Everyone asked, “How did you deal with the winter?” I always answered, “It was easy, I loved it.” I’m built that way, the more snow, the better. As a boy, I mourned in despair every time a weather forecast failed to come through or the inadequate layer of wet snow melted away within a few hours. I was always disgusted. In Russia, I got to see it everyday. I did not mourn anymore. It never let me down.
The Russian winter is not a surprise but an inevitability. There is no wonder, just expectation. The clouds military-march forward and occupy the air. Your senses are overloaded by bleakness and grey. There is a certain darkness that creeps in that is hard to describe. It’s just “snow dark.” Here it comes. It never betrays.
Mother Nature gently and silently expels its icy mist that looks like millions of white electrons dancing randomly. They swirl merrily downward, enveloping the sky with a peaceful hush. Snow creates a mysterious silence, even in a city. I remember driving from high elevation on Mt. Ranier once. I was enthralled with the silence of the road and the strange quiet of the engine. I yawned and discovered that my ears had plugged up from the high altitude. Suddenly I could hear normally again. Snow in Russia seems to capture that same artificial silence. Even though the snow is doing something natural, it still manufactures an other-worldliness, it’s own silence. Yes, it slows the hustle and bustle of the city and dampers the sound of rubber on road, but it still seems separate from its practical effects.
It is not easy to say that snow beautifies Russia. Snow can’t beautify a backdrop of crumbling cement and brick. Still, it possesses its own innate beauty that even dilapidated Russia can’t destroy. It has transformative qualities. It sprinkles itself on the gray, the brown, and the black, and redecorates the hapless landscape. My German friend said it in even simpler terms, “The snow is great, it hides all the crap.” Poetry be damned, he’s right.
Inevitable as the Russian snow is, so too is man’s struggle against it. Soon, machines and shovels counterattack and try to beat it back. It’s an unbroken battle between land and sky. The front lines always ebb and flow like high-tide and low-tide. One day, the snow encroaches, the next day it retreats. On any given day, I can walk through a path completely surrounded by walls of snow waist high like a World War I bunker. On other days, I can tip toe through a wet, miserable muck.
I recall the morning after the first snow in Nizhny Novogord. On the drive to work, I watched how the city handled its response with some discomfort. Lining the streets were scores of workers shoveling snow by hand. Machinery became more prevalent about two years later. A large portion of the people were old and unhealthy looking, many of them old women. I felt like a prince passing the paupers. Somehow, I expected more from Russia. Her whole history revolved around snow, yet they were still doing the same thing they did centuries ago. Honestly, the scene was dismal.
Sounds depressing? Never! Quite the opposite. The Russian winter always made me feel powerful, defiant, and joyous. Growing up in Portland, snow was always a roll of the dice. So many false alarms, so many agonizing disappointments. But when it did snow, Oh the joy! The privilege of living in Russia was that I got to feel the joy every day, every week, every month during the winter. I could readjust that scarred imprint from my boyhood here. It healed me. No more disappointment, only fulfillment.
My fondest memories in Russia come from the hours I spent gazing out my window at the latest storm. I curled up on my sofa at night and just stared. I could see the entire city from my window. I would watch the dancing electrons and check, at intervals, how much snow had accumulated atop self-appointed landmarks within view. I’d turn my head toward a streetlamp occasionally so that I could rate the intensity of the snowfall compared to the last twenty times I checked. The snowflakes gleaming against the light could tell me if the storm was getting stronger or weaker. I’d watch the cars and the people going by, seeing how they coped.
Each time I sat there, my thoughts always went back to that feeling when I was young. I still felt that boyhood exhilaration. Only this time, my emotions burst into an adult sense of conquest and survival. It’s me against Russia and I have won. I am safe, I am warm, Mother Nature cannot get me. Only facing the harshest assaults from a Russian winter can create this feeling of triumph. Because of her, I am at peace, I am strong, I am alive.