MOSCOW -- Muscovites are scratching their hatless heads and wondering where their winter went.
Last month was the warmest November on record in western Russia, and the first "officially" snowless one for Moscow.
So instead of waking up to winter wonder each morning, Muscovites have been waking up to winter weirdness.
Garlic stalks and hyacinth shoots are poking through the autumn mulch of suburban gardens.
Poplars are turning green on Octyabraskaya Square downtown, and the traditional Easter pussy willows are budding all over the countryside.
Hikers report hares in their winter white camouflage fur darting incongruously through the auburn colors of Russian autumn.
Sporting goods stores, usually stripped of winter sports equipment by now, have undisturbed displays of gleaming sleds and fluorescent-colored skis.
Morning weather reports have nary a mention of hypothermia deaths.
In November last year 140 people, mostly drunk, died of exposure on Moscow streets; this year only nine froze to death, ** say city health officials.
November's temperatures in Moscow averaged 38.3 degrees Fahrenheit -- 10 degrees higher than the 28 degrees Fahrenheit norm for the month, said Mark Naischuller, head of research for the Russian Meteorological Center.
And there was no "true snowfall" in November, he said.
What fell on Moscow Nov. 26 -- a couple of inches of snow that might have paralyzed Baltimore -- won't even be mentioned in the weather books, he said. "True" snow has to stay on the ground five days before it registers with Russia's tough weather experts.
Naischuller said that while on the calendar winter begins Dec. 21, Russia generally considers winter to start in early November.
Officially, the first day of winter is the first day with an average temperature of 32 degrees, or freezing.
And in its tardiness this winter isn't just breaking records, it's breaking hearts.
"It's terrible horrible," said Anna Nigitichina, a pensioner who likes order, and a good Siberian chill, in her life.
"Each season has to have its own temperature," she said yesterday while poking through vegetable bins at an outdoor market. The temperature was about 35 degrees.
She and a group of elderly friends -- who haven't deigned to pull out the fur hats yet -- clucked at this surprising winter, listing everything from bad health to bad karma as the result of weather anomalies.
"Everyone is worried that there's no snow because if there's a freeze it'll kill everything," said Marina Orekhovich, a young artist who moonlights as a dog-sitter at her parents' cottage in the village of Bykova, east of Moscow.
The Orekhoviches, like millions of Russians who depend on their garden plots for winter food supplies, worry about their apple, pear and plum trees and berry bushes.
Their black currant bushes were full of green buds yesterday, and the family believes that without the insulation of snow, a severe frost will kill the plants.
Naischuller and agriculture officials have repeatedly offered assurances in the press that a frost would not kill native plants.
Still, gardeners are unconvinced by officials who themselves have never experienced such a warm winter.
Last weekend, electric trains to the suburbs had standing room only as Muscovites who had closed up their cottages and mulched their gardens for the winter returned to see what they could do to protect their valuable food source.
But there are other reasons Russians hate a weak winter.
First, life in jaded and gray Moscow suddenly becomes beautiful with a fresh blanket of snow.
Russians also generally believe bracing cold and snow to be healthier than a drizzly chill.
They are quicker to cart the elderly and infants outdoors into minus-30-degree temperatures than on a measly 32-degree day.
Newspapers keeping daily tabs on President Boris N. Yeltsin's post-heart-surgery health calculate the weather into his prospects: "Warm temperatures in November are bad news for cardiac patients," Asyaa Ivanova of the Russian National Fund for Rehabilitation and Physiotherapy told the Moscow Times.
Naischuller attributes the warm spell to unusually cold weather in Central Europe that has persistently driven warm air across European Russia and western Siberia.
Forecasts are that the cold and snow of an official winter won't hit until at least mid-December.
Pub Date: 12/04/96