Gates-way to Neva-land: A Frozen Hell
By Ethan Gates '12, Staff Writer
People often casually bandy about the phrase “when hell freezes over” as a clever way to convey the utter improbability or even impossibility of an event. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to beg you to never again use this metaphor so lightly. Hell has frozen over, and I’m living in it.

They tried to warn me. “Bring lots of layers,” they said. “Buy a nice warm hat when you get there,” they said. “Don’t die,” they said. But let me tell you something: nothing, NOTHING, can prepare you for the Russian winter. Imagine the worst brain freeze you’ve ever gotten from a slushy or milkshake or what have you. Now imagine that brain freeze as a never-ending seizure, a constant assault on basic thought and motor function. Good; now you’re starting to get the picture of my two-minute walk to the supermarket.

Oh, to be the young, naïve Ethan of late January. When we first arrived in Petersburg, the weather was roughly equivalent to winter in Amherst: more snow and slush, but with temperatures hovering in the 20 to 30-degree Fahrenheit range. I was perfectly elated. This wasn’t so bad! Pooh-pooh to the dire warnings and ominous insinuations of residents past! Arriving at our dormitory, my roommates and I were delighted to discover that our large bedroom window was insulated by way of various socks and towels stuffed into the window frame. Ah, Russian life! How quaint!

Two weeks later, we’re no longer laughing. In fact, we’re seriously considering going out and buying more socks to block the stream of frigid air finagling its way into our quarters like the Doubtful Guest. Don’t get me wrong — at night we’re perfectly fine, huddled up in our remarkably cozy beds; but we already have enough obstacles when it comes to waking up for a 9 AM writing class on Thursday morning without having to brave the interminable eight-foot trek between the bedroom and the shower.

And don’t even get me started on what it’s like to wait more than five minutes for a bus, the -40 degree Celsius wind chill threatening to make you scream and beg your deity of choice for mercy. This experience wouldn’t be quite so discomforting if I knew that those standing around me were suffering the same torment; misery, after all, does love company. But when the young Russian woman next to me, wearing a skirt-and-tights combo that would generally be considered inappropriate for mid-May in Ohio, can’t muster so much as a sympathetic shiver? That’s what really gets to me. It’s not even that Russians have adjusted to the cold; they don’t even acknowledge that the cold exists. My professors are usually a little more understanding, taking a few minutes out from class each day to let us therapeutically voice our anguish, but the average Petersburg citizen will regard you with mild amusement if you so much as sniffle.

Adding to the general frustration is the fact that Petersburg in the winter is unquestionably one of the most stunningly beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. The crisp winter sun gleaming off of the dome of St. Isaac’s, the steam rising off the frozen Neva, the glittering bustle of Nevsky Prospect at night: these are just some of the sights I’m constantly ignoring on the street because I’m too busy trying to block out the cold and contemplating my life choices. Last week, our program went on a cultural excursion to the Peter and Paul fortress, a massive complex including one of the nation’s most notorious prisons and a gorgeous cathedral which houses the tombs of just about every famous tsar of Russia, including Peter the Great himself. I stood over the final resting place of the Romanovs; I walked around the cell where Trotsky was incarcerated. All I could think about was how my toes felt like they were about to fall off. It’s difficult to appreciate the history beneath your feet when your feet are completely numb.

I can perhaps best summarize the Petersburg winter experience by relating the behavior of one of my fellow American students here. After 10 minutes inside any building in the city — and I mean ANY building, be it museum, palace, metro station or grocery store — this fellow will invariably exclaim “I LOVE Russia!” and proceed to gush about the city in familiar fashion. However, should this same student spend more than five minutes outside, those odes of praise to Mother Russia will shift in the blink of an eye to a string of obscenities a sailor would dare not repeat. So it goes.

As always, though, I cope with the trials and tribulations of Petersburg life by trying to look on the fabled “bright side” of life. I seek out the little details that make this generally excruciating cold snap something special and unique: the patterns made by frozen mud on the floor of a bus; the way people linger just a bit longer after classes to chat before heading home; the extra bit of comfort provided by a piping hot cup of chai. Even as I write this, I have just finished off a warm, filling meal of pelmeni (Russian dumplings) and the weather outside already seems far less frightful. I may feel differently come Monday morning, as I impatiently await the good ol’ number seven bus. But I know that somewhere in the future, however distant, this cold will end. Camus may have been French, but I think he tapped a bit into the Russian psyche when he said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” He just probably never went through hell to find it.

Issue 16, Submitted 2011-02-23 04:12:14