January 19, 2006

Coldest Russian Winter in Generation Kills Homeless, Drunks

By Richard Balmforth

MOSCOW -- 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 system.

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 temperatures.

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)