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Prisoners of Winter, Part 2

Features
posted: 10/03/2000

Two days later, Chris and I flew to Siberia. We'd booked tickets for an Aeroflot flight into the city of Yekaterinburg, on the east side of the Urals. Air travel in Russia is an iffy proposition. My Lonely Planet guidebook offers a less nuanced opinion: "Only a fool with no regard for personal safety would fly Aeroflot." The book points out that Russia has the worst airline-safety record in the world (ahead of China); that half of the country's aircraft are past their recommended lifespan; and that radar systems, communications equipment, and spare parts are severely lacking.

Anyway, we flew. Save for the free-for-all in nabbing a seat, and the fact that my camera was stolen from my checked luggage, the three-hour flight went smoothly. That is, until it came time to land. Traditionally, I realize a flight is over when the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign goes off. On this flight we came in rather nose-heavy, and landed with more oomph than one might desire, and the large seat belt sign hanging in front of the cabin did not merely turn off, it fell off¿right into a passenger's lap. No one thought this particularly disturbing¿we were alive, after all¿and we filed peaceably off the plane.

Yekaterinburg, population 1.4 million, is an industrial center and the largest city in Siberia. It had been closed to foreigners for most of the 20th century because of its many munitions plants. It's a uniformly drab city; even the municipal buildings have a squat, boxy look, as if trying to foster solidarity with the nearby factories.

Here, a thousand miles from Moscow, it often felt as though the Soviet Union had never folded. Hammer-and-sickle insignia were embossed on nearly every building's facade, and the city's main square was marked with a monumental statue of Lenin, his weirdly goateed chin thrust forward in haughty defiance. As with the citizens of Moscow, there was a direct relationship between the age of people I encountered and the iciness of their reception¿the older, the colder. But in Yekaterinburg this seemed skewed toward the extremes. "Go away!" shouted a wrinkled woman seated beneath the Lenin monument. "We don't come to your country; you shouldn't come to ours." Later, in a restaurant, a young couple approached our table and asked if they could join us, and for hours we talked politics and literature (Russian versus American, in both cases), and then we went to a nightclub and danced until dawn.

Chris and I were staying in a creaky, past-its-prime hotel and had hired a translator, a young woman by the name of Anna Rakhmanova. Anna was deferential and reserved¿clearly not in the running to become a Russian mistress¿with a sense of humor both subtle and scathing. I liked her from the start. She came by our hotel one morning with a driver, Yevgeny, who owned a jaundice-colored Chevy Blazer that you can tell he loved: He'd even carefully removed all the seat belts (Russians have an absolute thing against seat belts), and we headed off to go skiing, speeding seat-beltless on the ice-glazed roads.

Prisoners in the Gulags called Siberia bely ad¿"white hell"¿and I can see why. We'd come in mid March, and had hit a bit of a warm spell, but in January it is not uncommon to see temperatures of minus 30 Fahrenheit for weeks at a stretch. In Yakusk, farther east, January temperatures can average minus 58. The warm spell, I have to confess, was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping to experience what is known as shopot Zvyozd¿"the whispering of the stars"¿a phenomenon that supposedly occurs in extremely cold conditions whereby your breath spot-freezes upon exhalation and tinkles to the ground in tiny flakes.

The highway out of Yekaterinburg ran numbingly straight, paralleling a rusty pipeline through a sparse forest of stunted, pipe cleaner¿thin pine trees. This is the taiga, Russian for "land of little sticks." The forest looked sickly, a though I knew this was an effect of the climate, I couldn't help thinking it was perhaps also due to something more sinister. Every few miles we passed an enormous Dickensian factory, smokestacks spewing. In 1957, the Urals were the scene of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history: A waste tank exploded, and 23 villages had to be bulldozed. Radiation levels in much of the Yekaterinburg region are still dangerously high.

Soon we were pulled over by the police. This happens all the time in Russia. According to Yevgeny, traffic cops can impose on-the-spot fines for what are often imagined infractions and, if you don't pull over immediately, they are authorized to shoot at your vehicle. Four officers and a dog circled the Blazer three times, and Yevgeny was questioned for several minutes, the officers jabbing with their forefingers toward Yevgeny's chest while our driver assumed a look of contemptuous ennui. Eventually, we were released, no penalty assessed.

