Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve in Moscow, December 31, 1978

Everybody says that their winter in Moscow was the coldest, so here I am, on New Year's Eve, to stake my claim to the title.  Happy New Year!

Excerpt from draft chapter 11.5
Moscow 1977-1979

In late December, the temperature dipped below minus 30 degrees Centigrade, and by the time New Year’s Eve had rolled around, almost no one was able to start their car. My enormous 1969 Chevy Caprice was still starting up despite the fact that it was parked outside, but only because I ran the engine every four hours, around the clock, in order to keep the dual batteries charged. On New Year's Eve, the temperature dipped even further, to a record minus 45 degrees (the Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales cross at minus 41). Even for Russians, it was getting just a little bit too cold.

We were all invited out to Leninskiy 83 that evening for a New Year's Eve party hosted by Ray and Cindy Smith. As my car was one of the few still running, I gave several people a ride out. The streets were virtually deserted, even by the standards of late 1970's Moscow, and we passed very few trucks, and even fewer cars. In the parking lot at Leninskiy-83, all the cars looked frozen in place, except for the Indian Military Attaché's Zhiguli, which he had kept running constantly for nearly a month in order to ward off the cold. I am told that shortly thereafter, the engine seized up and he had to junk the car entirely.

When we arrived at Ray and Cindy's apartment on the ninth floor of L-83, the atmosphere was very gay, but the internal temperature had already sunk to below freezing. Moscow's central water heating system was beginning to fail, and all over town, the hot water was getting only as far as the radiators on the fifth or sixth floor. This did not stop Ray and Cindy, however, who invited everyone to keep their coats on and drink as the spirit moved them. We all danced the night away in our fur coats, looking like a bunch of demented bears, jumping up and down to Boney M's "Rah, Rah, Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen."

Around 2am, I decided it was time to start up the car again, and offered to take a few revelers back to the Embassy. We all piled into my car, which, with great effort, barely managed to start. It had gotten even colder (Ambassador Toon says it got down to minus 49 that night), and I found that if I drove faster than 25 miles an hour, the car would begin to stall out from the cold air hitting the radiator. I had not yet learned the trick of Moscow taxi drivers to put a padded cover over the front of the car.  Not daring to stop, even when the lights were red, we cruised at a very leisurely pace down Leninskiy Prospekt, seeing scarcely another car on the road during our five-mile journey through the center of Moscow. I deposited my hitchhikers at the Embassy, and drove back to Spaso House for the night.

The next morning, when I got up to walk to work, the temperature had broken back above minus 40. In the pale light of day, I noted that water vapor was crystallizing in the cold morning air, creating a glittering spectacle, which I never saw again.  The slightest puff of wind hurt as it hit my face.  The Embassy guards, red-faced themselves, were amused at my discomfort.

People say that the winter of 1978-1979 was even colder than the winter of 1941-42, when the Soviets turned back the Nazis at the gates of Moscow. I don't know whether that is true or not: all I do know is that never, before or since, have I ever experienced a winter colder than my second year in Moscow.

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