Snow removal in the USSR was top-notch

Communists made Moscow the global top performer in immediate snow removal.

Moscow, the capital of the USSR, was extremely effective in combating snowfalls. I’m a living witness.

At the first sign of a major snowfall that could hamper vehicle traffic, an army of snowplows and snow collectors (see the pics at the end of the post) would swiftly come out, assisted by a least as large following of snow-transporting trucks.

The granite embankments of the Moscow river had several discharge points where the snow was promptly dumped from trucks on the ice. They also swept most of the pedestrian walks, which is why no sidewalk in Moscow was narrower than the scoop of this impressive snow-annihilating machine.

From what I have seen so far in other large cities in the snowfall belt, the USSR was a century ahead of everyone. How come?

In February 1917, in St. Petersburg, an uprising happened that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, the take-down of the Russian Empire, and the rest of distressing stuff you know about the XX century. What sparked the event was closed bakeries in the city that didn’t have flour to make bread. The flour wasn’t there because of lack of grain—there was a lot of it in the train stations and depots around the country—but because heavy snowfalls made it impossible to deliver it from Central Russia to St Peterburg.

The long disgruntled lines in front of the bakeries were the starting point of the ripples, then waves, and then a tsunami that swept the empire off its feet.

The man who made sure that these ripples would ultimately grow into a revolutionary tsunami was an unassuming but very determined Bolshevik. His name was Skryabin. He went on to become a luminary in the pantheon of Soviet leaders, known to the rest of the world as Vyacheslav Molotov.

He was one of the most trusted men in Stalin’s circle. He never forgot what brought down the mighty Romanov’s empire: snow. Neither did the rest of the men in the Kremlin. Which made it very clear to anyone responsible for snow removal in Moscow and other large Soviet cities: the day when a black government sedan won’t be able to leave the Kremlin because of snowfall, would be the last day of their career—and most probably their life.

In the Soviet Union, no one ever tried penny-pinching on snow removal.

In the photo below is Prospect Marksa outside the Hotel National in Moscow:

Collected snow is disposed into the river from an embankment. This is St Pete, but you get the idea:

Kissing, Kremlin-style

Russian rulers practiced a lot of public lip-kissing before, but now it’s gone out of vogue. President Putin hates kissing people.

Russia has a rich tradition of royal lip contacts with their subjects. However, the history presidential kissing is rather short. There has been only two of them (if we include the placeholder president Dmitri Medvedev, three). The first one, Yeltsin, came about first in 1991.

Out of vogue

There were a couple episodes of Yeltsin kissing other alpha males. Yet, they were relatively prudish. He was nowhere near the famous Russian lip-locks practiced by General Secretaries Leonid Brezhnev (“mediocre politician—but what a kisser!”) and the occasional lip-brushing of Mikhail Gorbachev.

One of the last holdouts of this ancient tradition was reported to be Putin’s former chief of staff Alexander Voloshin. Otherwise—especially amid the wide nationwide campaign against gay propaganda—it has largely disappeared.

No kisses, please

Some theorists of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s attribute the deterioration in the bilateral relations to repeated attempts at brotherly kissing on the part of Soviet functionaries, which the Chinese interpreted as a repulsive manifestation of their intent to dominate the international Communist movement.

Like the Chinese, President Putin belongs to the group that have an aversion to lip-kissing. Moreover, he is famous for hating touching other people unnecessarily. He rather prefers facial contacts with horses, dogs, fishes, religious artefacts and kids’ bellies. Silvio Berlusconi tried Slav-kissing on Putin once, but found no reciprocity.

This is shared by an absolute majority of Russians. Even amid the universal jubilation on the Easter day, when true Orthodoxes congratulate each other with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it’s not a good idea to try to lip-kiss people.


The tradition of male lip-kissing was brought to us by Balkan clergy. They performed a holy kiss as a standard Easter greeting. The habit caught on immediately. Foreign travelers describing Muscovy in the XVII century were puzzled by the ubiquitous lip-kissing among Russians. The tradition was somewhat relieved by a customary kiss on the lips that guests in the house were expected to exchange with the wife of the host.

There is an apocryphal explanation that linked to lip kisses the legendary robustness of our people. Russians were allegedly subjecting themselves to the bombardment by virulent foreign germs. Throughout generations, it conditioned our bodies to all kinds of hardship.


Among old-timers in some local Russian Orthodox communities there is still a tradition of laity kissing the priest on the lips at the Easter service. Czar Nicholas II often did the same on his troops when awarding medals (the picture below).

