Surviving Russian Winter in Saint Petersburg

Surviving Russian Winter in Saint Petersburg
18 August 2016

Last January we had a month-long spell of -25° C, with night-time temperatures as low as -29° C. I personally find a challenge to my existence fun and exiting, but you have to know how to handle the situation. Here are a few tips from a survivor of Russian winter.

1. Bring good clothes.

Years ago a Norwegian fisherman once told me “there is no such thing as bad weather, only being badly prepared for it.” I kept this mantra in mind while I was packing for Russia. I was lucky enough to find a mouton (AKA a big sheep) fur coat in my mother’s old stuff before coming here. Now, I am ethically opposed to animal cruelty but man was I grateful for that big old sheep this winter – plus, I side-skipped the guilt by telling myself I was at least recycling it, and not paying for new cruelty. So go dig in your grandma’s closet!
Bring anything that is made of wool – it’s pretty much the only thing that works when temperatures go below -15°. I arrived in October with most of my suitcase occupied by coats, wool stockings, socks, sweaters, scarves, hats and gloves; people in my dorm mocked me when they saw how much stuff I brought with me, but I was the only one who wasn’t complaining when the cold hit, because I was ironclad.

2. Bring waterproof and windproof gear.

It rains a lot here, all year round, and the weather ranges on average from chilly to icy. So top your “wool metal jacket” with an oil-skin jacket or ski coat, and get yourself some good boots – you’ll avoid a lot of misery by staying dry during your commute. A lot of tourists just pick up plastic ponchos but they are not only ecologically unfriendly, they will turn you into a kite in the merciless winds. (By the way, you shouldn’t count on clothing and shoes being much cheaper here than in most of Europe or the States.)

3. Be organized

When preparing to leave the house, get your bag and essentials ready before layering up. In Russia the heating is regulated by regions, not in the homes, and they crank it up. Temperatures in apartments average at +26° C throughout the winter, and running around the house to find your keys while wearing three layers of wool is highly unpleasant.

4. Beware of falling icicles

Because the heating in the houses is so high, the snow on the roofs is always melting, forming gigantic icicles or blocks of ice and snow that can potentially kill you. So when walking, keep an eye on what’s up above (you will also notice some wonderful architectural details!), and keep a good distance from the walls.

5. Learn how to walk on ice and snow / learn how to fall safely and gracefully

Good boots and some experience in snowy countries will definitely help with this, but for first timers, well – you are guaranteed to fall at least once: here are some basic tips on how to handle the situation. I made a resolution to not fall this winter, and I didn’t, but I went slowly and clumsily, in constant fear for my dignity and my tailbone, as Russian women in pencil heels daintily flitted past me. Oh well.

6. Take pit stops to warm up

Any place of business will do, and it is highly unlikely they will be upset if you just stop in for a few minutes to regain feeling in your extremities. In such cold temperatures, being outside more than 20 minutes at a time is painful; more can be dangerous, even if you are adequately dressed. It is, however, advisable to have something warm to drink while you’re there – tea, coffee, warm glintwein (mulled wine), ginger brew, or even a shot of strong liquor if you are so inclined. It is dangerous to get very drunk, though, because the more you drink the less you feel the cold – but the cold is actually still there, and you risk getting seriously ill or worse if you stay outside too long.

7. Visit museums

No better way to spend a dreary weather day: keep in mind, though, that sometimes museums, especially those with big rooms like the Hermitage, can be draughty, so don’t leave everything at the coat-check!

8. Keep good hygiene

Winter is, of course, flu season, and with 6 million people bustling through the metro system, plus sitting in close quarters with other students, combined with the cold wind and rain, one is bound to catch something. The frequency, however, can be drastically reduced by:

  • not touching the metro railings and pushing doors with your shoulder or elbow
  • washing your hands as frequently as possible and in any case avoiding putting them to eyes, mouth, nose, ears…
  • covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing and averting your face from people who neglect to do this
  • not sharing food and drinks with friends – winter is an asocial season, yes, but it’s a matter of survival.

Even if you take all these precautions you are bound to get at least the sniffles. This is how I shorten my downtime: at the first signs of something, I head home, stopping at the store to grab ginger, honey, lemon, and lots of food; I go home, make a big pot of ginger tea, get in bed where I will stay for the next 30 hours or so, eating, sleeping and watching stupid serials. After one day of being gross, I’m ready to go again. Believe me, it’s better to take one day off than push yourself into a full-blown flu that will put you KO for a week.

9. Eat a lot, and eat well

If you have Russian friends, you might notice that, especially towards winter, they eat like there’s no tomorrow. They’re not greedy, they know what’s in store: you need those calories to survive the winter. We don’t get to hibernate, unfortunately, and moving around in -20° requires a lot of energy which you can only get by indulging in a rich, varied and abundant diet. Don’t worry about your silhouette too much: you need those kilos, and with a bit of work they will fall off again come springtime. Tip: you can take part in the rigid Orthodox Lent (Veliky Post) after Maslenitsa.

10. Throw dinner parties

When the weather outside is dreadful, people don’t usually feel like going out barhopping or clubbing. To avoid winter depression, you can organize home parties: light many candles to make it cozy, defying the fact that it gets dark at 3 PM, cook together, play some cool board-games, watch movies or serials together, make a big pot of glintwein. Keeping warm in good company will make the nights shorter and the days more cheerful!

And (11) remember: we didn’t come here for the weather.


This article is brought to you by Esther, intern and student at Liden & Denz Saint Petersburg.

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