January 19, 2006

Bitter Russian winter kills homeless, drunks

By Richard Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia shivered in its coldest spell for
a generation on Thursday with temperatures in Moscow plunging
overnight to minus 30 Celsius, killing the homeless and drunks,
and threatening power supplies.

Moscow's coldest spell in 26 years brought out the
quirkiest in the Russian character with one animal trainer
feeding an elephant a bucket of vodka to warm it up -- only to
watch the drunken beast set about wrecking the central heating

Ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky led other
publicity-hungry politicians by plunging into a bitterly cold
pond in early morning Christian Orthodox ceremonies.

In Moscow, emergency medical services quoted by Interfax
news agency said a further seven people had died overnight from
exposure and another 25 people were being treated in hospital.

The agency said a total of 116 people had succumbed to the
cold in Moscow since the end of October.

Many victims are often drunks who perish in outlying areas
after passing out, their bodies sometimes remaining covered by
snow for weeks until a thaw comes.

The cold quickly depleted mobile phone batteries, played
havoc with lifts and even seemed to jam public cash dispensers.

Several enterprising Muscovites turned a quick profit by
passing along ranks of stalled cars, leasing out their jump
leads, to frustrated motorists.

According to one newspaper, a 45-year-old man in Mordovia,
east of Moscow, was treated for frostbite to four fingers for
talking too long on a mobile phone in the freezing

With experts predicting temperatures in the Russian capital
to fall possibly to minus 34 Celsius (minus 29 Fahrenheit) on
Friday, and even colder in rural areas around the city, oil
output in the country continued to be affected.

In Noyabrsk in the Arctic part of Western Siberia,
Noyabrskneftegaz oil company suspended drilling operations
because of the extreme cold, Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Russia on Wednesday reduced gas supplies to Europe and
trimmed back its oil output because of the extreme cold.

Moscow's power company Mosenergo has declared a "high risk"
situation to handle a spike in demand with people plugging in
their electric heaters for extra warmth.

Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said the country may draw
on its modest strategic fuel reserves. He gave no details.


State schools have given parents the option of keeping
their children at home. Police have been told to find places
for the homeless to shelter rather than clear them from
doorways, stairwells and metro stations as they normally do.

"The present cold is unique by its duration, which will
either be a record or be close to a record," Russia's chief
meteorologist Roman Vilfand was quoted as saying on Thursday.

In an interview with Vremya Novostei newspaper, he forecast
temperatures falling to minus 32 or minus 34 Celsius (minus 29
Fahrenheit) in Moscow on Friday.

This year is the coldest since the winter of 1978-1979,
when temperatures dropped to minus 38 degrees Celsius. The 1940
Moscow record of minus 42.1 degrees Celsius could be broken,
the newsru.com Web site reported, citing meteorologists.

No one was prepared to say how long the cold would last.

Russians are proud of the legendary frosts that defeated
the armies of Napoleon and Hitler and publicity-conscious male
politicians sought to use the occasion to enhance their image.

Ultranationalist Zhirinovsky led the way jumping into a
small lake in a tradition marking Christian Orthodox Epiphany.

In Strogino, on the city's outskirts, other Orthodox
believers, some of them old people dressed in long shirts,
trooped from church down a lake where they lowered themselves
into the bitter waters, immersing their heads and crossing
themselves three times in accordance with tradition.

"I'm not scared of minus 30. I do this every year usually
in the north. It's a lot colder there," businessman Viktor
Shuliakovsky told Reuters, his naked torso steaming in the open
air after he emerged from the water.

(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge)