In Moscow, Can It Get Any Worse?

>It seemed it couldn't. I flew out of the Russian capital two weeks ago for Paris, where I had a speaking engagement, and was grateful to be spared what I assumed would be the peak of the then already month-old heat wave (with temperatures in the high nineties). I fully expected it to end in my absence. After all, Russians have a saying, which is most often accurate: "Summer was short but at least not very snowy." The mercury only mounted, however. Flying back to Moscow the other day, the plane descended into what resembled a fog -- actually smoke from 520 wildfires burning across 465,656 acres of land, mostly south of the capital. (On August 2, as a result of the fires, President Dmitry Medvedev declared a state of emergency in seven regions.) The temperature below, the pilot informed us in an unsympathetic monotone, was now just under 100 degrees, which drew groans up and down the air-conditioned aisles.

It doesn't get worse than that. Or so I thought as we landed: up north in Saint Petersburg, it was in the seventies -- traditionally a sure sign that the heat would end in the capital within a couple of days. That air-conditioners, fans, and, in places, even soft drinks had sold out across Moscow would soon hardly matter.

Then my wife Tatyana and I awoke yesterday to discover that a shift in wind had sunk Moscow in smoke so thick that our apartment smelled like an ashtray (we don't smoke), and the trees in the park outside stood peering through our windows like spectral villains in a horror flick. We don't have air-conditioning (nor do most Muscovites), so we sleep with the windows open. Luckily, our apartment faces north, but the temperature inside has nevertheless hovered around 94 degrees for weeks now. A government monitoring agency reported that, overnight, pollution -- smoke from the fires, that is -- had risen to ten times above safety levels. The authorities urged Muscovites to don gauze masks, which quickly went on sale across the city for the ruble equivalent of twenty-seven cents apiece.

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Vladimir Mayakovsky monument, Triumfalnaya Square

Smoke even filtered down into the metro system. The wind rose and fell and rose again. By evening, when I made my usual trip to the nearby grocery store, the smoke had thickened so much that it burned my eyes and scratched my throat. Rain would have done a lot to alleviate this situation, but the worst drought in possibly 130 years has accompanied the heat, drying up nearly half Russia's wheat crops, and presaging a disastrous year for its struggling farmers.

Really, what could be worse? Why, the latest weather forecast, which predicts temperatures of 104 this weekend, with, over the next ten days, a "cooling down" to around ninety. I told Tatyana the "good news" and she responded as most Russians would: "Our weather station is wrong only once. Every day. In its only forecast."

"That's being too pessimistic," I responded.

"You know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?" she asked. "A pessimist says, 'Everything is rotten. Nothing can get worse.' The optimist answers, 'Oh, yes it can!'"

I'm beginning to think she's right. In the first five days of August, four record high temperatures have been registered in Moscow; in July, ten. This, in a city where entire summers slip by unnoticed as such, with interludes of eighty-degree days followed by cool showery weeks, if without much snow. Come to think of it, I've seen it snow here in June. Russians take justifiable pride in how they face the rigors of their extreme climate -- but every extreme they know relates to cold, not heat. A Siberian adage has it that, "Forty degrees below zero is not a frost, and forty-proof vodka is not real vodka." But is forty-degree-centigrade (104 Fahrenheit) heat not real heat? No one has bothered to devise a proverb for it, because in northern or central Russia it almost never happens. Heat waves and even smoke from wildfires (often from burning peat bogs) have engulfed the city before, but never like this.

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Smog fills Tverskaya Street

Another Russian saying has it that, "Heat isn't vodka, but we feel drunk from it all the same." Which hasn't stopped a good number of metaphorically heat-wasted Muscovites from turning literal and tippling their way through this interminable zharishcha. I walked outside this morning to find a gang of bare-chested fellows, with shaved heads, sweaty snouts, and stretchmarked potbellies, sitting on the guardrail near our doorway, guzzling beer and smoking, and for good measure, belching and swearing about the heat. Any walk around town reveals similar scenes: men have at times dispensed with much of their clothing, and carrying a beer (plus lit cigarette) is now de rigueur. This is legal: there's no law banning open containers of alcohol in Russia. Except that in Russia, beer hardly qualifies as alcohol. (Unless possibly it's that 12-proof brew marked krepkoye.) Beer is more like a training beverage. But vodka is considered alcohol, and thus possesses, many would point out, curative properties for whatever ails you. So fighting noxious heat with medicinal doses of vodka makes perfect sense. And I don't mean some dainty cocktail, like, say, a vodka collins. The idea of mixing vodka with anything except more vodka is an abomination. Why dilute the healing fun?

The problem is, drinking vodka and, say, simultaneously swimming or boating to cool off, greatly adds to the heat wave's lethality. In the first three weeks of July alone, 1,244 people had drowned in Russia, most of them drunk, and often swimming in the country's multitudinous rivers and lakes where no lifeguards were to be had. Children of parents too smashed to see straight were also among the victims, going under as their seniors obliviously imbibed ashore. But perhaps the most horrific event occurred at Pirogovskoye Reservoir, north of Moscow, where intoxicated yachters apparently decided to scare up a few waves for bathers, and in the process ran over a twenty-five-year old woman, shredding her with their vessel's propellers.

Yet for most people, the zharishcha has not proved so tragic. In our building's courtyard, neighbors who would never socialize under other circumstance have been gathering during the long waning evenings to play chess, down vodka, eat refreshing bowls of okroshka (a cold, hangover-curing soup made with, among other ingredients, cucumbers, sour cream, kvas, radishes, and dill), and chat and play chess. A sort of pleasant lethargy has invaded many Moscow workplaces (or so I hear), with employees taking it easy, having a beer or two on the job, and commiserating about, what else, the heat.

This morning, the wind changed, and cleared away some of the smoke. After perhaps the hottest weekend yet, when it finally cools down, things will go back to normal. When exactly will that be? I don't know. But I'm an optimist. In the Russian sense.