07 March 2007

The Thaw

I realized that I managed to let the entire month of February slip by without any commentary on February's closest comrades, snow and ice. Considering that a post on these "frozen treats" would be downright silly in a few weeks, there's a few things I have to get off my chest before it's too late.

The first snow of the year is beautiful here, when everything is coated in a delicate coat of glistening fluff. One can't help but look out the window and smile: even the most ordinary of objects below are transformed into things of beauty. It is as if all the grays, browns, and blacks of ordinary Moscow life are purified, if only for a day, by the winter's blanket. If the sun succeeds in dispelling the clouds for a bit the effect is even more breathtaking, as snowy surfaces sparkle like diamonds.

But alas, this wondrous beauty is fleeting, as things slowly return to normal. It is as if the reality of Moscow life - the bustle, the traffic, the dirt - slowly seeps up through the ground to sully the virgin landscape. Dirty footprints mark the sidewalks while the cars zooming down the street fling chemically-melted slush - now the color of coffee - onto anyone foolish enough to step too close to the roadway.

And so Moscow settles in to winter, the next several weeks to be marked by treading through, over, around, and in the various physical states of that wondrous molecule, H2O: snow, ice, icy slush, watery slush, watery ice, icy snow, and so on. I realize that most of these are not actual physical states, but I also realize that my highschool chemistry teacher is not reading this.

I can't really speak for the automobilist's experience with snow and ice in Moscow, as I am fortunate enough to not drive in this city. After all, I hope to lead a long and fulfilling life, the likelihood of which is considerably diminished by taking the wheel of a car in Moscow. Nevertheless, it seems as if the main boulevards are cleared relatively quickly and thoroughly by snowplows, their collective booty being eventually deposited in trucks for removal from the city. It's an interesting phenomenon, as where I'm from we just wait for the snow to melt. But then again, I'm not from Russia, which would likely strain under the weight of the cumulative snowfall if measures were not taken to dispose of it.

Thus, I shall describe the plight of the ordinary pedestrian during this time of the year as he goes about his urban (but not necessarily urbane) business. At first progress is relatively easy, as packed snow provides sufficient stability and traction for a reasonable rate of forward motion. The pedestrian's daily doings are also made easier by the ubiquitous snow shoveler, who tends to appear (at least in my neighborhood) in the form of a Central Asian immigrant. It really is remarkable how many such individuals materialize as the first layers of snow begin to coat the ground. I once counted 8 on one street corner, though it is true that only two were shoveling, one was "supervising" and the rest were smoking. This, I suppose, might be a residual of communism's lofty goal of universal employment as well as a testament to the practical outcome of that ideal.

What is puzzling to me, however, is the pattern of their work. It is not uncommon to be walking down the (now cleared) sidewalk when you suddenly encounter a stretch of the path that has escaped even minimal attention from a shovel. Curiously, these boundaries tend to correspond perfectly to the edges of buildings, and what I presume to be property lines (if there is such a thing as post-Soviet property lines). This leads me to the conclusion that despite their appearance as public employees, the toiling shovelers are "independent contractors," in Ameri-speak, who are paid to clear the sidewalk in front of the employing business. I presume that the effect is intended to be psychological: a pleasant, unhindered walk down the sidewalk will be associated with pleasant thoughts about the corresponding business, and thus a higher propensity to frequent said business. And who said Russian business hasn't paid attention to customer service!

Sooner or later a mixed blessing occurs: a day above the freezing point. On the one hand, the weather is pleasantly warm (I confess I never thought I would consider 32f/0c to be a warm day). On the other hand, that remaining whispy layer of snow is given the opportunity to melt, only to be reincarnated as treacherous black ice once the temperature plunges back into the twenties the following day.

After such an event the Moscow pedestrian's forward motion experiences significant deceleration, grinding almost to a halt as he shuffles cautiously along the deadly pathway, afraid of the slightest icy misstep and its bruising consequences. Occasionally he becomes careless and attempts an end-run around the fur-coated babushka creeping along in front of him with her bundle of lord knows what. Just as he clears the bear-like woman, disaster strikes: in the blink of an eye, he experiences a rapid accelaration, though his progress is not in a forward direction but rather a downward one. To be exact, he accelarates at the rate of 9.81 m/s2 until his progress is brought to a jarring halt by the meeting of his back with the merciless (and rather firm) sidewalk. Of course, the Russian she-bear neither notices nor appreciates the significance of this meeting, but for the pedestrian the significance is felt for the next several weeks, as every action (every action) involving the posterior is carried out rather gingerly.

Fortunately I am not this pedestrian and this pedestrian is not I. My posterior is safe for now. There have been several close calls, though, and I know that my time will come one day. Just as 1930s Moscow waited for that knock on the door in the middle of the night, so too do I wait for that knock on the back of my head in the middle of the street.

In the meantime, the snow has begun to fall again. I am walking by the corner store one afternoon when I notice that the corner shoveler has traded his corner shovel for a corner broom. He is dilligently sweeping away the corner snow away, revealing the sheet of corner ice covering the corner itself. By some measures he is making progress in his battle: water in its frozen state, whether snow or ice, is the enemy and must be liquidated (and eventually liquified). As such, removing snow reduces the overal mass of frozen water, thereby bringing the birch-wielding warrior closer to victory: unconditional surrender of the Frostish Invaders.

But does he realize that by sweeping away the crunchy snow he is also wiping away the last bit of traction offered to the soles of pedestrians on their way home? The last bit of hope for these souls to cling to? Does he realize that he's sweeping my (and possibly his own) grave? My advisors (who are also unlikely to be reading this) would be pleased to know that my academic work on "creeping authoritarianism" is never far from my mind: I couldn't help but draw the parallel between the man sweeping away the last bit of traction from the ice and those ordinary Russians who are, by virtue of the choices they make at the ballot box, (unwittingly?) sweeping away the remaining bits of liberalism to which Russian democracy clings. Before they know what hits them, I fear, we will all be lying on our backs seeing stars...

