Six minutes of sunlight
Moscow -- By the end of December, it was getting beyond ridiculous. I’d been through plenty of Russian winters in my life, but this was a new low. There was no sun. Moscow can be famously gray in winter, but usually you get a day of sunlight every week or two. Not this time. For the entire month, we had a grand total of six minutes -- six minutes! -- of sunlight.
Worse yet, there was no snow. As I’d learned during my previous two postings in Moscow, the white stuff makes the grayness more bearable, softening the harsh features of the megapolis.
But winters have been changing in the Russian capital over the past several decades. They used to come in November, with freezing temperatures and snow that would last through the end of March. But now they’re milder -- this December saw temperatures above freezing and Moscow without its usual coat of white.
To be honest I hate the Russian winter. If I had to choose two words to describe it, it would be cold and dirty. Cold, because once it does take hold, minus 15 Celcius is normal. Dirty because once the snow does fall, it stays beautiful and white for a day and then gets covered with a layer of black. But my personal feelings aside, capturing the scenes of winter as a photographer can be quite a joy.
It’s quite a change from the last place where I lived, in Washington DC. There, once a year you would have a huge snowfall and everything would come to a halt. Schools closed. People didn’t go to work. The government shut. People stayed off the roads. It was like a state of emergency. And people went out and enjoyed it.
But in Russia, nothing stops in the winter. Schools are open, the shops are open, transport runs.
The old are out.
The young are out.
Life flows normally, even if there is ice in the way.
Obviously the cold necessitates special preparations. If I know that I’m going to be outside for more than an hour, I make sure to put on a pair of long underwear under my trousers. If I have to cover football, I make sure to put on a pair of windproof pants.
And of course you wear hats. If you go outside without a hat on (especially if you’re bald like me), you will actually have people -- usually elderly ladies -- come up to you to warn you of the dangers of not covering your pate.
“Young man, you should put on a headdress,” they’ll tell you (because you’re addressed a young man here until you’re 60 or so).
Some people, however, keep their unique Russianness, even in winter. The other day I was in Red Square, trying to keep my balance on the snow-covered cobblestones. And then I saw a girl in spike heels, calmly walking as if she was on the runway. Spike heels. In the snow.
And then there are the dips in the icy water during Epiphany.
One of the most ubiquitous things that you’ll find in Moscow during the winter are ice skating rinks and alleys. Moscow has quite a lot of parks. And in nearly every park, you will have an ice skating rink and alleys frozen over. So nearly everybody skates.
It can get very festive. There is usually music (Russian and western pop from the 80s and 90s) playing from loudspeakers and lots of lights at night.
For kids, it’s really special. I have friends who grew up in the city, who absolutely love winter because of the fun they had during the snowy months. The snowfalls would accumulate into huge snow mounds, especially in the so-called “sleeping districts,” the neighborhoods of apartment blocks away from Moscow’s center.
Every apartment block cluster had a yard in the middle that was filled with kids every afternoon and evening of the winter. Each yard was sure to have an ice skating area and a little rise where the kids sledded and played ‘king of the hill’ and held snowball fights until their mothers called them back home for dinner.
In my previous postings, I used to get really nice pictures of frost on windows, usually of public transport. But in Moscow nowadays, most of the busses and trolleys have been modernized and are now well heated. So I have to go out to the provinces for my nice frost photos.
Shooting in the snow presents its own challenges. You just have to live with the fact that your fingers will get cold. You have to carry extra batteries for your camera, in a warm pocket and pop the batteries in only when you want to shoot -- otherwise they die in the cold within 15 minutes or so.
But the result is really worth it.
As much as I dislike the Russian winter, I have to say that I’m still enjoying working in this one, my first in 10 years.
I’m surprised, because I expected to be completely miserable. Maybe it’s because I have an apartment with large windows, so I get lots of natural light. So even if the sunshine is scarce, at least I get light. And of course when the sun does come out, it’s glorious. It’s like a holiday.
And when all is said and done, the Russian winter can be pretty spectacular.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.