Why Moscow’s snowless winters are a warning to the world

Russia’s warming climate has left it unmoored of its cultural foundations.

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When I first arrived in Russia in October 2017, there was an unseasonably bitter frost on the ground. It was the prelude to a luxuriously snowy winter – a sparkling white covering that appeared in November and melted only in April.

I relished every freezing moment learning the ropes of that first Russian winter. I found out that -10 is perfectly fine; -15 is just about survivable. Any colder is tough. I delighted in the two or three days when the thermometer brushed with -20, a temperature that bites painfully at any exposed skin. I was so captivated by the cold, I allowed myself to ignore the endless Muscovite grumblings about yet another oddly warm winter.

In 2018 a long, glorious summer stretched unnervingly into October. Winter, when it came, was mild, flirting only occasionally with -10. The next year, winter never really came at all. Instead, Moscow fell into an extended six-month autumn, and an inescapable sense that something was terribly wrong.

That December was snow-free for the first time in living memory. Rain fell in January, a month when the mercury wouldn’t ordinarily rise much over -15. In February, bears emerged early from hibernation and flowers began to bloom. By March, the world’s coldest and northernmost megacity was bounding into another sweltering summer.

In theory, none of this should be surprising. Russia’s northern latitude and continental geography mean it is warming at a rate two-and-a-half times higher the rest of the planet, perhaps the fastest of any country. In parts of the Arctic, average temperature anomalies have started hitting three degrees above the historical norm. Already Russia is settling into vicious climate feedback loops, for example where melting permafrost reveals darker land and water surfaces beneath, which in turn absorb more of the sun's heat, locking in accelerated future warming. In the acrid summer of 2020 alone, burning Arctic forests emitted around the same amount of carbon as Egypt does in a year.

The science fails to communicate a deeper truth: that something fundamental to Russia and Russian-ness is being irretrievably lost. In a country persistently protesting over chemical run-off in Lake Baikal and landfill sites in the Arctic, the vanishing winter commands curiously little attention. Individual, concrete episodes of environmental degradation are much easier to grapple with than the creeping transformation of the atmosphere. For me, warming has transformed autumn into an annual season of mourning, filled with dread that perhaps I have already seen the last Russian winter ever come and go.

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For as long as Russia has existed, its winters have been long and cold. This fact is written into the fabric of the culture, from the fatty, over-salted food to the penchants for fur coats, high-strength alcohol and steam baths. The Orthodox Church blends Russia’s frigidity into its take on Christianity, each January inviting its congregants to plunge into the nearest frozen lake in imitation of Christ’s baptism. Much of the Russian lifestyle doesn’t make sense without a long, bleak winter to insure against.

Occasionally, it all tips over into bureaucratic farce: last year, municipal snow ploughs were sent to clear Moscow’s snowless streets. Since the funds had been budgeted and the personnel allocated, the logic of the system required that phantom snow be shovelled from the capital’s pristine pavements.

A changing climate also alters the nation's sense of history. Russian schoolchildren are taught to revere General Moroz, or "General Frost", the meteorological ally who has interceded more than once to save Russia from Teutonic, Napoleonic and Nazi invasion. 

To imagine that a future attack on the motherland might not be impeded by the snow and ice that saved Moscow in 1941 threatens a national identity weaned on tales of martial glory. In January 2020 Alexey Zhuravlyov, a Duma deputy known, even by the standards of that chamber, for his oddball nationalism, claimed that the unseasonably warm weather was the work of advanced new American “climate weaponry” that was disrupting the Russian winter.

By December 2019, Moscow authorities decided to simply fake it. With forecasts agreed that no snow would be forthcoming, vast shipments of an artificial substitute were dumped on the city’s most picturesque tourist precincts. On New Year’s Eve, President Putin delivered his traditional seasonal address in front of the Kremlin with a too-good-to-be-true, pearly white backdrop. The message was clear: the national interest demands a winter, regardless of whether nature is able to provide one.

It was a spirit of which Lev Gumilyov would perhaps have approved. Even before his death in 1992, the estranged son of the poet Anna Akhmatova had cemented his position as modern Russia’s most influential historian by championing the Eurasianist ideas now popular among the Moscow elite. For Gumilyov, nationhood came down to climate. National characters are determined by natural environments. Russians, moulded by long, sub-zero winters, will inevitably conflict with those of the more temperate Europe, and must instead look to snowy Siberia for true friends. Gumilyov was clear, however, that if the climate changes, then the nation inevitably will, too.

***

On a recent train ride away from Moscow, somewhere on a southern Russian steppe parched golden brown from yet another summer longer, hotter and drier than the last, I turned to Alexander Pushkin.

There is no more quintessentially Russian writer than the ill-fated 19th century dandy. Perhaps the first modern writer to treat Russian as a serious literary language, rather than a crude peasant vernacular, Pushkin’s unparalleled command of the intricacies and nuances of the language leave him almost untranslatable for foreigners, and the object of a fierce pride among Russians. 

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Leafing through a book of short stories, I settled on The Blizzard, a romantic comedy of errors centred on the hapless young noblewoman Maria Gavrilovna. Lost and confused one night amid the sort of blindingly intense snow that would once have been familiar to any Russian, Maria’s future sweetheart stumbles into a church and proceeds to accidentally marry her, four years before they are first introduced.

Today, Pushkin’s wintry backdrops increasingly seem almost as distant and archaic as his caddish young nobles and their fabulous balls. In parts of European Russia, the sort of snowstorms on which the national poet’s tale hangs are gone for ever. By the middle of the century, say climate models' current projections, they will abandon Moscow and retreat behind the Urals. Even if the Russian winter can somehow cling on in its Siberian strongholds, its retreat elsewhere will leave a country transformed, unmoored of its cultural foundations. The country of Pushkin will be long gone.

But for now, most Russian minds are elsewhere. The country is well-positioned, say government ministers and think tanks, to profit from longer growing seasons and a sea route through the soon-to-be-melted Arctic. Even the increasing number who do admit to worrying about the ever-warmer winters will reassure themselves that last year was just one more freak anomaly, and that this year will surely be normal. After all, bloody-minded resilience in the face of unfolding calamity could hardly be more characteristic of the world’s largest country. “Hope,” as a favourite old Russian cliché has it, “dies last.”

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Felix Light is a reporter with the Moscow Times, covering Russia and the former Soviet Union.

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