Political commentary aside for the moment and returning to the ice on the streets, we turn our attention to the revolution taking place in the streets which seeks to overthrow the old order. The regime of shovelers/sweepers is replaced by a new vanguard, one of ice choppers seeking to destroy the remnants of the Icean regime. But revolutions are rarely as complete or as transformative as their makers would have us believe, so much stays the same: in fact, the soldiers are the same, they've simply changed their weapon of choice. Now they take to the streets with heavy iron bars whose end flattens into a wide blade. They pound the ice and the pavement underneath all day long in percussive monotony: clink, clink, clink, clink. Their work is slow but they make progress, and in due time the ice has been cleared from the sidewalk, usually just in time for another snow/melt/freeze/sweep/slip-and-die cycle. The contours of the ice removal match the contours of the snow shoveling, marked where buildings begin and end. As such, even when most sidewalks are relatively clear, the Moscow pedestrian must be wary of the anti-revolutionary holdouts (enemies of the people, no doubt!) who refuse to have their sidewalks cleared.

Eventually the temperatures rise, the thaw begins, and Muscovites no longer have to worry about the knock in the middle of the street. But as with any regime chage, there is a new landscape that must be navigated.

The Moscow pedestrian struggles to make sense of the new atmosphere, or at least make his way through it. There is no doubt that transitions are messy business; any Russian knows this. The snow and ice, much of which was denied the opportunity of an excursion aboard the large trucks heading out of the city, has aquired a thoroughly black coloring through and through. Those of you who wish to make the observation that the loftiest of snow-white ideals became unrecognizably corrupt and foul during the darkness of the winter regime may do so at this time... Finished? Ok, we can continue now.

This wretchedly black snow has now become wretchedly black slush, the liquidity of which depends on that day's particular temperature. As might be expected, the warmer the wetter, and woe unto he who steps without looking. Your foot sinks quickly into the dark mess, emerging covered in a dirty film which, when it dries, will leave a covering of dirt and chemicals that is hard to clean off. Even worse, your shoe and socks are now soaked, and while 33 degrees may be a warm day, wet feet in such weather do not make warm feet. And just as Pasternak learned that it's still possible to slip and fall after the thaw has begun, so too must the pedestrian take care when walking over slushy surfaces, particularly those consisting of polished stone of which there are so many in Moscow. As such, the relics of grandiose but dangerous times still lay wait for unsuspecting victims.

It was during this period that I noticed plastic tape - the kind used by the police, only this was red and white - reaching out into the sidewalks, preventing pedestrians from straying too close to the building walls. Hmm, I thought to myself. Surely they haven't recently painted the post office? Just then a massive, squishy SPLAT made its presence known a few steps ahead, landing within the barricaded no-man's land. Aha! I realized, with a pleased smile on my face, this tape is here to protect me. How thoughtful! If only the rest of the red tape in Russia were so benevolent...

I'm almost to the end of this essay, so I'll extend the Soviet metaphor one last time. Eventually historically (by which I mean climatically, since we're still talking about the weather) inevitable processes take over, and the warmth provided by a new season cannot be overcome by frigid reactionaries. Like it or not, everything begins to melt, and the black brown slush is replaced by black brown lakes, streams, ponds, pools, fjords, and the occasional estuary (the place where salt water from the street meets fresh water flowing from the sidewalk). Call it climatic glasnost if you will.

This turn of events is, understandably, quite discomforting for the Moscow pedestrian. Rather than the relatively straight line he once cut down the center of the sidewalk, he must zig zag to and fro, hopping from island to island and slithering along little peninsulas to get to his final destination. I am convinced that the actual distance traveled during this time of year doubles as a result of these necessary detours. Sometimes it is not possible to find a dry spot of land to plant one's feet, and the pedestrian must hope fate is on his side as he takes a step into the unknown dark, murky waters that lie ahead. If he is lucky, it's only an inch or so deep. If unlucky, it's wet feet for the day. Knowing what the future will bring is impossible of course, owing to the accumulation over time of so much filth that clouds the view of the bottom. [I hope those of you with a background in Russian history and literature are actively practicing your read-between-the-lines skills in all of this, as I admit I'm laying it on thick here...]

If you happen to find yourself in a crowded public place, the result of this tortuous path forward is a familiar Russian past time: waiting in lines. As there is only one tiny strip of dry land safe for passage, a long queue forms of those waiting to move on with their lives. The occasional brave soul charts a course right throught the puddle. As with most risks, some are rewarded and some are punished depending on the depth of the obstacle and the quality of one's shoes.

Unfortunately, this transition has taken a terrible toll on my pants [no hidden meaning here, read it straightforward]. At the end of the day no matter how careful I've been to avoid sloshing through puddles, my pant legs are soaked and covered in muddy splashes which, incidentally, don't come out in the wash. It seems the legacy of Russia's dirty past can't be erased that easily [Ok, you can read into that one if you want].

But things are starting to improve. Now the rains are coming to wash away the dirt and banish the remaining snow to wherever it is that snow is banished (Siberia seems a likely candidate: they seem to have an abundance of the stuff). And while there are still lakes, rivers, and fjords to deal with, I find that my pants aren't so dirty at the end of the day (they are, however still wet). I admit I'm not particularly fond of the rain, as I don't enjoy a wet head (something on which your average babushka and I can agree), but it means that something better lies ahead, I hope.

And so I can only wait for that day when the sun breaks through, the streets dry up, and I can march resolutely down the sidewalk in a straight line making real forward progress to my destination. I hardly think I'm the only one in Moscow who holds such dreams...

No comments: