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Original Issue

Russia's Icy Idyl

When winter closes in for its five-month siege of town and steppe, Russian life blossoms brightly with surprising varieties of hardy arctic fun, costumes of vivid color, and lively action.

Napoleon scoffed at warnings of the Russian winter; if Russians survived it, he said, so could French soldiers. They didn't; but the Russians are still there and, as Photographer Jerry Cooke discovered while strolling through their snowy parks and streets, winter for them is a time for rugged pleasures. After he had watched 3,000 Muscovites eating ice cream as they intently followed a hockey game in a blizzard, Cooke ceased to be surprised at their midwinter élan. "Both city and countryside become a playground," he wrote. "The Gorki Park of Rest and Culture in Moscow is turned into an icy fairyland as the whole park is flooded and frozen. Speed skaters race along the lanes, little girls practice figure skating, couples crisscross in and out through the trees as they skate under and around them. In Leningrad's Kirov Park, parents push their children along the ice in strange metal chair sleds; it reminded me of Atlantic City's boardwalk. Hundreds of skiers pack suburban trains, get off at tiny villages and disappear into the woods. They mysteriously reappear, five minutes before train time, dash for an ice cream cone and fight their way back into the groaning coaches. At Kavgolo, the only hilly spot near Leningrad, the slopes were overrun. The one lift was out of order, so everybody had to climb the hill and then try to schuss down without hitting anybody. A sad-eyed ski coach told me: 'It is very bad, skiing in Russia. Where there are people, there are no hills, and where there are hills there are no people.' "

Racing at Moscow's Hippodrome attracts bettors whose fervor is undiminished by sub-freezing temperatures and icy winds (and no coverage in the Soviet press). At Mikhailov Park in Leningrad (right), with the sun-flecked towers of the Church of the Resurrection as a backdrop, well-bundled children start their skating lessons. The long Leningrad skating season lasts from the time the Neva freezes (in early November) until the ice breaks up in April.

A place in the sun is acquired by night-shift workers along the walls of historic Peter-Paul Fortress in Leningrad. Cooke, scarcely believing his eyes, shot from a distance (left), and then he moved close up, catching this group, including some bikini-clad girls, making the most of their leisure time, protected from harsh winds in the midwinter sunlight along the edge of the frozen Great Neva River.

Cross-country skiing, Russian style, was encountered by Cooke at the railroad station at Opalikha. These weekenders would ride to next stop, then ski back down the line to board a later train.