Jan 14th 2010
Thanks to Poland, the alliance will defend the Baltics
IN A crunch, would NATO stand by its weakest members—the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? After five years of dithering , the answer now seems to be yes, with a decision in principle by the alliance to develop formal contingency plans to defend them.
The shift comes after hard-fought negotiations, in which, at American insistence, Germany and other countries dropped their opposition.
This is a big change. Since the three Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, defence planners have tried to sidestep the question of what their membership means in practice. If Russia is a friendly NATO partner, not an adversary, then defence plans for the new member states from the ex-communist part of Europe should not be necessary. Indeed, until late 2008 NATO’s threat assessment—the basis for its military planning—explicitly discounted any threat from Russia. That seemed to send a dangerous signal that north-eastern Europe was a security soft spot, open to mischief-making and meddling from outside.
The main push came from Poland, a big American ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the first to gain contingency plans—initially only against a putative (and implausible) attack from Belarus, a country barely a quarter of its size. When the war in Georgia highlighted NATO’s wobbliness on Russia, Poland accelerated its push for a bilateral security relationship with America, including the stationing of Patriot anti-missile rockets on Polish soil in return for hosting a missile-defence base.
Meanwhile military officials in NATO began low-key but wide-ranging efforts, called “prudent planning”. Under the authority of the American supreme allied commander in Europe, these did not require the formal consent of NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, where they risked being blocked by countries such as Germany.
Speaking in Prague in April 2009, President Barack Obama publicly demanded that NATO develop plans for all of its members, which put the Baltic case squarely on the alliance’s agenda. But in the months that followed, inattention and disorganisation in his administration brought no visible follow-up. Instead, snubs and missteps, particularly on the missile defence plans, deepened gloom about how seriously America took the safety concerns of its allies in Europe’s ex-communist east. An open letter by security bigwigs from Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and other countries publicly bemoaned the decline in transatlantic relations.
A muted NATO response to extensive Russian military exercises on the Baltic and Polish borders last autumn sharpened the worries further. Many feared that NATO’s intense focus on Afghanistan was leading it to neglect its core mission, of territorial defence of its members. That risked undermining the alliance’s credibility.
Now that seems to have changed. Formal approval is still pending and the countries concerned have been urged to keep it under wraps. But sources close to the talks say the deal is done: the Baltic states will get their plans, probably approved by NATO’s military side rather than its political wing. They will be presented as an annex to existing plans regarding Poland, but with an added regional dimension. That leaves room for Sweden and Finland (not members of the alliance but increasingly close to it) to take a role in the planning too. A big bilateral American exercise already planned for the Baltic this summer is likely to widen to include other countries.
Assuming the plans prove specific and credible, politicians in the Baltic states should now have plenty of time to address their countries’ far more pressing economic, political and social problems.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Thursday, January 07, 2010
Labels and categories
A menagerie of monikers
Jan 7th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Most labels are misleading, sometimes grossly so. Find new ones in 2010
REMEMBER the Levant? Or the Old Dominions, the Trucial States and the Far East? If so, speak softly. Labels are handy ways of sorting out countries by history or geography. But lazily conceived and out-of-date ones are offensive and misleading.
Some reek of colonialism (“Black Africa”) or lingering imperialism (“the near abroad”, Russians’ term for the former Soviet empire). Sheer diversity makes “Eastern Europe” an unhelpful way of talking about the ex-communist countries (see article). Donald Rumsfeld’s description of anti-American “Old Europe” and pro-American “New Europe” was vivid but equally wide of the mark: Atlanticism and opposition to it are present on both sides of the old Iron Curtain.
The “Far East”, as East Asia used to be called, is indeed far away from Europe but quite nearby for people who live there. “Near East” is still used in American diplomatic parlance, and the “Middle East” is a quotidian term, perhaps because people like to be central. The “Muslim world” and the “Arab world” are sometimes used as near-synonyms. But not all Arabs are Muslims, and most Muslims are not Arabs: Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country; Russia’s 9m-odd Muslims outnumber Lebanese and Libyans combined.
