St. Petersburg, December 2018. Winter number 315 since the city was founded. What will it be like? Not one competent meteorologist would be able to answer this question now. The coming three months are the most unpredictable in a year. St. Petersburg’s winter is never the same – it is always different.
Natalya Bandurina, reporter: “There is a strong enemy to everyone in St. Petersburg – everyone who earns 400 rubles a year or around that. That enemy is none other than our northern cold – despite some saying it is not feeling to well too”. Gogol destroys the intrigue from the very first pages – pointing to the one who led to the poor Akakiy Akakievich’s demise. St. Petersburg’s cold. The very one which “burnt his shoulders through the gaping holes on an old overcoat”.
Here – in the arched corridor of the Gostinnyi Dvor – was where it all happened. And that is the overcoat – from Lenfilm’s wardrobe collection. Warm, with cotton stuffing – the ultimate dream of a small man. He simply needed it to overcome his own sufferings and plights, but St. Petersburg’s main enemy gave him no chance”.
In reality, Gostinnyi Dvor was selected simply for a pretty background. Historians and philologists are still arguing as to where exactly was Bashmachkin attacked. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Gogol forever encapsulated St. Petersburg’s winter as a symbol of confrontation between the spirit and the nature.
Strong northern wind and minus 25 centigrade – the temperature conditions of December 1841. The year when Gogol wrote “The Overcoat”. Newspapers provide rolling coverage of deaths in the streets caused by the cold – as well as informing the public of skating schedules on the icy Neva. St. Petersburg’s winter has grief and joy close to each other.
Galina Sedova, head of Memorial Museum-Apartment of A.S. Pushkin: “Winter has always been part of the Russian culture. When everything in nature is balanced and quiet – and the Russian man’s blood boils. When he shows that these tests do not scare him. In the case of Pushkin, his blood boiled twice as hard”.
Almost every room at Pushkin’s apartment, Moika 12, had a chimney or a heater, but those were never used to full strengths. It was considered bad taste. That’s why temperature inside these rooms never exceeded +15 centigrade. The servants never carried around lumber while masters of the house were in. The cleaned the house when they were away too. St. Petersburg’s winter in the 19th century observed subordination.
Natalya Bandurina, reporter: “The first snow-clearing mechanism, a manual one - a broom. A yardman was tasked with cleaning up the territories he was assigned to, but also had other responsibilities. Wasn’t exactly involved in catching criminals, but they had to inform the authorities of any crimes. For instance – if someone suspicious was dwelling around coal reserves”.
Alexey Erofeev, local historian” “Here is where lumber was kept. And everyone knew where one’s own lumber was and where other peoples’ was”.
Yardmen existed up until the early 1980s. That’s why movies with wild chases through the inner yards of the post-war city – is pure fantasy. This is unimaginable for that time. The warmth from heaters never reached the attic, that’s why roofs were thoroughly covered with ice. The 20th century and all-round steam heating cleared the sky of black smoke, but also generated a neologism – “Sosuli”, or icicles. It seems that those are thicker in our city than anywhere else. The fight against them is on every year – and sometimes new technologies manage to win.
Natalya Bandurina, reporter: “This is the warmest and the safest roof in St. Petersburg. Icicles were evicted from here 10 years ago – and they never came back. Thanks to a special system which heats the scaffolding. Here’s part of it – the distribution bloc”.
Nikita Nesterov, manager at utility service Nevskiy 235: “This part has a heating element. It is not water, it is a special chemical solution which never freezes – at any temperatures – and it heats up all the elements where icicles usually emerge”.
Even 8 years ago, ice on the roads was thoroughly covered with salt. There was probably too much of it used, but there is still no other way.
Natalya Bandurina, reporter: “This is not just salt – its salt with sand. It is added so that the sand does not stack up. Hence another myth – in the winter St. Petersburg is more sandy than salty. A simple solution by the city’s utility services made us realize – St. Petersburg is actually white in the winter”.
Vadim Mizyukin, head of road maintenance and service department at City Utilities Committee of St. Petersburg: “Every time the first snow begins to fall, it catches everyone by the surprise. But we start preparing as early as in May. And all our gear is checked”.
It would be a good idea to study St. Petersburg’s winter through a microscope and work out a formula of its uniqueness. To scientifically register a genuine St. Petersburg snowflake. But science was very categorical.
Natalya Bandurina, reporter: “Any snow and ice would never make it to this cold storage – it has to be at least 15 thousand years old. Like this one – from Vostok station in the Antarctic. No snow from St. Petersburg here. Nothing special about it – regardless of any myths and legends”
Yuriy Shibaev, researcher at climate change laboratory: “Just like all other snowflakes, our snowflakes are unique. They are different every time – depending on how cold it is and the type of snow. Now there is no snow, as we can see”
And it really is the case – St. Petersburg’s winter might disappear in the future, partly because of its uniqueness. It has everything to do with St. Petersburg’s geographical location.
Natalya Bandurina, reporter: “The only city with population over one million standing at the 60th north parallel. None here for sure. The closest neighbors are Helsinki and Stockholm, but they have a totally different climate”.
Their winters are still very cold, while our winters begin to look more like a long autumn. Professor Menzhulin draws a chart of how warmer the three cities have become over the last several centuries. Winter temperatures in St. Petersburg has grown by one and a half degrees – more than at the aforementioned two cities. And there are two reasons for that – global warming and local warming. The big city accumulates the heat by itself.
Gennadiy Menzhulin, climatologist: “It will become warmer in all months, but not evenly. It will be warmer during the winter months and less warm in the summer months”.
So there’s every chance that in several decades the events of Gogol’s “Overcoat” would be considered as something surreal. Freeze to death? In St. Petersburg? You must be kidding! But that is an entirely different story. Today our winter represents an integral part of our city’s image – when there’s only one hour of sunlight in December and rain follows snow. If it was any other way, Gogol and Pushkin’s books would’ve been different. As would the city itself.