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.

A woman walks in a park during a heavy snowfall in central Moscow on January 18, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
A photograph taken on January 24, 2018 shows the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Kostroma. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


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.

A girl jumps for a photo under the Christmas decorations set on a street in central Moscow on December 18, 2017. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
A couple takes a 'selfie' in front of Christmas trees set on the Manege Square next to the Kremlin in Moscow on December 18, 2017. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


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.

Tourists take photographs in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral on the snow covered Red Square during a heavy snowfall in Moscow on January 31, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
People ice fish on the frozen Volga river in the town of Kostroma on January 24, 2018. Ice fishing is a traditional passtime in Russia during the winter months. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
A photograph taken on January 23, 2018 in Suzdal shows the Suzdal Kremlin surrounded by snow-covered trees. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


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.

Three elderly women walk on a snowy street in Suzdal on January 23, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)

The young are out.

A woman pushes a sledge-stroller along a snow covered street in Nizhny Novgorod on January 21, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)

Life flows normally, even if there is ice in the way.

A tourist boat breaks through the ice of the frozen Moskva river outside the Kremlin in Moscow on January 27, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)

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.

A participant wearing the Russian traditional felt boots called "valenki" bearing the 2018 FIFA World Cup logo runs with the ball during a friendly football match between media representatives and foreign students in a snow-covered field outside Nizhny Novgorod on January 21, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)

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).

A man stands as commuters ride the metro in Moscow on February 1, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


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.

An Orthodox believer enters the icy waters of a pond during the celebration of the Epiphany holiday in Izmailovo in Moscow on January 19, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)

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.

A girl skates on the frozen alleys of a park in central Moscow on March 1, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
A man skates on the frozen alleys of a park in central Moscow on March 1, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


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.

People walk under major snowfall in central Moscow on January 8, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)

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.


People enjoy the snow and ice on the frozen Patriarch's Ponds in central Moscow on March 4, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


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.


A commuter looks trough a frozen bus window in the town of Yaroslavl on January 25, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
A photograph taken on January 25, 2018 shows the cathedral of the Nikitsky Monastery in the town of Pereslavl-Zalessky seen through a frozen window. Pereslavl-Zalessky is part of the so called Golden Ring of Russia comprising several cities northeast of Moscow, which also played a significant role in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The towns feature unique monuments of Russian architecture of the 12th–18th centuries, including kremlins, monasteries, cathedrals, and churches. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


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.

People enjoy the sunny afternoon at a park in Moscow on March 8, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
People enjoy a sunny afternoon at Gorky Park in Moscow on March 8, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


And when all is said and done, the Russian winter can be pretty spectacular.

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

An couple walk under a heavy snow fall outside Nizhny Novgorod's Kremlin on January 21, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
A taxi car drives on a snow covered road in central Moscow on March 4, 2018. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)
A photograph taken on January 23, 2018 shows the snow covered landscape around the Pokrovsky Monastery in Suzdal. (AFP / Mladen Antonov)


Mladen Antonov