It has been scientifically proven that regular exercise (like walking the dog) stimulates brain activity, especially when the snow’s fresh and the temperature outside is not at the mythical level when thermometers knock on windows begging people inside to let them in for the night. Stumbling through the white-powdered woods (avoiding owners of big and cruel dogs) I thought of why snow is so important for Russians. Why do they love winter and hate it? Why do they wait for winter to come and then lament incessantly if it decides to stay for another month or two?
But first, I want to immerse you into the real fresh-snow environment to get you in the mood.
Perfect fit with fatalism
Winter fits well with the fatalistic outlook on life that many Russians hold dear to their heart. (You can read more on it here, but don’t forget to come back).
Indeed, even the most depressing winter is known to yield way to spring. It is the zebra of life, when a bright stripe follows its black counterpart in a fatalistically predetermined way. Don’t resist the blackness you’re in, have patience to live to see the light. Contemporary art is there to drive the point home, like in the recent example of an artist nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in a vivid illustration of people’s passiveness to the governmental onslaught on their rights.
Harsh or rather unpredictably severe winters are both a bane and a bonus. Regardless of how much labour a peasant invests into the next year harvest, a long winter can cancel it out. No point in investing much labour, right?
A foreign agricultural investor comes to a Russian village to witness the scene of bitter devastation and depravity. He asks a villager smoking on the steps of his dilapidated house and looking particularly starved,
“Do tomatoes grow in these places?”
“Do cucumbers grow in these places?”
“Do potatoes grow in these places?”
“That can’t be! Are you sure you’re planting them in the right way?!”
“Oh, but I didn’t say they won’t grow if we plant ‘em”
One just has to passively wait out the black patch, which may be, actually, coloured white on the surface. And this takes us directly to the Russian view that everything has – under the surface – a second, and often deeper or different meaning.
There’s always another layer. To everything.
Scratch off the white layer of snow and you get to the real stuff. Not that it would win you any prizes, except the knowledge of what is hidden beneath. There’s always a second layer of meanings in Russian literature or paintings. You may not want to learn what this second layer is about (and people who sasfied their curiosity often wish they hadn’t), but if you’ve been exposed to Russian culture for any prolonged time, you won’t have a choice. It comes involuntarily.
Take Anna Karenina and the episode when Vronsky breaks the back of the horse he is riding in a race. Vronsky didn’t want to break the horse’s back, so his intentions were not bad. He just wanted to ride it and to enjoy winning. And he couldn’t shoot the horse because he loved it. The episode shows Vronsky as a competitive and sensitive man capable of love, and serves the storytelling end by exposing Anna’s feelings for everyone present to see. The second layer of meaning is that Vronsky would do the same to Anna, and won’t even be able to finish her off or prevent her rather accidental suicide because he lacks the strength of character required of men to take full responsibility for women (as Tolstoy believed men should). P.S. I hate to admit it, but Leo Tolstoy would probably stangle a visiting feminist, breaking his own rule #1 of not trying to overcome evil by the opposing force.
Landscapes of Russian artists often represent the second-layer idea by showing not just the snowy surfaces, but offering viewers a glimpse of what is hidden beneath the white blanket.
At first glance, this Winter, painted by Ivan Shishkin in 1890, is about a magical sleeping forest. It does look like a one, right?
There’s nothing really wondrous or complicated about the composition or realistic accuracy of this painting. Tree trunks and branches laden with snow are not very difficult to paint: there’s a lot of purely natural rhythm in a forest, along with export quantities of eye-pleasing black and white contrast:
What is magical about this painting, is its hidden story about the forest floor. This small fragment of the white foreground shows how much labour went into (seemingly) meaningless whiteness. How many different hues of non-white colours, how many brushstrokes:
The under-the-surface meaning becomes obvious when the image’s contrast is maxed out and the stormy sea carrying along shipwreck debris shows up in place of the almost uniformly white surface.
Another, and a bit more complicated (it doesn’t have any snow in it), painting example of a riddle wrapped in mystery and shrouded in enigma can be found here.
Now you are ready to appreciate a parable that brings together PATIENCE, SECOND LAYER OF MEANING, AND WINTER:
Russia. Winter. Frost. A bird gets frozen in mid-flight, and falls down in a snowdrift. A passing cow deposits a cowpat (US: cow pie) right on the spot on which the bird has fallen. The bird gets warmed up, returns to life, sticks out its head out of the cowpat and is immediately snatched by a cat, with fatal consequences. Now, this tale is about (a) Patience, for one shouldn’t stick one’s head out when buried deep in shit (b) Seeing true meaning behind the obvious conclusions (those who put you deep into shit are not necessarily your enemies; while those who help you to get out from it are not always your friends).
A long winter: bonuses
Long, frosty, unpredictable, and bleak winters can justify anything, of which the most important indulgence is the regular vodka intake. It warms the body from within and cheers up the spirit that hasn’t seen sunshine in a month. Readers from the UK would agree not seeing sun is depressing, even if air temperature is not -20C (-4F).
Russian winters, with all their unpredictability, have been a natural barrier to other nations who had entertained ideas of conquering the passive Russians throughout the last few centuries.
It is rumoured each time Russia is blessed with a mild winter, visitors to Les Invalides in Paris can discern a murmur coming from the Napoleon’s tomb, “This year it might just work!”
Winter (as a defence weapon) has often featured in Russian art, like in this 19th century painting showing guerilla peasants ambushing French troops in 1812.
Other nations may not especially like Russians (what with all those xenophobic reality shows about Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian emigres on TV and the bunch who govern the country itself), but there’s one thing for which Russians can always expect to garner some respect. It is their ability to survive the Dreadful Russian Winter. The side-effect is that The Game of Thrones loses a lot of suspense here, because “winter is coming” can hardly scare anyone.
The Perfect Cleaner
Muddy streets, shabby buildings, and dirty cars cease to exist when a decent snowfall hits a large city like Moscow. Everything becomes brand-new white in place of shite. Urban Russians love winters for their decorative ability, and they especially welcome what is known as “the first snow” (which is not, actually, the first snow in the season, but the first snow that blankets the ground for at least a few hours).
Russian painters absolutely love this moment, but in their own, Russian way. Type “first snow paintings” in Google Pictures and you get 90% of paintings without people. Just landscapes. Type the same phrase in Russian (“первый снег картины”) and 90% of paintings would have people in them welcoming a new reality into their lives.
First snow changes the Russian outlook on life from the gloomy late autumn despair to the positive expectation mode. That’s the basic psychology behind some of the most famous works in the first-snow department.
Arkady Plastov, The First Snow, painted in 1946:
There’s no need for an art critic to feel the contagious smiles of kids who stepped out of their log cabin. This is a pure, simple, and the most famous image of first snow in Russia.
Modern and contemporary artists stick to windows through which people watch snowfalls changing their world:
Nude women doing the snow-watching are often the main selling point for misogynist art-lovers:
I hear nudes sell better than cute boys, girls, and even cats.
Speaking of felines, I can’t miss the last painting I wanted to show, done by a great guy living 60 km away from Moscow. He knows and feels Russia better than all the sages and philosophers who keep searching for the Russian National Idea, but maily find cigarette stubs and empty vodka bottles under the snow.
Vasya Lozhkin. The First Snow.