Year four of explaining why you don’t invade Russia in winter: how to make it through

In understated news, the first of March officially marked the end of winter. Contrary to what folks back home may experience, the weather here in Russia still hasn’t gotten that memo, as at the time of this writing the temperature is a crispy 16F (~-8C) with light snowfall. Spring? What’s that? The unfortunate tendency for the weather to fluctuate also means one should be prepared for bundling up well into April. To an unprepared outsider, this may seem bleak, but believe it or not, this at least signals that the weather will eventually become bearable.  With that lingering doubt of when it’ll properly make the transition to spring, I decided it was time to write, albeit semi-belatedly, my annual reminder of how to make it through this bleak next half year. Before I begin, make sure to check out my previous versions about how to power through the infamous season here and here. I don’t want to regurgitate what I said in the past, but I like to think that going into my fourth winter, I’ve gotten a better perspective on what works or maybe even new tricks.

First of all, things are different in Moscow than in other cities. Talking to friends across Russia, they report that the weather is, at times, warmer where they live rather than in the capital. This can be attributed to higher levels of humidity, which increases the conduction of heat from one’s body, aka your ability to retain the warmth diminishes; pure cold is what everybody wants to have in this situation, as it’s easier to deal with. I’m fond of saying this, but I had a colleague last year who’s from the Western Siberian Plain city of Barnaul who was complaining that the capital was colder than his hometown! Who’d have thought that, right? At any rate, quite a few major cities will lie on a relatively similar latitude, so I’m told there’s not a super noticeable difference in temperature. As much as I complain about the Muscovite weather to anybody who’ll listen, I do so knowing that it could be a lot, lot worse.

By this point, I know that you want me to address the enticing post title. As alluded to above, you do sometimes wonder, “Why did I ever decide to come to Russia? It’s bloody cold and grey outside.” Even if the temperature may not be excruciatingly cold, you still feel it affect you. Talking to both foreign and Russian colleagues, it’s the overall knowledge that the cessation eventually rolls around far later than it should; we’ve even gotten snow in May before. Kind of depressing, eh? That’s not say that you don’t get used to it after a while, especially if it’s not your first go-around. Just, once it starts getting cold, plan to be bundling up for five or six months. And further screwing up the equilibrium is the fact that every so often, the weather teases you. One day it can be *moderately* warm at only -5C (23F) with some sunlight then it plummets down to a very grey -15C. Being from the DC area, I’m acquainted with temperamental temperature and whimsical weather, but what you find here is all that on steroids. Of course, there’s the wind to also throw into the equation here. For the most part, and at the risk of jinxing myself, it’s just cold here in Moscow without any piercing wind…but every now and then the weather god controlling the wind decides to make a cameo. Okay, I concede that lately I’ve recently found myself with rosy cheeks thanks to the chill factor but other than that, I’ve escaped intact. As much as I complain about the weather to anybody who’ll listen, I do so knowing that it could be a lot, lot worse. Essentially, Russian Winter is something that can spit you up and chew you out if you’re not prepared, which does make you feel like a champ when you survive it.

So, the burning question now becomes an issue about the requisite clothing you need to power through the cold. One common refrain is that, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”, which I’ve found to be the case. Hence, I’ll take the time to share my own recommendations But first, layer up! Even if you are supremely confident in your clothing to prevent you from turning into a popsicle, it never hurts to have layers. Worst comes to worse you can take them off or unzip them, rather than experiencing hypothermia. I haven’t really looked around for comparison’s sake, but in general any clothing store worth its salt here sells multi-layered jackets. On their own, they provide a decent enough level of warmth, but again, play it safe and wear a sweater, sweatshirt, or even a fleece under at minimum. Now that this is settled, ready for everything else? I’d say the main thing is to go for utility rather than the aesthetics (looking at you, North Face). This can be evidenced by the fact that after several winters, the boots I got from Adidas from a Black Friday sale my first year here still have been holding up. Said pair is so insulated that I actually feel too warm when wearing them! My thick jacket also testifies for this, because it’s been with me the entire time I’ve been here, and it paid itself off many times over! When pressed for information about good stores designed for winter goods, I point to the Japanese brand Uniqlo. I know that I said to avoid picking places for the aesthetics, but they are fantastic because they have specific clothing for winter. (And their stuff even looks good as well!) They sell insulated jeans, which is a nice touch that more companies should replicate. All of their jackets, flannels, and fleeces are super comfy, and I try to bundle up in them. Outside of sounding like a shill for their company, I bought some incredible hiking socks in America that I use here. Yes, they’re thick when wearing regular shoes, but man have they kept me from hating life when I travel between lessons. Finally, having a nice pair of gloves and a scarf is key. The former should be obvious, as the cold can bite you/the dryness gets to be very painful. Scarves are versatile, I’ve found, in that they keep both your neck and mouth insulated from the frost. Case in point: last year when temperatures dropped to minus twenty Fahrenheit, I was able to use mine as an impromptu balaclava. This all sounds simple, but honestly I haven’t been given a reason to deviate from this winning combination!

Unlike Denmark’s famous hygge, there’s nothing uniquely Russian that’s utilized to stave off the boredom of long, dark winters. Not that I’ve been taking that fact sitting down-I’ve been trying to occupy my time in the darkness. A fair deal of people half-jokingly suggest drinking, but there’s more to do than just that. The beauty of Moscow is that there is plenty to do, and in wintertime, there’s an abundance of festivals, markets, and events that take place. In fact, every year during the first week of January, quite a museums open their doors for free! That’s gold, Jerry, gold! You can see priceless art or wonderful history, which gives you plenty to think about and admire. Afterwards, you can enjoy a nice cup of coffee, especially around the center. (For those looking for additional information about this, the always-excellent Tumbleweed Guide had a great post about some new and interesting coffee shops here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BduqjshnxvM/) The bottom line is that despite the cold and ever-present sense of gloom, there’s much to do to repel winter boredom.

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These are my tips for surviving the cold in Russia/Moscow. While I’m sure other northerly cities vary, at the very least this should be handy for a large part of Russia. Should there be any other questions about what I’ve said or even anything I neglected to mention, let me know in the comments!

 

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