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Minsk Struggles with The Coldest Days on Record

The frosty winter which is paralyzing many European capitals has hit Belarus hard. While public services work efficiently in the capital, many in various regions and the homeless suffer from the cold. In Minsk, the city administration has taken...


Snow vehicle in Minsk (picture: NL)

The frosty winter which is paralyzing many European capitals has hit Belarus hard. While public services work efficiently in the capital, many in various regions and the homeless suffer from the cold. In Minsk, the city administration has taken measures to deal with the cold weather which is exceptional even for Belarus. In the small villages, however, people often end up being cut off from the rest of the world by snow.  

While public life does not come to a standstill in Belarus because of the winter, it is still unusually cold. Last week, on 2 February, the country has seen the coldest day and night since the beginning of weather recording in 1917. On that day, the average temperature in Minsk was -21 °C.

The Belarusian capital is well equipped to deal with snow and ice. In contrast to Western European cities like Rome, where the traffic stands still as soon as snow is falling, Belarus has efficient mechanisms to deal with snow. Special vehicles clean the roads and bring the snow out of town.

Traditionally, the Belarusian state fights unemployment by sending people to do public works. They work in orange vests, clean streets, shovel snow,  and weed flower beds. There are thousands of them, working in parks, in courtyards and on the roofs, from where they remove loads of snow and the icicles.

Minsk Residents Asked to Volunteer In Shoveling Snow

However, the economic crisis has made itself evident this winter. For the first time, announcements at entrance doors of many houses are asking Minsk's citizens to volunteer for snow shoveling.

The mayor of Minsk, Mikalai Ladutska, has repeatedly called on the residents of the capital for help. Apparently, the Belarusian state can no longer afford to employ an army of people and pay them to do work that is done by the population in most other countries.

It is not surprising that there are not many people that would like to clear away 30 cm of snow from the paths of their courtyard for free. People in orange vests have been paid for by the state for years.

The result of the volunteering campaign has been disappointing and the city administration came up with another idea. The Minsk city executive community, recently adopted a new directive. Apart from people registered as temporarily unemployed, students and staff of city enterprises will from now on work to help the public.   Apart from this group of people, prostitutes who have been sentenced to render community service are supposed to help shoveling snow as well as some media report.

For residents of Minsk, this winter means that they have to cope with a temperature difference of around 50° C between their flats and the world outside. Most flats in Minsk have central heating regulated by the city authorities. Heaters do not have thermostats. In flats it is often around 25° C. But some houses, especially recently-built are badly insulated, so it is rather cold in these flats and a draft makes it impossible to get warm after you come home from the street.

The situation is especially problematic for families with small children. It is nearly impossible to take a bath in a cold flat. Young families suffer more impediments from the cold winter. Doctors recommend not going outside with little babies when it is colder than -10° C. Many people decide not to let their children go to the kindergartens because it is simply too cold to leave the house and because many kindergartens and schools are not heated. Schools, however, are closed only when temperatures drop to lower than -25° C during the day. 

Sixty Already Died from Cold this Winter

In Minsk, an old hospital on Bahdanovich street has been transformed into a home for homeless people. It has 55 beds, and homeless people get warm clothes, tea, blankets and hot soup. The home will work until 1 April, and social workers and doctors are there to help the homeless people who come there. However, everybody who wants to find shelter there has to go through a medical examination.

Outside Minsk the situation is even worse. In small villages, many houses do not have central heating. The villages are cut off from the rest of the world because the roads are not cleaned from snow. As mainly old people live in the villages, there is a risk that the people will freeze or starve to death. Caritas and other humanitarian organizations bring food and wood to some of the villages, but of course it is impossible for them to get to every village in the country.

According to the website of the newspaper Nasha Niva, 129 people have suffered from frostbite this winter and 60 people died from cold. And those are only the officially recorded statistics. According to Caritas, some homeless people cannot come to the soup kitchens because they do not even have shoes.

If you have a business trip to Minsk coming up in the next days, stick to our three survival hints for Belarusian winter. The weather forecast announces temperatures around -25° C for the next week.

Survival Hints for Winter Business Trips to Belarus

1. Make sure you have a Belarusian friend who will lend you a fur coat (ask for shuba or dublionka) and a hat (shapka). No matter what you think, the clothes you bought in any country west of Poland are not going to keep you warm in Belarus in the winter.

2. If you are a woman: do not be vain. Put on the shapka, even if it makes a mess of your hair. You will notice that most women either have a deranged hairstyle as well, or they just leave on their shapka indoors. Otherwise your ears may suffer serious frostbite.

3. Only walk in the middle of the sidewalks, never close to the houses. Icicles may fall down and kill you- they are one of the great dangers of winter in Minsk. For this reason, signs warn pedestrians to be aware of those ice stalactites. You certainly do not want the full “Basic Instinct” experience when you are on a business trip to Belarus.

Nadine Lashuk
Nadine Lashuk
Nadine Lashuk is a German political scientist, currently working on the first German-Belarusian binational PhD thesis.
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