Five minutes later we exited the highway and headed into the Urals. The mountains were treed to the top¿birches, mostly¿and not at all steep, the ridgelines inscribing sine curves against the woolly sky. Now and again, we'd pass a telephone pole marked with the icon of a skier, and we followed a maze of dirt roads, passed an open-pit copper mine, and suddenly we were there.

The ski area was called Ezhovaya¿Porcupine Mountain. Compared with the Moscow area, it felt downright opulent. Porcupine actually had a chairlift, a double, though the difference in the lift's speed when running and when stopped seemed negligible. There were also three pomas, a half dozen runs, and a vertical drop of close to a thousand feet. It was a real ski hill. The snow, alas, appeared to be the color and consistency of apple sauce. This was perhaps a blessing¿most other times, I was told, the conditions tended toward bulletproof ice. Despite its cold, Siberia receives only modest snowfall, and at Porcupine, I noted, there was no snowmaking. Basically, the area features the type of skiing that demands maximum enthusiasm and a fine-tuned appreciation for wry humor¿a combination that many of the Russians seemed to possess.

We'd arrived on a holiday weekend, and the area was crowded. Many of the visitors had not come to ski, a circumstance that the Porcupine management had apparently envisioned: The hill had four lifts but 11 different places to purchase alcohol, including an old train caboose that had been converted into a bar. Seven or eight families had brought their own barbecues, and there were at least four campfires burning in the parking lot, sausages cooking over the flames, jars of pickled vegetables¿beets, cucumbers, mushrooms¿being passed about.

Whatever circumstances had conspired to bring the Moscow ski hill top-shelf rental gear had apparently not occurred here. I was given a set of recalcitrant boards labeled Monte Cristo (they had a rental-shop sticker on them from St. Anton) and a pair of remarkably painful rear-entry boots, brand name unknown. As I rode the chair, I counted below me seven hardy Siberians skiing¿and occasionally falling¿without gloves. As with the Moscow hill, an elaborate fur hat was the headwear of choice, but here the ensemble was completed with a full-length fur coat that often flapped like a cape as its wearer skied down the mountain. A lesson was in progress¿25 kids snaking behind an instructor, many of them clearly on their way to becoming agile skiers.

The chair ride was an experience I had patience for only once. I switched to the pomas, and after a few slushy laps, during which I pushed the limits of my own enthusiasm and wry humor, I stopped in at what looked like a slopeside roadhouse, dilapidated and badly in need of a paint job, but with a sign containing the Cyrillic word for bar nailed to the front door. Out front, in the snow, two tables were set up and a man was grilling shasklyk¿beef shish kebabs¿over an open pit.

The chef caught me staring at him and waved me over. He sat me down and served me a drink that seemed to consist of equal parts coffee and brandy. His name was Stephan Konovalov. He was 28 years old, intense and energetic, with the dark features of a native-born Siberian. Along with Andrei, at the Moscow hill, Stephen was one of the few Russians I met who seemed to posses an uncritical love of all things winter. Apparently, he was also Porcupine Mountain's unofficial historian. As I dug into a generous serving of shashlyk, Chris skied by, and Anna, spotting us settling in for lunch, walked up from the base area to translate.

Porcupine Mountain, said Stephan, is the oldest ski hill in the Urals. It opened in the mid 1970s, but the general public was not permitted to use it. "It was only for ski racers in a national sports school," said Stephan. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Porcupine shut down¿there was no money to run it. Three years ago, however, Porcupine reopened. "Now," explained Stephan, "the national races are still held here, but regular people can also ski. Skiing is more popular than ever before."

The first year Porcupine reopened, less than 700 people visited all winter. This year, despite the bad snow, they'd already seen 3,000 skiers. I asked Stephan what accounted for the increase, and he told me that Russians are gradually emerging from the tension of the Soviet era and learning to relax, to now and again let down their guard. "To become a little more of what we think of as American," he admitted. I told him that my time in Russia had made me wonder if there were such a thing as too much winter. Stephan was quiet for a while, thinking. "Me, I like winter," he finally said. "But it does create burdens. It does feel, sometimes, like we are still prisoners, trapped by the winter. We are strong¿Russians are strong people¿but the cold can get into you," he added, pointing to his head and circling his finger. It was the most concise and insightful portrayal of the Russian weather that I'd heard.

