Winter in Russia is cold. This is a truth as universal as ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Fire is hot’ or ‘A single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife’. Given how widely known it is that winter in Russia is cold and how much I dislike the cold, you might be wondering why in the world did I move to Russia for the winter? Honestly, I have no idea. Temporary insanity is my only plea.
The first snow fell in Sakhalin on October 20th. That was just a preamble. Winter can be said to have started in November. That’s when the snow and temperature really started to fall. My students tell me that winter will last until mid-April. There was one day in late November, two days in February, and now two days in March that the temperature has poked its head above freezing. That’s five days in four months. I’ve come to learn, however, that winter isn’t so unmanageable here.
Clothes make all the difference. In Texas, no one has proper coats or other clothes to withstand the cold, so we go out in our cotton jackets and complain about how miserable the weather is at 5°C. However, here in Russia, I outfit myself with a thick parka, a toque, faux fur lined Ugg snow boots, woolen mittens (sometimes with thin gloves underneath), and a thick wool scarf I knitted. The cold barely even touches me except for my legs, but if I’m just walking from one building to another, it doesn’t matter too much. If I’m going to be outside for longer, I wear long johns to combat this. Now, it is a little annoying that just to walk out my door takes me about five minutes now to fully equip myself, but at least I’m nice and toasty.
I’ve also learned some surprising things about the winter. First, the less snow there is, the colder it is, and blue skies are even colder. It goes against your gut feeling since snow is so heavily associated with cold winter and sunshine with warm summer, but the nicest feeling days are actually overcast with lots of snow around you. When you stop to think about it, it makes sense since snow has an insulating effect (ask the Inuits cozy in their igloos), and the cloud cover does the same. I also learned that warm days are terrible. Remember those five days above freezing? I much rather would’ve had none. Because, all the snow that is on the ground outside will melt in the warmth and then when the night comes and the next day of freezing weather, all of it melts into a dangerously slick solid sheet of ice that you must now walk over to go anywhere.
Which reminds me, there is always snow on the ground. Of course in Texas, after snow, it would be gone within a few days. In BC or northern England, maybe the snow would hang on for a week and a half, but here it’s always there. I remember when I was first introduced to the concept of snow all winter long, when I went to Alberta over Reading Week in 2014. Even though no snow fell, there were just piles of it every where: along the roads, in yards, and huge mountains where the city piled it all up. It’s similar here. Even though we’ll go for a week or longer without fresh snow, there’s always some here. It’s been strange but I’ve gotten used to it. The city is fairly good about plowing the roads and major sidewalks within a day or two so it’s not too bad. I’ve come to prefer fresh snow too. Aside from the aforementioned insulation effect, fresh snow provides a lot more traction than the snow that’s been packed hard from dozens of people walking over it.
I spent my first few months of winter trying to avoid going outside at all, which actually wasn’t too difficult for me. But after consuming the entire Netflix catalog, I decided it was high time to venture forth. I’ve discovered that you can walk in winter just like you can walk in the other seasons. Since walking is something I’m quite fond of, I’ve taken to walking in a wooded area a few blocks from my flat that’s the Eastern edge of my city.
There’s also a cross country skiing trail there that I want to attempt sometime before winter is over. But for now I just walk and enjoy the beauty of the snow and trees and the songs of winter birds. The trail is quite popular with local people. Sometimes on a Sunday, I see families out there with sleds or older couples strolling side by side in customary Russian silence. I’ve even discovered that many people bury bottles of beer in the snow so that when they finish their walk they can pop open some icy cold beer. Russians are geniuses.
So in the end, winter in Russia is cold, yes, but it’s survivable. And while I still question my motives for coming to a place like this, I think I’m glad I did. Although I am definitely looking forward to the advent of spring.