The “White Commonwealth” used to mean Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. But their original inhabitants were not white, and their populations are increasingly multicoloured. English-speakers in India outnumber the combined total in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which we were recently upbraided for calling the “English-speaking Commonwealth”. “Latin” America is another colonial invention, one that is disdained by Brazil, the regional power today.
It makes even less sense to speak of the “south” as shorthand for the planet’s poor countries (what about Australia or Singapore?) or of the “West” as synonymous with industrialisation and political freedom—what’s “western” about Japan? “Third World” dates from the Cold War, when the planet had capitalist “First” and communist “Second” compartments. Its most recent replacement, “emerging economies”, already seems out of date, as some erstwhile star performers, such as Argentina, submerge. And the term unhelpfully lumps together hardworking manufacturers (Vietnam, say) and service-based economies (Dubai) with those blessed—or perhaps cursed—by natural resources (Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Russia). Nor do the countries of the “rich world” have much in common: Canada and Kuwait, with similar income levels, could hardly be more different.
Not wanted on voyage
Still, old labels have their uses, and new ones don’t seem to work much better. “Chimerica” for a Chinese-American power duopoly proved as illusory as the creature that inspired it; and what on earth can bankers mean when they talk of the “N11”? But others have worked better. The “Anglosphere” and the BRICs have caught on; George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” was punchily effective. The G20 (large economies) versus the G77 (poor-but-pushy countries) have proved their mettle in financial negotiations, though the latter fell out over climate talks. All those Gs are helpful, but a little dull. We prefer the animal kingdom. “Tiger” economies were instantly recognisable in the 1980s as in these straitened times are Portugal, Italy and Greece, Europe’s vulnerable PIGs. Time to add to the menagerie by naming the planet’s sloths and skunks.
Respect for the dead
Jan 7th 2010
The messy politics of war memorials
WAR cemeteries are poignant places, better suited for reflection than controversy. In Vilnius, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and others, all fierce foes in their day, rest in the same hallowed ground. In the British war cemetery in Berlin, aircrews lie in the earth that their bombs once churned. In Bitola in Macedonia, a huge German war memorial-cum-cemetery dating from the first world war glowers over the town from a nearby hill. Rebecca West, a Germanophobe British writer of the interwar period, called it “monstrous”. Local authorities have been more generous-spirited, leaving it untouched for nearly 90 years.
Some war memorials make no political statement. The Thiepval Memorial on the Somme, designed by Edwin Lutyens, bears the names of 72,000 fallen British soldiers from the 1914-18 war. It does not try to say anything about the origins of the war or who won it. British memorials usually bear an epitaph on the lines of this: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, ‘for their tomorrow, we gave our today’.” That may strike the modern eye as a bit maudlin, but nobody could find it offensive.
The Soviet war memorials in Vienna and Berlin, in contrast, are built in the hearts of each city with demonstrative and meticulous attention to Stalinist iconography and cliché. “Eternal Glory to the Heroes of the Red Army, fallen in the fight against the German-fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of Europe” reads the inscription on the Viennese one, in Schwarzenbergplatz.
Given what actually happened in the Soviet-occupied part of Europe after 1945, views may differ on the merits of that inscription. Some Austrians, ungratefully, nicknamed it the “Looter’s memorial” or the “Unknown rapist”. Some have tried to blow it up or otherwise vandalise it. But it is protected by law, dating from the 1955 treaty in which Austria regained its independence from the liberator-occupiers.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the former Soviet republics were under no such legal requirement to preserve or protect war memorials. That gives them more freedom of manoeuvre, though whether they use it wisely is another matter. In 2007 Estonia abruptly moved a Soviet war memorial from a conspicuous position in the centre of Tallinn to the military cemetery on the capital’s outskirts, provoking riots among local Russians who saw the move as blasphemy towards past generations’ sacrifice and heroism. Though the government’s tactics and timing were indeed questionable, the motivation was understandable—for Estonians the statue epitomised their country’s 50-year occupation, during which its own military memorials had been obliterated.
