Alessandra Stanley,

Alessandra Stanley,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 16 1997 3:30 AM

Alessandra Stanley,

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       The flaps are down.
       I mean the earflaps of Russian men's fur hats, which, on all but the coldest days, are kept tied on top as a signal of the Slavic male's machismo: Only wimps or Westerners cover their ears in winter. But the temperature today is 25 degrees below zero Celsius (13 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). You don't actually need a thermometer, because the most reliable indicators are the earflaps. If they are down, it is deathly cold.
       When the flaps are down, it is unhealthy for children to play outside. That is what Masha, the teacher at our small Russian-language preschool, explained this morning. Normally, at noon every day, she crams her nine 4- and 5-year-old charges into snowsuits and leads them across the street to a nearby schoolyard, all of them clinging to one long rope like blind men in a Bruegel painting. Today, they stayed indoors and made Christmas decorations out of stale bread, old cereal boxes, and homemade confetti. Or maybe it was lunch.
       When the flaps are down, it is too cold for Russian-made cars, Zhigulis and Ladas, to start. Which means that the streets of Moscow, normally as jammed and brutish as downtown Lagos, Nigeria, are miraculously free and clear: Only Volvo and Mercedes engines can rev themselves awake in this kind of weather. When it is really freezing, foreigners and rich Russians rule the highways--winter joy rides for the Happy Few. The outer lanes are littered with stalled cars, looking a little like carrion abandoned in the desert.
       The City Ambulance Service announced today that last week three people died of exposure and another 138 were rushed to the hospital. Russians read between the lines and find some solace in the sobering news: At least the ambulances are working.
       The bitter cold didn't prevent Muscovites from voting in city council elections on Sunday. Not that they had much choice--Moscow's all-powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who blends a "crony capitalist" sensibility with the hauteur of an old-style Soviet party boss, has festooned the city with placards and billboards bearing his portrait and vaunting the merits of his preferred candidates. Late into Sunday night, in the subway, loudspeakers blared reminders to Muscovites to do their civic duty and vote. The mayor, a presidential contender who framed the election as a referendum on his popularity, was leaving nothing to chance.
       Even Boris Yeltsin, confined to a government sanitarium with what his doctors describe as a "cold," dragged himself out of bed to vote on Sunday. He looked wan and deeply tired, but in front of the television cameras, he cast his ballot gamely: It was as good a chance as any to pay fealty to Luzhkov--and prove to the world that, contrary to rumor, he is not at death's door.
       Mostly, the election was a flashback to Soviet elections of the Brezhnev era: None of the candidates for city council publicly opposed the mayor. The more daring merely hinted that it might be healthy to introduce a teeny dose of pluralism to the Moscow city Duma, which until now has mainly served as a rubber stamp for the mayor's will.
       That much, at least, will not change. All the candidates blessed by Luzhkov won easily. The only sign of disaffection with Luzhkov's iron--and somewhat corrupt--rule was the low turnout of 30 percent. In Soviet times, it would have been 90 percent, or else. Luzhkov, whose own earflaps were down, blamed the cold.

Alessandra Stanley is a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.