As the icy wind blows across Red Square, the bells in the Kremlin Spassky Tower chime the hour. Snowflakes as big as ping-pong balls begin to fall enveloping the square in a veil of white. Hundreds of fur-hatted Moscovites stroll about in front of St. Basil's Cathedral, oblivious to the sudden squall. An eerie calm comes over this place as the snow squall slackens and the red granite walls of the Kremlin come into clear view.
Moscow has a beat, a rhythm, a pulse. The grayness and stark reality of the Stalinist years has been overcome by the color and zest for life that's an inherent part of the Russian culture.
Between the giant gray faceless buildings rise the restored golden domes of Russian Orthodox churches gleaming in the pale winter light.
Winter is the best time to visit Russia. From December to March, covered in snow and early darkness, the Motherland shows her true face.
Russians are, after all, well-adapted to snow and ice. The pulse of their capital isn't slowed or stopped by cold weather. The streets and subways overflow with people in fur hats and overcoats. The city parks, after a snowstorm, ring with the laughter of Muscovites and their children on sleds and skis.
Even chess remains an outdoor game. Old men play chess and backgammon bundled up in heavy coats, boots and fur hats at picnic tables in city parks with a foot of snow on the ground. A bottle of vodka often sits next to the chessboard. It's best drunk icy cold.
The theatrical and musical seasons are in full swing. Museums have fewer visitors. The subway provides a warm way to get around. Buses and trolleys are less sweaty. The street urchins who prey on foreigners near tourist sites appear to have gone south until spring.
Of course, if you can't stand the cold, then Moscow in winter may not be for you. The cold can be brutal here. The average January high is 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures below zero are common. Clear days with sparkling snow and sunshine alternate with cloudy, slushy, warmer spells. You'll need galoshes, for the streets quickly turn into rivers of gray slush.
The early darkness — the sun sets a little after 4 P.M. at winter's height — and the Russian tendency to skimp on electric light can be depressing. This is life at 40 watts and 10 below.
But the gloom is part of the city's personality. At night, enormous Moscow State University, in the southern part of the city, looks like something out of a sci-fi film with its great, dark mass, giant spire, and glowing windows.
Even at 40 watts and 10 below, there's plenty to do. Moscow is a great theater and concert town. Plays are in Russian, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy classical concerts at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall on Mayakovsky Square and the Moscow Conservatory. An evening at the Bolshoi Theater tops them all. A performance of a Rachmaninoff opera is a grand spectacle, even if you don't understand Russian.
The museums are the same as in summer, only better. There's nothing like savoring Matisse's Goldfish without 15 people in your way at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. The Pushkin has Impressionists, Italian Renaissance masters and Egyptian art. The Tretyakov Gallery contains works of the greatest Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev.
Getting to these places doesn't usually require long walks in the cold, because of the safe, efficient though crowded, Moscow subway. The Moscow Metro, a great prestige project from the Stalin years, is a riot of totalitarian art and decoration. Many stations have enormous mosaics, chandeliers, columns, reliefs, and stained-glass windows. It makes all attractions easily accessible from most Moscow hotels.
The golden towers of the great walled Novodevichy Monastery gleam in the winter sunlight. The church services and choirs here are strikingly beautiful, and it's possible to quietly slip in and stand — there are no pews — at the back.
But the most special thing you can do is visit a Russian bath, such as the Sandunovskiye Baths, a steam-crumbled, 18th-century heap in the heart of downtown. For a small admission fee, plus another small fee for a vennik — a bundle of birch branches with lots of leaves — you'll have an experience you won't soon forget.
You'll begin in the steam room, where an attendant tosses water on stones baking in an oven. The resulting steam is so hot that experienced bathers wear hats to keep their hair and ears from scorching. It's impossible to breathe, except in short gasps. You flail yourself with the birch branches or have a friend do it for you. This intensifies the heat, until, unable to bear it any longer, you stagger out and plunge into a pool of ice-cold water.
After that, you'll wrap yourself in a toga-like sheet and sit on a bench or in a booth, gnawing on salted fish with the heads still on, drinking beer or vodka, and discussing life. The cycle repeats again and again — steam, icy plunge, drink, steam, icy plunge, drink, steam, icy plunge, drink.
After two hours or so of this, you walk out into the narrow streets of the old city center, without a care in the world, fragrant of birch oil and relishing the frigid air.