Now," he said, "I like winter. Does this box have to do anything with it? Who knows?" he said. "It's all in the brain. You pay a couple hundred bucks for it, and of course you're going to think it works."Good moods were not the only thing that surprised Bean. So did the difference he found between last year's winter in Moscow and the infamously brutal winter he had been warned about.


Novels may depict this country's winter as a dismal world of uncontrollable snow and unbearable subzero temperatures, but nowadays Moscow winters are not nearly as bad as they used to be. Joggers in neon tights light up the city's dark parks in the early mornings. Colorful, lightweight down jackets keep Muscovites warm, and tanning salons ensure their skin color remains healthy-looking. In fact, Moscow is no longer, "as cold as it used to be," according to longtime city weatherman Roman Vilfand. He recommended a trek out to Siberia for die-hard Muscovites in search of the true Russian winter experience.


"Over the last eight to nine years the temperature in Moscow has risen 1.5 degrees," he said in a phone interview from Moscow's main weather station, the Gidromidcenter. "This has made a huge difference."


While Moscow is still colder than the capitals of its neighboring northern European countries, Helsinki and Stockholm, gone are the days when the nation's capital had to regularly cope with temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius, according to Vilfand.


Back in 1942, he said, such temperatures caused the city's water pipes and heating systems to break. He also cited 1979 as a shivery moment in the history of Moscow weather. "In the middle of December it was minus 30 degrees," he said.


But for some, namely winter sports fans, winter is frankly what they like best about the Russian capital and its wilderness outskirts.


"It's a paradise," hollered sports fanatic Victor Cooper, an American cameraman at CBS Moscow's bureau. He was quick to blast the stereotype of unbearable Russian winters as blatantly exaggerated. "I think there is more snow in Northwestern Montana," he said.


After spending three winters cruising Moscow's parks on bicycle, Cooper said that last year he abandoned his all-season mountain bike for a high-tech pair of aluminum snowshoes. "There are so many trails in and outside of Moscow," he said. "I went snowshoeing 45 times last year, almost every weekend."


In a country known for leading the world in winter sports, one does not have to go far from the Russian capital to find ski runs, snowboarding slopes and roaring snowmobiles cruising down country lanes.


By December, Moscow's many parks, with their ponds, lakes and forests, are transformed into all-purpose public iceskating rinks, sled runs and ski trails. They are also the scene for some serious icehole swimming and icehole fishing, a popular activity among Russians who, accompanied by a small stool, a warm parka, fur hat, and a fishing pole, spend their day fishing through a hole sawed through the top of a frozen lake.


Jill Errington, a British expat who works as a cargo manager at British Airways, has not spent the past seven Moscow winters sitting on ice, but rather, has devised her own methods to remain upbeat in even the coldest weather.


"Bikini parties. Hawaiian parties. Beach parties," recited Errington, who added that seeking out camaraderie, especially through team-sports clubs, has helped her and her friends keep their moods up and their aggravation down.


"Most of my friends use sport as a means of getting rid of excess frustration," said Errington. "A bit of activity is always better than sitting and thinking about what to do." One of her favorites? "A combination sauna-and-snow treatment," she said. Despite the abundance of winter sports, banyas, and long hours spent drinking hot tea, making it through an exceptionally long winter often requires a break. For Muscovites with money to spend and vacation days to fill, a trip abroad to a sunny oasis is another option for coping with winter.


"Africa," suggested Avi Aliman, a travel agent with the Travel House travel agency. For well-to-do Muscovites struck by cabin fever, Aliman has no end to suggestions for exotic vacations. "Mozambique. Kenya. Mombassa or Tanzania," he said. "Then there's always the Brazilian carnival trip next spring."


And for those with kids, a weekend trip away to Finland's Lapland may do the trick, he said. Parents can take their children to visit Santa's villages, reindeer parks, and snowmobile safaris.


When the winter starts to seem like it will never end, the mud-tracked carpets are hopelessly filthy, and no matter how many home remedies you try, you just can't fight the blues, helping other people is always an option.


Errington suggests doing some charity work to take your mind off your troubles. As she said, "There is always someone worse off than you are."