1905: The New Year's Blizzard

Article excerpt

This famous Boris Pasternak line immediately comes to mind when one thinks of the last days of 1904. At that time, all across Russia it was cold and snowing heavily. On the 20th of December, all the trains arriving at Moscow's Kursk Station (trains from the South) and Kiev Station (from the Southwest) arrived a full day late; trains coming from the West, into Brest Station, were 15 hours late. At some places in the steppes of Belorussia, the trains simply stood still, unable to get through the snow-drifts.

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The city of Zhitomir--far from the northernmost point in the Russian Empire--was completely cut off from the outside world by drifting snow. And then there was Vladivostok: it was not enough that the city was located on the edge of the theater of military operations in the Russo-Japanese War; it was also miserably cold. "It is not the Japanese who are killing us," wrote a journalist from the Far East, "but the prices and the cold."

Cold ... snow ... the white blizzards blew ... the snowstorms howled ... and the citizens of the huge Russian Empire were muffled in luxurious fur coats or in pitiful "fish fur" frocks, trying to stoke their furnaces still hotter, warming themselves with a cup of tea or a tumbler of vodka.

In St. Petersburg, they lit special bonfires so that homeless tramps, cabbies awaiting passengers or benumbed passersby could warm up a bit. Local homeowners provided some wood ... delivery men bringing fuel to the area were ordered by policemen protecting the fire to toss a few logs into the fire from their carts ... soon huge flames blazed in the street, protecting some Peters-burgers (for a short time at least) from the cruel frost.

Special teams roamed the city, gathering up people who were lying in the streets, no matter whether they were passersby who had fainted from the cold, or tramps who had drunk until their back teeth were floating. Anyone left on a snow-covered street was in mortal danger.

Yardmen everywhere worked ceaselessly. Every morning they shoveled the snow into massive piles. Toward the city's outskirts, these drifts sometimes lasted until spring; nearer the center, however, the snow was pushed into pits or into specially-constructed, heated boxes for melting the snow, through which flowed hot water exiting from banyas. Here, the snow melted quickly, shrouding everything in pearls of steam.

Horse-drawn trams were somehow dragged along their snow-clogged and ice-encrusted rails. Cabbies did not sit up on their seats, but stood on the sledges, in order that it would be easier to drive. People were even transported on special sleds across the Neva.

The snow-blanketed Empire was huge and surprisingly diverse. Somewhere, troops marched. Soon they would travel the long path across the empire to battle with the Japanese. Relatives cried from the knowledge of how many soldiers were not returning from this war being fought God knows where for God knows what. Soon, Russia would echo with the strains of a new waltz, "In the Hills of Manchuria." It would become one of the most popular Russian songs of its day: "The fields sleep, not a single Russian word is heard ... A dear mother weeps, a young widow weeps, all of Russia weeps, cursing its fate and fortune ..."

Somewhere, poets, artists and musicians were enjoying themselves. Like creative people everywhere, they foresaw the arrival of something terrible--perhaps even horrific. But, because of their typical carelessness, they preferred not to think about this. Or perhaps this foresight brought a certain poignancy and fatalism to life. It was good to spend time in fine restaurants or in the halls of the latest literary and artistic journals, talking endlessly about the fate of Russia, about one's amorous adventures.

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Many of the great Russian poets of the 20th century were already born. Anna Akhmatova was 15, Alexander Blok was 24, Osip Mandelshtam 13, Boris Pasternak 14. …