The Russian winter laid waste to Napoleon’s army, but it offers a decidedly warm welcome to visitors who come in peace.


Words by Robert Schrader




When I decided to visit Russia in January, in the coldest part of winter, no one was more shocked than my Russian friends. “You do realise Russia is in the northern hemisphere?” one asked, convinced I’d got mixed up. “Change your ticket come in July.”

As a student of Russian history and literature, however, I would never have done such a thing. While it was true that sub-zero temperatures and mountainous snowdrifts had warded off entire armies of men, the Russian winter served as a singular backdrop for pivotal scenes in works from Anna Karenina to Doctor Zhivago.

Often, in the months leading up to my trip, I envisaged myself the main character in a dead of winter drama stepping into Red Square, a light snow falling as the domes of St Basil’s Cathedral slowly came into focus, caught in the cold gaze of the soldier guarding Lenin’s Mausoleum as the wind chapped my face. And that’s just the prologue.

Wreaths of smoke above Moscow’s chimneys

Chapter one begins in a more prosaic fashion. Dasha and Tanya, whom I met on previous trips to Ecuador and Thailand respectively, have been standing by supportively as I live out the grand Moscow entrance I’ve imagined a thousand times. After only a few minutes, however, the cold becomes unbearable, even for my local comrades.

The façade of the GUM department store, lit up in its Christmas regalia, strobes behind Tanya as she guides us towards a watering hole I’d never have been able to find on my own vodka shots, not shockingly, are how we warm ourselves up.

I fall asleep in a haze, my bones as chilled as the vodka when it entered my bloodstream, my body and brain jet-lagged to the point of not knowing what time it is. Morning comes, seemingly after only a few moments of rest, and we pass the famous Bolshoi Theatre en route to an unlikely destination: Children’s World Department Store.

From its rooftop observatory, Moscow is at our feet, gleaming in the sunlight and seeming to thaw ever so slightly, “wreaths of smoke curling above chimneys” like in the January scene Ivan Turgenev depicts in 1862’s Fathers and Sons.

By afternoon, which occurs only a few hours after morning on account of the perilously short Russian winter days, we’re walking east along the Moskva River, the vermilion walls of the Kremlin fading into darkness in lockstep with the rapidly setting sun. We enter Red Square once more, and the sky is as black as the ashes that awaited Napoleon when he got there: Muscovites, under orders from Tsar Alexander I, had burned the city to the ground as the French army approached to starve them of triumph.

The spiritual centre of Russia

Starving is a common feeling in Russia in winter, among the ghosts of invaders and flesh and blood tourists alike. On day two, after watching sunrise over the skyscrapers of Moscow City from a viewing deck at Stalin-era Moscow State University, we drive northeastward.

Passing through layers of Soviet apartment blocks that surround the city like a barricade, we’ve been on the road for an hour when we reach Sergiyev Posad, one of the medieval citadels that make up Moscow’s so-called ‘Golden Ring’. “Let’s eat before we enter the city walls,” Tanya insists as Dasha parks the car, encouraging me to look away from Sergiyev Posad’s glimmering Kremlin (every Russian city has one of these, it turns out, not just Moscow).

Within moments we’re inside the kitschy dining room of Varenichnaya 9, tearing into cherry-filled vareniki dumplings and downing spoonfuls of borscht beetroot soup.

We then make our way towards Trinity Lavra of St Sergius, the monastery in the heart of the old city, and the de facto spiritual centre of today’s Russian Orthodox Church. The coats of children playing in the snow precisely match the golden, cobalt and turquoise domes.

Red Arrow to St Petersburg

The night train to St Petersburg is known as the ‘Red Arrow’, and my goodbye to Dasha and Tanya is as quick and unceremonious as the whip of a bowstring. It’s pitch dark when I pull into Moskovsky Station, and Palace Square is illuminated when I enter it half an hour later. I’m the only one there, apart from the angel atop the Alexander Column. Before the slowly falling snow can fill in my just-left footprints, the lights switch off with an audible thud – the blue hour, which I have quickly come to accept lasts two or three this far north, has begun.

I see only a few other people in the time it takes the sky to go from baby blue to stark white, walking slowly along ice-covered Nevsky Prospekt, through the Summer Garden (which is frozen solid) and underneath the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

When St Isaac’s Cathedral opens at midday, I ascend to its panoramic observation deck, where I enjoy a sweeping view of the city as near-blizzard conditions set in. I think back on one of my favourite passages from Anna Karenina: “Everything that was to be seen was covered with snow on one side, and was getting more and more thickly covered.”After my face is wholly frozen but before the visibility reaches zero, I descend back towards street level and retreat to the warmth of my hotel, hoping I’ll wake the next morning to better weather.

It is in vain, but knowingly so: I didn’t come to Russia in winter for sunshine and warmth. Traipsing under a canopy of leafless trees at Catherine the Great’s palace in Pushkin early the following afternoon, I imagine how the tsarina herself must have related to the cold.

And I feel thankful to have followed through on my instincts – as I suspected, it is during the darkest days of winter that Russia’s light shines brightest.

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