I wish it was colder in Moscow. Right now, even though we are in the midst of winter, it’s a mere minus 6 degrees Celsius (21.2 Fahrenheit) or something. Wuss weather, in other words.
I have always had a thing about the cold. About brain-biting, snot freezing, eye-numbing frost. The first time I came to Russia was in the midst of a blizzard, and when I stepped off the plane, that chill sent a message to my brain.
“Welcome to Russia” it said! “Welcome to the fridge!”
It just seems to me that frost is more honest than warmth. With heat you don’t know where you stand; lulled into a false sense of security, your defences are down. But it’s best to keep them up at all times, and the extreme cold is the best sparring partner you are likely to find.
Another reason I love winter in Moscow is the opportunities it affords for jolts of juxtaposition. My favorite way of attaining these is by listening to songs especially unrelated to life in Russia. Mainly sixties and seventies Soul, and tracks by old blues masters. Crooning into analogue microphones, or rambling on and on in their Mississippi shacks, it’s hard to imagine much else as far removed from Moscow’s icy streets and frost-caked tower blocks as Al Green, Robert Johnson or Leadbelly.
It’s not that I want to distance myself from the city, though. What I am after is the sacredness of contrast, the holy moment of contradiction. Walking around nighttime Moscow, the mercury well below freezing, listening to, say, Blind Lemon Jefferson whining about his wife having upped and left him on my headphones, I feel as if I am eavesdropping on some alien conversation.
The here and now. The there and then. All that.
(By the way, Russians don’t get Soul. I mean, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, all the classics. The Russian concept of the genre stretches back about as far as Boyz II Men, or some other atrocity whose music can ruin lives.)
But of course, like all great things, winter has to end at some point. The snow melts, and great snotty drops of ice dribble onto the pavement. And occasionally icicles with them. They snap off, one by one, sometimes landing on unfortunate passersby. It is quite rare, I have to admit, but people lose their lives like this; impaled by two-meter-long icicles, a frosty point straight through the brain.
But what a way to go! What an obituary!
“He died whilst walking along Gogol Boulevard to the local sushi bar when a falling icicle pierced his cranium.”
Naturally, for cases like this, the local morgue provides a handy service. But the great carpets of snow and ice also mean that killers of all descriptions also have a nifty way of disposing of their victims. No need to dig a hole (in fact it’s impossible), just lay the bloody results of your handiwork out in the nearest forest and let the snow come down.
Admittedly, springtime can be unpleasant, what with the reveled corpses of murder victims and unfortunate frozen tramps, as well as frozen dog mess, billion of beer cans, used condoms, cigarette ends, and other things too foul to mention. But that’s the price you have to pay for the wonder of winter, I guess.
Ah, the miracle of snow. They love that stuff in the West. Even though we’ve been getting a lot of our own blasts of frost recently, there’s still a big market for anything that mentions Russia and the old white stuff in the same breath.
I had a plan to make a living by exploiting this once.
The scheme was this.
I would write an obscenely soppy book about some Russian girl self-exiled to a balmy European country reminiscing about her Siberian childhood. I’d pen it under an assumed name, I don’t know, Sveta Snegurochka or something, and get some model type to pose for the book cover. I figured that publishers in the West would wet themselves over a sensitive novel telling the tale of how an innocent, naive Russian girl was destroyed by the capitalist West. How her Russian soul was tainted, and all that nonsense. The snow would be a metaphor for purity. (Excuse me while I retch…)
This is what I wrote, if you are interested.
Childhood, the sound of sharp winds tearing at the doors, and everywhere…
Crisp, without a hint of dampness, the sun warming my unripe bones.
Whenever I think, now, of those times, lying there, in breasts of fresh snow, I feel a chill that mocks the baking streets around me.
The chill is memory, and I reach for it, sometimes, at night, but it does not always allow itself to be trapped so easily.
‘You have to work for me, to earn me. What can you give me?’ it hisses, as I wake, sweating, and walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. In truth, there is nothing I can offer. Memory is memory, and by its very nature possesses all the cards.
I gave up pretty soon, though, reasoning that a life of poverty would be better than churning out that stuff for a living. I mean, I have some pride. The concept was good though, you have to admit. Feel free to make use of my idea.
I wish you all the best. If you do make it big, I wouldn’t say no to 10 percent.
I’m off to stick my head in a snowdrift.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.