MOSCOW — If you’re talking wintry weather, this city gets its money's worth. In fact, there is no term in the Russian language for "a white Christmas" because Christmas is white every year all across the gigantic country.
But the Russian capital is now in the midst of a deep freeze the likes of which most city residents have never seen. The mercury dropped to a bone-chilling minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. And it did not get much better when the sun came up, with daytime highs topping out at minus 17F.
That is the kind of cold that literally turns a man's breath to ice on his whiskers, provided he's got them (and this reporter knows because he does).
Bone chilling, mind-numbing cold
It's the kind of cold that even gets the attention of the bureaucrats. As a precaution, the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside the Kremlin walls had its shifts cut from one hour to 30 minutes per team. Those soldiers are tough, but this is serious cold.
Meanwhile, city hall and the power company are taking steps to guard against a potential overload of the electrical grid. After Moscow set an all-time record for electricity consumption on Tuesday, city officials introduced usage restrictions on non-essential customers: some factories, construction sites, and outdoor advertisers to name a few.
That said, the word clearly hasn't reached everyone because several buildings outside NBC's Moscow bureau are still bathed in flood light. This includes the so-called White House, which is the headquarters of the Russia's federal government.
Residents taking heed
There was plenty of warning about this cold snap and city residents seem to have taken heed. Though there were were two weather-related fatalities on Tuesday night — both cases of hypothermia — that might be considered a low figure when you take into account that there have already been 107 deaths from hypothermia in Moscow since the end of October, a period in which the city had not seen temperatures anywhere close to these levels.
The homeless population, which is sizable here — and tends to eschew the services of government-run shelters — is doing its best to get off the streets. According to a report on Russian television, they are seeking refuge primarily in train stations, subways and apartment building entrances, and city police have been given orders not to harass them in light of the extreme cold.
Earlier in the week, there was also talk of closing city schools, an idea that was eventually scrapped. Instead, educators decided to defer to parents on the issue of attendance: schools are in session, but children who do not go to classes will not be penalized in light of the harsh weather conditions.
And don't even think about Siberia
Moscow is not alone — much of Russia, from here to eastern Siberia, is experiencing abnormally cold weather right now — but Muscovites know it's much, much worse to the east.
Tonight's expected low temperature of around 34 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in the capital would seem absolutely balmy in the Evenkia region of Siberia where residents are enduring a mind-numbing (and every other part of your body for that matter) minus 68 degrees Fahrenheit!
Low temps spell cash for cabbies
As is often the case in these kinds of extreme and potentially dangerous situations, not everyone is anxious for things to get back to normal. Moscow's gypsy cab drivers are by all accounts raking in the rubles.
Anecdotal evidence suggests they are charging at least double regular fare in most cases; it's what one of them called a special "frost rate." Even so, those are prices a good many Muscovites are only too happy to pay to get out of the cold and get to where they are going.
And with this cold snap expected to hold for as long as two weeks, the gypsy cabbies look set to have a good run.