Czar Nicholas of Russia kisses troops
Photo: Czar Nicholas II bestows royal kisses on the best of his troops during WW1.

How is Vladimir Putin the wealthiest man in the world?

How is Vladimir Putin the wealthiest man in the world?

It’s impossible to say if Putin is the wealthiest man in the world. Even the US Treasury department who is probably the most informed party about the subject outside Putin’s own asset management, may not have the full picture.

Putin’s wealth doesn’t come from his greed. He doesn’t seem to be a kind of person motivated by money. But he operates inside the pattern of Russian civilization that views the top ruler as the supreme owner of everything on our territory.

In an egalitarian culture of XX-century Bolsheviks, a top ruler like Stalin, Trotsky or Lenin was required to project a picture of a monastic asceticism, in line with the high ideals of Communist equality and justice. Putin cannot afford that. His powerful, mega-rich oligarch subjects may misunderstand, with fatal consequences. That’s where his $ 700.000 watches come from, along with a multitude of palaces and yachts rumored to be in his possession.

His main assets, however, are somewhere else. The need to amass them comes from the cold rationale of Russian politics: the more valuable is his kingdom, and the more affluent are his knights, the larger must be his war chests for the rainy day when the Russian politics turn ugly. The Soviet Union went down not because it lacked weapon, or ran out of ammunition. It went bankrupt. Putin is not going to repeat that mistake. He needs a war chest, to be able to take any challenge, even if his oligarch friends, one way or another, turn their backs on him.

What books best help understand Putin’s leadership?

If you really want to get into the mood of the world where Putin operates, and see how his mind landscapes the chaos. Pick anything of John Le Carre.

A selection of quotes for you as a taster:

  • “There’s one thing worse than change and that’s the status quo.”
  • “Ideologies have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves.”
  • “Jesus Christ only had twelve, you know, and one of them was a double.”
  • “In the hands of politicians grand designs achieve nothing but new forms of the old misery.”
  • “If you see the world as gloomily as I see it, the only thing to do is laugh or shoot yourself.”
  • “The most peaceful people will do the most terrible things when they’re pushed.”
  • “The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”
  • “There will be no war, but in the pursuit of principle no stone will be left standing. ”
  • “To possess another language, is to possess another soul. German is such a language. Once you have it in your head, you can go there anytime, you can close the door, you have a refuge.”
  • “By repetition, each lie becomes an irreversible fact upon which other lies are constructed.”
  • ‘Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things.”
  • “Survival is an infinite capacity for suspicion.”
  • “Unfortunately, it is the weak who destroy the strong.”
  • “We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within.”
  • “Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.”
  • “Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”
  • “It’s the oldest question of all. Who can spy on the spies?”

Changes in Russian pronunciation in the post-Soviet era

Russian acquires diphthongs and a softer singsong intonation under the influence of provincial speech patterns.

In Moscow, I notice that more and more people keep adopting much softer and longer vowels than what I’m used to. I feel like Russian is starting to be filled with diphthongs in unstressed positions: Shiərəaká strəaná məayá rəadnáyə instead of Shərəká strəná məyá rədnáyə (Широка страна моя родная is the line from a very famous Soviet song).

Moscow dialect

The “Moscow speak” is generally more crispy compared to how people speak in most other parts of the country. Among other things:

  • Shorter, perkier vowels in unstressed positions
  • Unstressed o pronounced as a distinct a, as well as stressing a in unstressed positions: s Maskvý, s pasáda, s kaláshnava ryáda. A provincial would pronounce: s Məskvý, s pəsádə, s kəláshnəvə ryádə
  • Slight nasality in a’s (Russian has no nasal vowels), which makes it sharper and more prominent


Example of the “Moscow-speak”

A Russian visitor in Riga, Latvia, speaking in a diphthongized “non-Moscow dialect”.

My “v” is consistently harder than “v” they use. They often pronounce it a bit like English “w”. Sometimes it falls out altogether. Dyévəshkə (“girl”) sounds much like dyéəshkə.

“Odessa lips”

I’m puzzled by the quirk many Russians have adopted of pulling their lips to the side, showing teeth when speaking. On TV, Putin and Medvedev often do that when they try to make an important point. I can’t remember people doing this when I was young, apart from gangsters imitating the Jewish “Odessa speak”.

Below, a series of interview with residents of Odessa. They display the “scowling lips” when speaking, which in Russia long has been associated with professional gangsters (vóry v zákone). The “scowling lips” is now increasingly adopted by many males around the country who want to look tough.