When we finished lunch, Stephan stood up from our table and said, "Follow me." Chris and I shouldered our skis and tailed Stephan to the summit of Porcupine Mountain, and then continued along a rocky ridgeline. We stopped in front of a cliff face. Stephan pointed. There, painted across the rocks, was a portrait of Lenin, staring down at us, a look of disapproving appraisal in his eyes. The portrait was dated March 7, 1977. It was painted, said Stephan, by patriotic ski racers from the national team who apparently wanted their leader gazing down upon them as they trained. This now seemed a sad and misbegotten notion. We stood together for a while in front of the portrait, silent, then turned around and took in the view. The taiga, in all its wizened glory, stretched to the horizon, punctuated by an occasional frozen lake or sprawling factory. The chill wind seemed to carry with it a numbing emptiness, a torpor of the spirit. The sky was the color of dirty socks.

"It's prettier in summer," said Stephan, apparently reading my thoughts. "Really. I think everything here is nicer in summer, even the people. You should come back and see. Stay at my dacha. I'll take you fishing."shasklyk¿beef shish kebabs¿over an open pit.

The chef caught me staring at him and waved me over. He sat me down and served me a drink that seemed to consist of equal parts coffee and brandy. His name was Stephan Konovalov. He was 28 years old, intense and energetic, with the dark features of a native-born Siberian. Along with Andrei, at the Moscow hill, Stephen was one of the few Russians I met who seemed to posses an uncritical love of all things winter. Apparently, he was also Porcupine Mountain's unofficial historian. As I dug into a generous serving of shashlyk, Chris skied by, and Anna, spotting us settling in for lunch, walked up from the base area to translate.

Porcupine Mountain, said Stephan, is the oldest ski hill in the Urals. It opened in the mid 1970s, but the general public was not permitted to use it. "It was only for ski racers in a national sports school," said Stephan. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Porcupine shut down¿there was no money to run it. Three years ago, however, Porcupine reopened. "Now," explained Stephan, "the national races are still held here, but regular people can also ski. Skiing is more popular than ever before."

The first year Porcupine reopened, less than 700 people visited all winter. This year, despite the bad snow, they'd already seen 3,000 skiers. I asked Stephan what accounted for the increase, and he told me that Russians are gradually emerging from the tension of the Soviet era and learning to relax, to now and again let down their guard. "To become a little more of what we think of as American," he admitted. I told him that my time in Russia had made me wonder if there were such a thing as too much winter. Stephan was quiet for a while, thinking. "Me, I like winter," he finally said. "But it does create burdens. It does feel, sometimes, like we are still prisoners, trapped by the winter. We are strong¿Russians are strong people¿but the cold can get into you," he added, pointing to his head and circling his finger. It was the most concise and insightful portrayal of the Russian weather that I'd heard.

When we finished lunch, Stephan stood up from our table and said, "Follow me." Chris and I shouldered our skis and tailed Stephan to the summit of Porcupine Mountain, and then continued along a rocky ridgeline. We stopped in front of a cliff face. Stephan pointed. There, painted across the rocks, was a portrait of Lenin, staring down at us, a look of disapproving appraisal in his eyes. The portrait was dated March 7, 1977. It was painted, said Stephan, by patriotic ski racers from the national team who apparently wanted their leader gazing down upon them as they trained. This now seemed a sad and misbegotten notion. We stood together for a while in front of the portrait, silent, then turned around and took in the view. The taiga, in all its wizened glory, stretched to the horizon, punctuated by an occasional frozen lake or sprawling factory. The chill wind seemed to carry with it a numbing emptiness, a torpor of the spirit. The sky was the color of dirty socks.

"It's prettier in summer," said Stephan, apparently reading my thoughts. "Really. I think everything here is nicer in summer, even the people. You should come back and see. Stay at my dacha. I'll take you fishing."

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