Cold? Try Siberian winters like I did!
By Edward Lucas
05th January 2010
Timidly shivering in their badly insulated houses, or tottering along unswept pavements in unsuitable footwear and inadequate clothes, the British present a pathetic sight in winter. Not just incompetent in the face of the challenge of a cold snap - but too often joyless to boot.
What a contrast to Russia and other East European countries where I have spent most of my adult life. Supposedly these countries are the continent's poor relations. But when it comes to dealing with General Winter - the deadly foe of all invaders from the West - they are streets ahead.
During my years in Moscow, the first sign of a night-time snowfall was that the incessant traffic rumble softened.But within minutes, the grating, grinding noise of snow ploughs filled the air. Russia may have dreadful roads, but unlike in Britain, the authorities know that keeping them clear of snow in winter is a national priority.
Russians are famously bad drivers: Rude and risky. But they know how to deal with snow - cornering cautiously and leaving plenty of space for braking. Even the humblest Lada car carries a shovel for emergencies, and usually a sack of grit or salt too. In a country where being stuck in a car overnight means death by frostbite, people take the matter with proper seriousness.
Unlike us, our fellow Europeans in the east know how to dress properly too. My most treasured possession is an Estonian 'lunt', a supple lambskin cap. With the flaps turned down, it keeps me warm even in temperatures of -50c (my record, encountered in the eastern Siberian mining town of Kemerovo).
I once hosted a glamorous English couple in the depths of an Eastern winter. As the wind howled and their ears turned blue, both refused even to fasten their coats, let alone accept the hats, gloves and scarves I tried to lend them, during a brief walk. 'I would look silly in a hat,' said my friend. 'Nobody in my family has ever worn anything like that,' said his haughty wife. The locals were scandalised at the sight of anyone treating the weather with such disrespect.
Life indoors is different too. In my first winter in the Soviet Union, I watched entranced as my landlady appeared in my flat to plug every gap in our leaky old windows with strips of paper and a paste made of soap.
Draughts, in Russian eyes, are the work of the devil. In England, they seem to be a matter of national pride, especially among the upper classes (who also shun central heating on the grounds that it is bad for their antique furniture).
If the British are over-thrifty when it comes to heating, the Russians are magnificently extravagant. When I first lived in the Soviet Union, I searched in vain for valves to turn down the furnace-like temperature of the radiators. My friends laughed at me. 'When it gets too hot, we just open the window,' they explained.
But winter in the East is not just a matter of survival. It is also great fun. English children are encouraged by overcautious parents to stay indoors, hunched over their computer games. In Russia, children can't wait to get outside.
Cold means fun. I will never forget the delight in my sons' eyes when we built our first garden igloo. It was tiny, more of a hollow snowman than a proper house. But in the years that followed we built magnificent creations, even one with an entrance chamber and a chimney. One year, the snow at our house outside Moscow was a metre deep. We honeycombed it with tunnels and bunkers.
That was good exercise. So was cross-country skiing, a low-key sport requiring none of the expense and paraphernalia of the down-hill version. You just strap long thin skis to your boots, grab the sticks and head off into the forest.
Skating takes on a new meaning too. Forget the pathetic pocket-handkerchief rinks of Britain, where people hobble at crawling speed in cautious circles. On a frozen windswept lake you can skate as fast and as far as you like, giving an unbeatable feeling of speed and freedom.
Best of all was the sauna culture - a world away from the feeble version of British spas and health clubs filled with thin-lipped women desperate to sweat out a few pounds. The real thing is a hut, preferably self-built and fuelled by logs you have chopped yourself.
You sit in silence, letting your worries pour out through your pores. You beat yourself or your friends with a sauna whisk, made from a birch branch. And then you jump in the coldest water you can find.
I used to visit Moscow's Sandunovskaya baths, the oldest and grandest in the city, with two British friends. It was a fascinating experience-not least because of the overheard conversations, often conducted in gangster argot, among the rich and powerful Russians who made up most of the clientele.
Russians think Westerners are wimps. They usually are, but we wanted to show we were different. So the three of us plunged into the ice-bath - and started a rather jerky rendition of 'Rule Britannia'. A gaggle of heftily built and tattooed men gathered, incredulous that we were breaking sauna etiquette by staying in the icy water, rather than emerging gasping after a few seconds.'There'll be nothing left of you,' one of them said, anxiously, worried that frostbite might be attacking our most precious body parts. We emerged to cheers and handshakes, and toasted our new friends in vodka and tea.
I cannot recreate those beloved Russian winters in Britain. But I have installed (against the strenuous objections of my wife) what must be one of the very few outdoor saunas in Chelsea. She looks in dismay at the kit: The wooden bucket and ladle, the strange mushroom-like hats, the linen loin-cloths, the small bottles of birchbark oil, dark brown and pungent (for scenting the steam), the canister of salty sauna honey (for rubbing on the skin) and the birch-branch whisks (imported from Estonia and stored in the freezer). Today, though, I'll scarcely hear her objections: I'll be too busy looking for snow to roll in.