Soviet ruble: the money to end all money

Lenin gave up the fight against money early on. He made it instead a tool for Communist cause

Lenin tried to enforce abolishment of all money in 1918, along with nationalization of women. People in his entourage who had a clue, stalled the plan. Instead, the Communist started printing money.

Hyperinflation and the general collapse of economy led to a spread of barter trade. If you are a Communist and you have power, you hate barter trade: people go about arranging things without you and there´s no way you can insert yourself in the process without starting to shoot people. Worst of all, it´s very hard to levy taxes when people don´t have money.

After a few years of getting salaries in grain, cloth and propaganda leaflets, Communists saw the light and reintroduced money. As born-again monetarists, they hit the ground running, with a currency unit that was tied to gold standard. Here´s the legendary golden ruble (called “chervonets”):

Cash proved to be king. The national economy recovered overnight. The Communist got their taxes. During the next 15 years the USSR used the money to buy from the US and Germany all we needed to build the mightiest military in history that crushed Nazis and made half the world a Soviet backyard.

No wonder that no one else in the USSR ever talked again about abolishing money.

Vladimir Putin’s boring social life

The social habits of President Putin conform with his secretive, tightly protected lifestyle. He’s an introverted, back-office politician who is uncomfortable surrounded by too much publicity

The opposite of a party animal

The private tastes of President Putin and his daily routines are a highly guarded state secret. But from the news and insider accounts, it seems that Putin is the opposite of a party animal.

Contrary to Stalin, there are close to no tales from anyone among the Kremlin’s movers and shakers that start like “I remember how we once had a party with Khozyáin (“The Master”).

Putin follows a strict routine that keeps people without security clearance at a very safe distance from his food and drinks. The same is true for physical items that come in contact with him: chemical agents like Novichók do not discriminate. This routine, along with the heavy human perimeter that follows him everywhere, is not conducive to a clubby lifestyle.

The romantic life

His romantic life is subject to the same set of restrictions on public insight as his personal wealth. Star performers invited to closed entertainment sessions for the cream of the Russian elite mentioned on several occasions someone in attendance who enjoyed the show from behind a veiled screen. After his divorce a few years back, President Putin has forever been married to Russia, and cannot be seen in public hand in hand with a mortal woman.

The hobbies

President Putin is known to enjoy, are typical for someone who values a lot of personal space and quiet contemplation: swimming, working out, hunting, fishing, snorkeling, connecting with his pets, fishes and furry animals. Alpine skiing happens for Putin on the slopes, clinically swept up for anyone who may take aim at him or make a dangerous move in front of our President. Putin’s tours of the country, which surely make Fat Kim green of envy, are heavily managed power shows that leave little room for off-hand socializing.

Russia’s beloved introvert

President Putin is soon pushing 70. It’s only safe to assume he’s running through the last of his gregariousness if he ever had any.

Below, one of Putin’s photo-ops where we were told he was vacationing. It’s an accepted knowledge that President Putin finds the company of flowers, fishes, birds, and animals more satisfying than socializing with pesky, self-absorbed, noisy, attention-craving, egotistical human beings.

© РIA Novosti, Aleksei Drushinin

The best time of year to visit Moscow

Best weather for tourists in Moscow. Painting of Kustodiev illustrates the beauty of early autumn in Russia.

Nothing beats the Indian Summer as the best time for visiting Moscow. We call it “Babye Leto”, or “Woman’s Summer”. It’s awfully short. It’s a gentle, humane contrast to the humid, hot, bug-ridden summer in continental Russia. It smells like a girl’s hair wet from the rain.

The vacation is over, the Instagram glow of your summerly awesomeness is a memory no one cares about any longer, but the parks are still green, and Moscow is warm enough for romantic strolls, peripatetic discussions and several pints al fresco with little risk of catching a cold.

You miss it, you can catch a second chance in Moscow when the “Golden Autumn” comes, with leaves turning red and yellow in October. But then it gets a bit too melancholic, for my taste.

Picture: “Autumn in the province,” by Boris Kustodiev. Two ladies from the merchant class are relaxing on the back porch of a provincial house. Their clothes and hairstyle are from the 1920s. This is the era of a market-friendly New Economic Policy in the USSR, the last breath of everyday normalcy before the Stalinism spreads its steely wings. The ceramic tea kettle atop the samovar is used for brewing tea. Teacups are seemingly made of porcelain with lots of gilding for the exclusive look. The lady seated with her back to us prefers pouring her tea in her saucer before she drinks. The watermelon was usually served before tea drinking, waiting for water in the samovar to boil up.