Embracing the Cold, Russian Style
Holmdel writer Jo Ann Kairys on how some prefer ice cold baths and snow rubs.
Through pellets of hard snow, a round-faced babushka placed a frozen cone in my hand. “Morozhenaya, da—2 rubles.” What? Ice cream in the middle of a blizzard on the steps of the Kremlin? So this is Moscow.
1991. My first trip to the U.S.S.R. The year the Soviet Union officially collapsed. It couldn’t have been more surreal, eating vanilla ice cream as heavy snow descended on Moscow.
Just hours before, my husband Steve and I emerged from Sheremetyevo airport, just in time to catch the scrappy Lada that transported us into the city’s center. Our driver navigated the chaos of traffic, stopping every few minutes to free the windows of ice.
Imagine Broadway without traffic lights during a nor’easter and your windshield wipers aren’t working. I’d never seen snow in another country, let alone an empire—and the icy assault didn’t bode well for the next leg of our journey into the heart of Siberia.
We came to Russia as medical professionals on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). For over a decade, we traveled to each of the Republics of the former Soviet Union with a team of American colleagues.
Together, we taught doctors and nurses about modern clinical care for children, and visited medical centers inaccessible to western eyes until the 1990s.
The health care system in Russia was virtually static after WWII. Even more so in remote regions of the country isolated from the epicenters of Moscow and St. Petersburg, especially in the “closed” cities dedicated to secret national military and space missions.
I was determined to understand what eyes alone do not reveal. So, before our first trip, I studied Russian intensively, preparing myself to dive into the culture with all senses on high alert. On our first ride into Moscow from the airport, I listened with fascination as the driver cursed the weather, the snow and every vehicle vying for position on the icy road.
Olga, a professional interpreter, accompanied our first tours of Moscow’s medical centers. One afternoon she escorted us to an outpatient polyclinic containing a large room lined wall-to-wall with giant tubs, each filled with water. Freezing cold water.
We watched along with parents as nurses dunked small babies in those tubs for a few seconds, up to their necks. Nothing in our expression gave away our bewilderment, but we eagerly attended Olga’s explanation as the head doctor described how this “treatment” bolsters the immune system and prevents respiratory infections in winter. I asked politely in Russian how this could be possible.
“Ahhh,” replied the doctor with elegant conviction, “because it just does. I rub handfuls of snow on myself every day for a few minutes and haven’t had a cold in years.”
Mind you, I have no intention of taking a snow bath in our Holmdel neighborhood. But this winter’s landscape always reminds me of that first experience in a Moscow clinic. It’s as perfectly imprinted in my mind’s eye as the precise curves of the Cyrillic alphabet and ice cream bars in Red Square.