In the days before and after the feast of Epiphany, or Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 19 for the Russian Orthodox) the weather in European Russia is supposed to be particularly cold and severe. This is known as kreschenskie morozy, lit. “Baptismal frost.” This law of nature applies with variable precision every year but in 2006, it has manifested itself with a vengeance. Only a few years ago, Moscow slept through 35-degree nights. I vaguely remember the year 1979, when frost was about as severe as now, and our apple trees died. This year’s freeze has put Moscow’s utilities infrastructure to test but also drove Muscovites to produce a flow of frost jokes.
In the decades of Communism, Russians developed a mighty, and mighty peculiar, sense of humor – even that of black humor, rivalling the English in this respect. One of the new frost jokes goes, “It’s a pity no foreign army is approaching Moscow. What excellent frost is being wasted!”
Popular wisdom credits General Frost for defeating Napoleon in 1812 and repelling Hitler’s attack on Moscow in 1941-2. The cold weather was most helpful, of course, but blaming it all on the frost is like jumping out of a window and blaming gravity (and the hard asphalt below) for one’s broken limbs. Winters are normally cold in Russia, and this fact was well known in Western Europe before 1812. Blame faulty strategy, and more narrowly, fouled-up logistics. Napoleon’s Russian campaign turned into one a logistical disaster after his troops occupied Moscow in September 1812.
Supply problems weakened Hitler’s offensive in the fall and winter of 1941, too, and the Germans had not planned to keep fighting that long… A Wikipedia author reports:
Gasoline, which powered all German tanks and most of their trucks, was subject to freezing in the harsh winters. Most Soviet trucks and pre-war tanks also used gasoline, but the diesel fuel used in the new-generation of Soviet tanks did not freeze in winter.
Diesel engines are hard to start, too, but Soviet tankers could afford to keep their engines running night and day. There was enough fuel for that. Even now, drivers in Siberia and other cold places leave their trucks and tractors with running engines for days.
This said, the enemy that did not care about frostbites had rolled into would-be Russia seven centuries earlier, from the East: the Mongols. Only in winter could the mounted horde move easily across the rivers and marshes of European Russia. The horsemen would procure food by plunder, and their horses could find leaves and grass under the snow if it wasn’t too deep. Ryazan and Vladimir did not survive the winter of 1237-8.