In December Georgia took things a step further when it demolished a colossal 46m-high Soviet war memorial in Kutaisi, the country’s second city. Bungled use of explosives killed two bystanders, a mother and child. The official, somewhat contradictory, explanation was that the monument needed restoration and in any case stood on a site needed for a new building to house the country’s parliament.
It is easy to see why Soviet monuments are resented in places that see themselves as former captive nations of the evil empire. Railing against them may win votes. But vindictiveness is not a good policy. Relocating monuments to neutral locations, preferably with proper consultation, no haste, and all due decency, is one thing. Cheerfully destroying them is another.
Respecting different approaches to the past is a hallmark of a free plural society just as forcibly rewriting it is a hallmark of totalitarianism. That does not make monuments sacrosanct (you will search in vain for a German military cemetery with a swastika). But the dead deserve to be treated with respect, however flawed or horrible the cause in which they died.
[writes our Eastern Europe correspondent...]
From The Economist print edition
The economic downturn has made it harder to speak sensibly of a region called “eastern Europe”
IT WAS never a very coherent idea and it is becoming a damaging one. “Eastern Europe” is a geographical oddity that includes the Czech Republic (in the middle of the continent) but not Greece or Cyprus (supposedly “western” Europe but in the far south-east). It makes little sense historically either: it includes countries (like Ukraine) that were under the heel of the Soviet empire for decades and those (Albania, say) that only brushed it. Some of those countries had harsh planned economies; others had their own version of “goulash communism” (Hungary) or “self-managed socialism” (Yugoslavia).
Already unreliable in 1989, the label has stretched to meaninglessness as those countries’ fortunes have diverged since the collapse of communism. The nearly 30 states that once, either under their own names or as part of somewhere else, bore the label “communist” now have more differences than similarities. Yet calling them “eastern Europe” suggests not only a common fate under totalitarian rule, but a host of ills that go with it: a troubled history then; bad government and economic misery now.
The economic downturn has shown how misleading this is. Worries about “contagion” from the banking crisis in Latvia raised risk premiums in otherwise solid economies such as Poland and the Czech Republic—a nonsense based on outsiders’ perceptions of other outsiders’ fears. In fact, the continent’s biggest financial upheaval is in Iceland (see article, article), and the biggest forecast budget deficits in the European Union next year will not be in some basket-cases from the ex-communist “east” but in Britain and in Greece. The new government in Athens is grappling with a budget deficit of at least 12.7% of GDP and possibly as much as 14.5%. European Commission officials are discussing that in Greece this week.
None of the ten “eastern” countries that joined the EU is in so bad a mess. They include hotshots and slowcoaches, places that feel thoroughly modern and those where the air still bears a rancid tang from past misrule. Slovenia and the Czech Republic, for example, have overhauled living standards in Portugal, the poorest country in the “western” camp. Neither was badly hit by the economic downturn. Some of the ex-communist countries now have better credit ratings than old EU members and can borrow more cheaply. Together with Slovakia, Slovenia has joined the euro, which Sweden, Denmark and Britain have not. Estonia—at least in outsiders’ eyes—is one of the least corrupt countries in Europe, easily beating founder members of the EU such as Italy.
Three sub-categories do make sense. One is the five autocratic ’stans of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). They scarcely count as “Europe”, though a hefty Britain-sized tenth of Kazakhstani territory (some 200,000 square kilometres) lies unambiguously in Europe. Kazakhstan also this year chairs the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a Vienna-based post-cold-war talking shop. But none of the ’stans has become a member of the Council of Europe (another talking shop and human-rights guardian, based in Strasbourg). That shows the problem. The definition of “Europe” is as unreliable as the word “eastern”.
