I fulfilled an ambition last week by walking on one of St. Petersburg’s canals while it was frozen. The problem with doing this is that you never know how strong the ice will be; this winter hasn’t been very cold, and there have been alternating periods of freeze and thaw. The ice remains present in the middle of the rivers and canals, but along the embakments it can be a different story, with patches of open water opening up and then re-freezing.

Still, walking along Nevskiy Prospekt at about 10:30 on the evening of January 27th, I turned onto the Fontanka embankment, I noticed that a hole had been cut in the ice.



The date was the 71st anniversary of the lifting of the Blockade, the siege of Leningrad by the German army during the Second World War. I couldn’t get a good picture of it in the darkness, but on the Embankment next to the hole there’s a monument of some sort about the Blockade.  There were carnations floating in the water, which was already beginning to freeze over again. The ice had been swept clean of snow, so I decided that it must be strong enough to walk on. This was my chance!

Looking south along the canal, back towards Nevskiy Prospekt:



East towards the other bank. I didn’t try to walk beyond the middle of the canal:


A ramp leading down from the Embankment to the side of the canal:




Another shot of the hole in the ice with the carnations. Carnations are the flower of choice for this anniversary (and others, such as Victory Day in May), and are left piled in heaps at memorials. I asked one of my students why carnations, and she could only tell that during the Soviet period carnations were pretty much the only flower you could buy:



A selfie on the ice:

I met an ex-colleague yesterday, who commented “Well, you’ve definitely got a look going there“. Heh. The papakha hat is pretty uncommon in St. Petersburg. I have seen them around, but maybe only once or twice in a month. It’s more closely associated with the Caucasus, including the southern Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan – as well as with the Cossacks, of course. The jacket is actually Czech army surplus; when the temperatures plummetted towards the end of last year, none of my coats were adequate so I bought this. It’s super-warm, very practical, and was so cheap (1800 roubles) that if I have to leave it behind when I leave, I won’t feel too bad about it.



I get an interesting range of reactions. Older women tend to gasp in horror and clutch their handbags. Older men give a piercing stare. Younger women give me big grins, while younger men glare but won’t meet my gaze. The hat sends out mixed signals, especially in the dark. It’s very much associated with the Muslim cultures of the Caucasus, who Slavic Russians tend to dislike very much, stereotyping them as criminals. However, because of the Cossack heritage, it’s also associated with senior military ranks in the Soviet and post-Soviet period. When I called at the Chinese consulate yesterday, there was a Russian policeman on guard outside (I’m not sure why). He asked for my passport, so he knew I wasn’t Russian, but when he gave it back he saluted. Interesting. Still, I’m just wearing them because they’re warm and I like them.

This gives an idea of what it’s like at the moment. The pavements have patches of packed ice, everything is overlain with snow that’s been trodden into a slimy, slippery, sludge, while fresh snow covers everything, making it difficult to see what you’re about to step on. I’ve certainly learned to walk the way I’ve seen taught on systema DVDs…


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