Discovering HSE and Russia: Praising the Snowfall

In addition to interviews with international faculty, The HSE Look has launched a new feature – a column about their life in Russia, what they discover in different cities, and interesting venues at HSE and beyond. In this issue, we present a column by Nadia Moro on the fairytale beauty and dangers of snowfalls in Moscow.

Praising the snowfall

To Susanna, who would have truly enjoyed Moscow

Once again we have prospered through the winter thanks to Tim Jaekel’s Rules of thumb in the last issue of the HSE Look. But this winter was anything but ordinary, and the snowfalls at the beginning of the year made the headlines internationally.

Will you forgive me for entertaining you with a column on weather? Please believe that it is not meant to instantiate the phatic function of Roman Jakobson’s model of verbal communication: we are not primarily reassuring ourselves that we are understanding each other by, say, chatting on how icy it is. Praising a snowfall (похвала снегопада) won’t serve as a piece of academic work in communication theory either – oh, my dear publication metrics! Still, I’ll try to describe a striking, dreamy experience of brilliant whiteness and silence in Moscow. Unheard-of, literally!

On the 4th of February 2018, the BBC suggested watching “Muscovites struggling with the ‘snowfall of the century,’” when, apparently, “Moscow has seen its heaviest snowfall in a day since records began.” “More than half the monthly average snow – 38 cm (15 inches) – fell […], beating the previous record from 1957.” Despite obvious disruptions and sad accidents, Muscovites seemed to welcome the return of the “real Russian winter,” – and international guests were very happy to join them!

Please do consider another unprecedented precedent, which made the headlines, too. As reported by the BBC, “Moscow’s 2017 December was its ‘darkest’ on record.” The New York Times made things crystal clear: “For anyone who braves the Russian winter, overcast skies and short, dark days are a depressing reality. But even those bleak expectations were shattered in December, when Moscow was shrouded in an unrelenting cloud cover for all but six minutes. It was the darkest December in the capital since the city began recording the data […]. The average amount of sunlight for December – 18 hours – is hardly anything to write home about.”

After the Reign of Greyness, there came unremitting swirling snow. Everything was covered in the Magic White: trees, streets, statues, backyards, roofs, cars – and even the noise was muffled. For a few days, Moscow turned into a fairy-tale place, even the suburbs became silent, with parents pulling their children on sledges and old ladies feeding the city birds with seeds and crumbs. Mountains of snow appeared in the courtyards, for the joy of young and grown-up children.

But beware, do not let the fairy-tale snow make you too dreamy – or reality will be back all of a sudden, as soon as you walk on the new, slippery city pavements. The new stone, sadly, was hardly tested against snow, ice, humidity, or chemicals before re-building so many pedestrian paths. My new crampons (memories of a budding alpinist) would definitely come in handy on the new, perfectly smooth linoleum in the buses, which has turned out to be as slippery as a true skating rink – and this is the second lurking danger. Oh, Tim, why haven’t you warned us about the very first danger in Moscow? Those mean doors of any metro station, which are perpetually about to slap you hard across the face… There does exist a perpetuum mobile, Mr Hermann von Helmholtz!

“Cкоро весна! The spring is coming!” – Russians have kept reassuring me for some weeks already, while freezing at -15 C or so. I believe them, especially when I see a friend’s Facebook post featuring a furry cat dozing on a snow-capped chimney stack – wouldn’t you have raised your birding binoculars exactly to that place to spot the stork? No worries. Firstly, according to the authoritative work of Ludwig Tieck, cats develop their understanding while sleeping, and hence do not hunt songbirds that could announce the spring. Most importantly, Russians have interesting coping strategies and always manage to surprise you with the appropriate, yet untranslatable humour: “Мы зиму перезимовали - Перезимуем и весну!”

Nadia Moro is an Assistant Professor at the School of Philosophy . Nadia’s research is focused on post-Kantian German philosophy and the relationships between philosophy and sciences such as psychology, physiology, and linguistics in the long nineteenth century. She is also interested in aesthetical formalism, music theory, and recent Italian history.

Read more in The HSE Look March 2018 issue