The ’stans vary (Tajikistan is poor, Kazakhstan go-getting). But all have slim prospects of joining the EU in the lifetime of anyone reading this article. That creates a second useful category: potential members of the union. It starts with sure-fire bets such as Croatia, and other small digestible countries in the western Balkans such as Macedonia. It includes big problematic cases such as Turkey and Ukraine and even—in another optimistic couple of decades—four other ex-Soviet republics, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan (the last, maybe, one day, on Turkey’s coat-tails).
The third and trickiest category is the ten countries that joined in the big enlargement of 2004 and in the later expansion of 2007. They are a mixed bunch, ranging from model EU citizens such as Estonia (recently smitten by a property bust, but all set to gain permission this year to join the euro) to Romania and Bulgaria, which have become bywords in Brussels for corruption and organised crime respectively. Eight of them (Romania and Bulgaria are the exceptions) have already joined Europe’s Schengen passportless travel zone. Most (Poland is a big, rankling exception) also have visa-free travel to America. All (unlike EU members Austria, Cyprus, Ireland and Malta) are in NATO.
Some worries remain constant, mild in the countries in or near the EU, more troubling in those in the waiting room and beyond. Exclusion and missed opportunity from the communist years still causes anger, as does near-exclusion from top jobs in international organisations (another consequence of the damaging “eastern Europe” label, some say). Toxic waste from that era, such as over-mighty spooks and miles of secret-police files, create openings for blackmail and other mischief-making, especially where institutions are weak. Lithuania’s powerful security service, the VSD, is in the centre of a political storm, but worries about lawlessness and foreign penetration ripple from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Four countries—Poland and the three Baltic states—worry a lot about Russian revisionism (or revanchism). Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are concerned too, but more about energy and economic security than military sabre-rattling. Yet elsewhere, in the former Yugoslavia for example, such fears seem mystifying and even paranoid.
The new and future members also share capital-thirstiness. All need lots of outside money (from the EU’s coffers, from the capital markets and from foreign bank-lending) to modernise their economies to the standards of the rest of the continent.
But the usefulness of the “new member state” category is clearly declining as the years go by. Oxford University still has a “New College” which was a good label in 1379 to distinguish it from existing bits of the university. It seems a bit quaint now. Poles, Czechs, Estonians and others hope that they will drop the “new” label rather sooner, so that they can be judged on their merits rather than on their past.
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
e Berlin airlift
Dec 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition
A human history of the allies’ airlift that saved West Berlin
Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift, June 1948-May 1949. By Richard Reeves. Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $28 and £16.99.
HEROISM, geopolitics and new technology make an ideal mixture for a popular historian. The story of the Berlin airlift in 1948-49 has all that and more. The Anglo-American decision to circumvent the arbitrary Soviet closure of road and rail routes to the German capital marked the start of the cold war. For the first time, the Western allies were signalling their willingness to resist the creeping Soviet takeover of the eastern half of Europe. The airlift’s end, with Soviet acceptance of a new West German currency in West Berlin, was a stalemate that remained in place in Europe until the collapse of communism 40 years later.
By the end of the airlift, an astonishing 2.25m tonnes of cargo had flown in and out of the city, more than three-quarters of it on American planes. Among the fatalities, the proportions were rather different: 39 British citizens and 32 Americans.
The airlift was not just the only time in history when large quantities of coal have been delivered by air. It also brought leaps in air-traffic control and cargo handling. It even featured a primitive but effective electronic data interchange, jury-rigged from telex machines.
But as the book’s title suggests, Richard Reeves’s main emphasis is on the human side. At centre-stage are General Lucius Clay, the iron-willed military governor of the American sector of Berlin, and the workaholic logistics chief William Tunner, who during the war had supervised a trans-Himalayan military airlift. Behind them stands the figure of Harry Truman, the American president who overruled his entire military, diplomatic and security staff to insist that Berlin be saved.
The veterans’ stark descriptions of flying in foul weather, the exhaustion and danger, the rickety under-maintained aircraft and the newly wed brides stranded on the other side of the world, are undimmed by time. (Indeed, in some cases, a sceptical reader might wonder if memory has honed the wisecracks and dialogues, transcribed verbatim after 60 years.)
