MOSCOW — The harshest winter in a quarter of a century has sent shivers across Russia, paralyzing the country's far east with heavy blizzards and covering even the palm-lined resorts of the Black Sea with a rare white coating.
The chill, severe even by the standards of a country known for its endless dark winter months, has seen temperatures slip to an icy -16.60 Fahrenheit in Moscow in the first days of the new year, after what forecasters on Wednesday called an unusually sharp December.
"Last December was abnormally cold. The average monthly temperature was 5 degrees (centigrade) lower than expected," a spokeswoman for the Moscow Meteorological Center said.
"During the whole month there was not a single warm break, that's why so much snow has accumulated — twice as much as is the norm."
Early on Thursday, traffic was disrupted at a number of Russian airports including Moscow's international Sheremetevo-2, and the city's Vnukovo airport was closed for several hours after heavy snowfalls overnight, Interfax news agency reported.
The long-running cold snap has taken its toll on the capital's growing homeless population. Since the beginning of the winter, 300 people have frozen to death in Moscow, city authorities say, well above last winter's 205 total.
"The increase in alcohol and drug (consumption) has also made the problem of the cold very much worse," said Gordon Lewis of the Salvation Army charity. "Many people do not even feel they are dying."
Many homeless people fall through the post-Communist social security net, most of them children or the elderly. Without valid residence permits for the capital, they cannot claim help from the city authorities.
Moscow's hospitals and health centres have been inundated by sniffling, sneezing people with almost 29,000 seeking treatment for flu in the first six days of the year, Interfax reported.
In central Russia, 2002 began at -33 Celsius the lowest temperature for 24 years, Russian media said.
On the Pacific coast, navy servicemen helped clear roads and dig out snowbound buses in the far eastern port of Vladivostok after the region suffered its heaviest snowfall in 50 years.
Television showed residents digging cars out of snowdrifts, while others trudged to work through clouds of swirling flakes.
Last year the region was crippled by energy cuts which saw many residents spend the winter in dark, ice-encrusted apartments as plunging thermometers laid bare the failings of ageing infrastructure.
The crisis forced President Vladimir Putin to intervene personally. He sacked his energy minister, ordered management changes in the regional electricity monopoly and forced local governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko to resign.
The island of Sakhalin, also on Russia's east coast, was cut off from mainland Russia on Tuesday by a storm. On Wednesday residents were still forced to get about on foot, Russian television pictures showed, as motorists were kept off the road by large drifts of snow. A second storm is expected later this week.