I lived with a Russian family for 6 months and faced the coldest winter of my life. Snow packed the fields, ice coated the sidewalks, city roads became hazardous, and even the mighty Volga River froze solid enough to drive across it.
No wonder the Germans couldn't invade Russia in World War II. The largest country in the world, in the far north of Europe and Asia, is naturally protected by snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. It has the earth's coldest towns, where Siberian natives live through winters so harsh that car engines can't start and breath is instantly frozen into crystals. Ice coats sidewalks, creating what I called "Russian mine fields." I had to attach metal chains to my boots just to navigate my way safely to the corner bus stop. I taught English in a twelve-story, Soviet-style apartment building around which blizzard winds and snow drifts howled like an epic Russian phantom. Other massive apartment buildings cluttered the landscape beside highways and bridges. Many bars drew customers with vodka, but cafes serving hot tea were often absent.
When I wasn't teaching, I would explore the city streets of Samara and take photos of Lenin statues, communist war memorials, old opera houses, ice gardens, and Russian Orthodox churches. Russians huddled miserably in their long, hooded coats. They smoked cigarettes for a little warmth while waiting for buses. They rarely smiled at me, a friendly Californian who missed sunlight, flowers, and barbecues at the beach. They lived on salty, dried fish and caviar with fresh vegetables or fruit seldom added.
I hiked for miles beside the Volga River, Europe's longest, that froze so solid people not only walked a mile across it—but also drove vehicles. Every year, as the current flows swiftly beneath the ice, snow mobiles crack through and are pulled downward, the bodies of their riders washed miles down the river and not found until the ice melts in springtime. Russians, used to their winters, are quick to clear major roadways so that people can commute, but in the worst snow storms, the lesser streets have to wait days to be freed from their high snowdrifts.
Just to go outside required several minutes of dressing in layers, topped by a scarf, faux fur coat and hat, mittens, and tall boots (with their sole chains). But for all the hassle, coldness of the weather and people, and fishy food, Russia was beautiful in winter. Snow covered everything in a veil of white. Walking down paths bordered by fir trees was like stepping into Narnia. Snow falling on the city looked like diamonds in a light confetti, a treasure free for everyone, landing temporarily on upturned faces.
For months I did not see leaves on trees. The April day I left Samara on the train to Moscow, snow fell. Ice coated the Moscow runway when my plane ascended toward a Turkish spring. Glad as I was to find flowers and sunlight again, I could not forget my lonely but lovely Russian winter and the paths I found across the snow.