In Berlin and the other Western-occupied parts of Germany, the airlift marked the start of a shift from life as a defeated and distrusted adversary to one as an inseparable friend and American ally. At the beginning of the blockade, Berliners were still a brutalised and resentful subject people, expected to doff their caps to the occupying forces. A year later, they were still cold and hungry and living in bombed-out cellars—but cheering the airmen who had saved them from starvation and slavery. Had the airlift failed, the revenge of the communist authorities on those contaminated by contact with the Western allies would have been ruthless. In passing, Mr Reeves mentions some hapless policemen from West Berlin arrested at the city’s town hall (in the Soviet sector); most were never seen again.
In one of the many compelling vignettes the author describes how the allies hired German mechanics and loading hands. Only three years earlier, American or British pilots shot down over Germany risked being lynched. Now they were trusting their lives to the Germans who maintained their planes and stacked the cargo.
Although highly readable, the book includes no groundbreaking historical research. It mentions no German-language sources. A prolific American author, Mr Reeves is writing for a home audience. But he gamely tries to widen his focus to include at least a bit of the British viewpoint. Few Americans will know that rationing in Britain was worse after the war than during it, making the cost of the airlift sharply greater. American pilots liked to drop sweets in little parachutes as a personal gift to the hungry children waiting at the airport’s edge. Their British counterparts had no sweets.
A supermarket in Estonia
Dec 23rd 2009
The best sort of eastward expansion
FOOD in Europe’s ex-communist countries has an undeservedly bad reputation: stodgy peasant fare ruined by the culinary commissars of the planned economy. Your columnist has long disagreed, but proof is needed. So, on a recent visit to a supermarket in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, he set out to construct a winter picnic entirely from local ingredients.
The basis was easy: black bread, pungent and tasty. It makes loaves from the west and south of Europe seem bland and boring. So into the shopping basket went four or five different varieties, with different features: seeds, rye, crunchy and chewy by turns. Alamy
Aisle be there
The mainstay of the picnic was pricey at €15 ($22), but succulent—a smoked salami from Lithuania. Accompanying it in the shopping basket were a gourmet smoked cheese from Estonia, a tin of smoked sprats (Latvia), Polish pickled mushrooms, plus Czech horseradish and Hungarian hot peppers. Who says eastern Europe is a vitamin-free zone? For dessert, Polish “chocolate plums” from the Solidarność confectionery works are a fine offering. So were crispy, crunchy gingerbread biscuits (Estonian) and a packet of dried apple rings (Polish).
The shopper wanting alcoholic drinks is spoiled for choice. Estonia is the country that pioneered the vodka box—a five-litre freezer-filler much favoured by Finnish tourists dodging their own country’s punitive duties on alcohol. Your columnist is partial to Żubrówka, which should have a stem of bison grass in every bottle and gives the whiff of a summer meadow even in the depths of winter. Poland is the main source, though you can also find it in Belarus and Ukraine.
But drinking vodka at a picnic is not to everyone’s taste. Wine works better. Your columnist always tries to use his budget to punish protectionism and support freedom-lovers, which can lead to some conflict with wine snobs. The supermarket had a range of cut-price offerings from the Balkans, including Macedonia and Moldova. But the intelligent consumer should encourage those who are trying to move upmarket, as opposed to those competing at the bottom end. Pricey bottles from Ukraine and Russia were on offer too, but only sweet wines: a big headache in every bottle, at least in your columnist’s experience.
A good range of Georgian wine was more tempting: the basket was soon laden by a promising-looking upmarket Saperavi, for the equivalent of €12. But Georgian wine can be a bit inconsistent. For safety, a few beers never go amiss, especially if a sauna is in the offing. Estonia’s Saku and Le Coq are both good lagers, but the final choice was a brace of real Czech Budweiser (so much better than the fizzy, insipid American version) and some Polish Żywiec.
For a post-prandial snifter, Armenian brandy was a strong contender. But throwing caution to the winds, your columnist plumped for a bottle of Estonian dessert wine. Grapes do grow even in northerly Estonia, and wine-growers have been known to make something drinkable from them. But this bottle was from the Põltsamaa winery, which uses apples and berries.
