Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#7 - JRL 7006
Baltimore Sun
January 6, 2003
Out cold

MOSCOW HAS been going through a stretch of heavy snow and unusually cold weather, with nighttime temperatures well below zero, night after night. During the long extended holiday, which starts Dec. 25 with what's called "Catholic Christmas," runs through modern New Year's, then goes onward to Russian Orthodox Christmas and finally winds up on the traditional Russian church New Year's (that's Jan. 13, if you're still counting), the government has been broadcasting appeals to Muscovites to lay off the vodka, because of the danger of falling down drunk in a snowdrift and freezing to death.

The response has been a tribute to human obstinacy - longer lines at liquor shops than at any time since rationing was lifted more than a decade ago.

The government advisories have served to (1) remind ordinary people that it's the season for celebrating and that that calls for vodka, (2) point out to them that it's cold outside and that that calls for vodka, and (3) suggest to suspicious minds that someone in a high place may be trying to cover up for a shortage of vodka - and the only answer to that is to rush out and buy it while you can.

It all makes perfect sense, in context. In Russia's case, the context has to do with the centuries-long embrace of vodka, an even longer experience with rulers who should not be believed, and a culture in which to be devious is to survive. The first law is not to trust those who know better.

But people all over the world do things that they shouldn't be doing. People are just complicated - and they rarely act according to an if-A-then-B sort of logic. And it's not just people, incidentally. It's one of those things that's inherent in nature - things rarely turn out as planned or even imagined. Maybe it's just because nature is so harsh in a place like Russia that it's especially evident there.

Take the weather itself, for instance. Russia's cold this winter has to do with warm winds kicked up by El Nio, which have blown across much of North America and pushed the jet stream far to the north. That in turn has bottled up the Arctic air on this side of the globe, with the result that it has spilled much farther south on the other side. Some people think there's a connection to global warming in all this, but few people predicted in the early days of concern over rising world temperatures that they would result in frozen bodies piling up on the streets of Moscow.

In fact, there have been 215 so far this winter, as of New Year's Day. It's a good bet that most of them were drunk.

You push here and something goes wrong over there. Every action has an equal and completely unintended reaction. Drive a carbon-spewing SUV in Baltimore, and one consequence might be that a stubborn and vodka-soaked Muscovite shows his disdain for his own government by dying in the snow.

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