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Soul and Ice
Moscows Frigid Winters Warm the Hearts of Russian Locals
By Jim Heintz
The Associated Press

MOSCOW, Feb. 12 At the Sokolniki Park disco, the floor may be hard-packed snow and the temperature down to 20 below zero, but the smiles are as warm as a potbellied stove.

Muscovites don't just live through the Russian capital's long and harsh winters, they live IN them with verve and merriment, and the park dancers are one the most appealing manifestations. Every weekend, in weather that would make most people huddle under blankets and whimper, hundreds of people head to Moscow's parks for dancing under the snow-laden trees.

Weighed down by fur coats, clumsy snow boots or the Siberian handmade felt shoes called valenki, the dancers most of whom are aging pensioners don't cut loose with snazzy moves, but their smiles and flirtations are fluid and timeless.

For the younger crowd, some parks keep amusement rides open and tiny kids zoom through air thick with snowflakes on fanciful airplanes, wrapped in so many layers of clothing that if they fell off the ride, they'd probably bounce.

The Thaw in Russian Souls

Although winter freezes the rivers and darkens the sky, it seems to thaw Russians' souls and brings lightness and innocence to a city that visitors in other seasons find to be rude and crass.

Crowded and noisy, afflicted with glacial traffic jams and some of the world's ugliest architecture, Moscow is rarely likable, but in winter it's easy to love in the way that one loves another for character rather than looks.

In warm weather, Moscow tries hard to be charming, with sidewalk cafs, river cruises and other attractions. None of this is convincing the cafs are plagued by smog and general crud, the Moscow River is sluggish and polluted and the city's attempts at jollity are as clumsy and sad as a dancing bear. In winter, Moscow becomes its true, unaffected self.

If it's not naive to think that a week's visit can reveal the "Russian soul," winter's the time to spot this chimera.

In summer, the view of the city from the heights of Vorobyovy Gori (Sparrow Hills) outside Moscow State University shows a discouraging, chaotic sprawl, where shabby czarist-era buildings stand elbow-to-elbow with concrete Soviet monstrosities. Winter's snow and flat gray skies draw them all together in a vast, monochrome panorama.

Where Newlyweds Pose

The hills' main overlook point is a popular point for newlyweds to pose for photos and in winter, the couples gaze long at the city before they rush giggling back to their cars, the brides' skin pink under their lacy dresses.

The Kremlin, when its walls rise against a lowering, foggy winter sky, is a primal image of inscrutable power and devious maneuvers, baleful and profoundly foreign no matter where a visitor comes from.

If Moscow is a poor relation to the West in architecture, in winter it's second to none in culture. The renowned Bolshoi Theater and Tchaikovsky concert hall are jammed nightly, the innovative Gelikon Opera draws adventurous listeners, and the stage scene is as rich and energetic as New York's and London's some 70 theaters with nightly productions, their acting so good and tickets so cheap that even an audience member who doesn't know a word of Russian will leave feeling rewarded.

This is the cultural bounty that many of Chekhov's characters longed for at length, and a visitor who has a day to take a trip outside Moscow in the winter will feel new poignancy at their yearnings. To see the countryside between Moscow and the nearby monastery town of Sergiev Posad from the window of an "elektrichki" commuter train the lonely, tilting cabins wrapped in endless snow is to understand that Uncle Vanya wasn't just a self-centered whiner but a truly isolated man.

Ice Skating on Flooded Walks

One of Russia's prime winter art forms is figure-skating and Moscow has developed some fine venues in which to try a toe loop or watch someone else do it. Gorky Park floods much of its sidewalks in winter, so skaters can meander deep into the park, stopping off for coffee or shashlik at booths along the way, and Hermitage Gardens, a pretty but little-touristed park in the center city, also has skating.

The best may be Yunikh Pionerov (Young Pioneers) Stadium, which turns its entire soccer field into a vast rink. The rink is especially popular for its music hypnotic electronic mixes provided by one of the city's top dance clubs, so rhythmic and insinuating that even a klutz feels graceful.

It also shows Russians' inventiveness amid scarce money: The ice is maintained with a sort of stone-age Zamboni, a wheeled cart pulled by two men, from which a hose spews water and a dangling flab of canvas smoothes it into respectable ice.

Moscow's also an unusually convenient city for skiers, with both cross-country trails and a ski slope accessible by subway. The slope won't challenge the black-diamond crowd, but the view from the top is arguably worth the trip all by itself in one direction, a sizable settlement of ancient wooden cabins still inhabited in the modern city, turn around and gaze at a procession of bleak, Soviet high-rises; a condensed history of Russia.

For the sedentary visitor, wintertime Moscow is also welcoming.

Clear some snow off a bench at Patriarshiye Prudy (Patriarch's Ponds), a park in a neighborhood of dog-eared pre-revolution elegance, and have a beer or the canned gin-and-tonics that Muscovites love in all seasons. Nod to all the other people doing the same, and watch the passing young people.

In summer, they'd be surly and posturing, trying out their coolness as they enter adulthood. In winter's coldness, however, they revert to being kids, laughing, jostling and grabbing an attractive someone's attention by tossing a handful of the abundant snow.

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