Soft drinks are more distinctive. Western-style juices and fizzy drinks are ubiquitous, but more interesting local concoctions are on the shelves too. A carton of Ukrainian birch sap was irresistible, along with one of the greatest treats in the northern part of eastern Europe: sea-buckthornberry juice. This is bright orange, more like a puree than a juice, and has an incomparable astringent and invigorating kick.
The taste requires some acquiring; your columnist drinks it neat, but it also makes a useful ingredient for other cocktails—mixed with birch sap, for example. The toast at the picnic was to free trade in food: who needs protectionism when you have stuff that consumers really want?
Dec 30th 2009
Bracing northern habits reach south-west London
YOUR columnist has recently moved house. Although his new garden is small, it does have enough room for a small hut, painted black and concealed by a trellis. It is a rarity in this part of the world. Most visitors assume it is a garden shed. Others know better. For Latvians, it is a “pirts”; for Lithuanians, a “pirtis”. Russian guests are thrilled by the prospect of a “banya”. Finns and Estonians are already stripping their clothes off as soon as they hear the word—the same in both languages—“sauna”. [actually, it's "saun" in Estonian--EL]
Such visitors are tactful about its shortcomings. The real thing should be home-built and fuelled by hand-chopped logs gathered from a nearby forest. It also should be near a river or lake for the cooling-off sessions. None of that is possible in Chelsea.
But even your columnist’s electric version (it costs around £1,500 or $2,000 for the smallest, two-seater outdoor model; an indoor version is a bit cheaper) does the trick. As sweat pours from your pores, worries trickle away too. It is hard to be tense when you feel that you are melting. Inside the sauna you can talk (if you must), read (if you can) or—best of all—just think. You can listen to the “singing stones” (sounding like an Arvo Pärt symphony as they exhale steam). You can beat yourself or a friend with a whisk, made from a birch, oak or lime branch (it improves the circulation).
In between, you drink, nibble and take cold baths (or use the garden hose for an impromptu shower). In the morning, it prepares you for work; in the evening, it gets you ready for bed. The endorphins linger, delightfully, for hours afterwards.
Such treats are lost on visitors from the benighted lands with no sauna culture. English guests view the “saw-na” (as they call it: the real pronunciation is closer to “sow-na”) with great suspicion. They stare unhappily at the kit: the wooden bucket and ladle, the strange mushroom-like hats, the linen loincloths, the small bottles of birch-bark oil, dark brown and pungent. The canister of salty sauna honey (for rubbing on the skin) and the birch-branch whisks (shrink-wrapped, imported from Estonia and stored in the freezer) arouse horror. They look with trepidation at the temperature gauge, which reaches 120°C (248°F).
They are deeply uneasy about nudity, even among close friends. They would like to try it, one day, maybe, perhaps, but with the temperature right down, in strict privacy and certainly with a swimsuit on. They worry about what the neighbours may think.
To be fair, sauna etiquette varies hugely between countries. In Russia, mixed-sex banyas are rare and have a somewhat sleazy connotation. In other north European countries such as Germany, Estonia and Finland, nobody finds nudity a big deal. In some cultures, chucking water on the hot rocks is mandatory: in others it is close to hooliganism. Attitudes to children vary sharply too: your columnist’s sons, veterans of the magnificent Sandunovskaya baths in Moscow (our favourite hangout during the family's years there) were forcibly ejected from a hotel sauna in Britain on the grounds that it was “too dangerous” for the under-16s.
It is easy to get into arguments about the history, technique and merits of saunas. Is a “smoke sauna” (where the logs are burnt in a chimney-less hut, giving plenty of atmosphere but also rather a lot of soot) the ultimate experience or a primitive aberration? As with vodka, strong views on the whys and wherefores abound. But unlike vodka, saunas usually resolve arguments rather than worsening them. Try one in 2010.
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.