Psychiatrists warn lack of cold, sun, snow lead some into depression

MOSCOW - Russians normally revel in frosty winters, which are credited with helping them fend off invasions from both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. So winter's reluctance to appear this year has left them deeply perturbed.

Like much of Europe, Russia is experiencing an exceptionally warm winter, with temperatures reaching 10C, grass in city parks and not a fur cap in sight.

Grey skies have hung over Moscow for weeks, occasionally disgorging bursts of rain that leave the city wet and dreary.

Experts are warning of outbreaks of depression and even the country's animals are frazzled. At the Leningradsky Zoo in St. Petersburg, officials said this week that two of the zoo's five bears and some of its hedgehogs have come out of hibernation weeks ahead of time.

In rural areas, officials have issued warnings to look out for wild bears that might be aggressive after waking up early.

Psychiatrists in Moscow say the lack of sun and snow - which reflects sunlight to brighten short, dark days - is leaving many depressed.

"The clouds, the short days and the lack of light can have a deep psychological effect even on people who are mentally healthy," says Denis Osipov, a psychotherapist at Moscow's Institute for Positive Psychotherapy.

"And without snow, the city looks filthy. It's hard to feel happy when everyone around you looks dirty and miserable," he said.

Osipov says he has been recommending to patients that they spend as much time as they can outside during the day, even if the sky is overcast, and that they eat more fruits and vegetables to make up for a lack of vitamin D, which is manufactured by the body after exposure to sunshine. In extreme cases, he recommends that patients spend short periods of time under sun lamps.

Tatyana Dmitriyeva, director of Moscow's Serbsky Institute for Social and Forensic Psychiatry, suggests that parents not read stories to their children about snowy winters.

"Small children develop depressive conditions when they hear about snow and ice and see mud and rain instead," she told Itar-Tass news agency.

"This December and January have been the warmest since we started keeping weather records in 1879," says Tatyana Pozdnyakova, a spokesperson for the Moscow Meteorological Bureau.

"These kinds of temperatures are more what we would expect in the autumn or spring."

Temperatures in Moscow have climbed above 8C at least four times this month. At an outdoor rink set up on one side of Red Square, city employees are using powerful generators to keep the ice frozen, forcing it to close frequently.

Nearby, the grass along the outer walls of the Kremlin walls is bright green.

In St. Petersburg, the warm weather has led to floods normally not seen until spring. And in the northeastern city of Arkhangelsk, officials are warning of melting permafrost.

Russia is hardly alone, with much of Europe seeing record-high temperatures this winter. World Cup skiing organizers have had to cancel events in the Alps due to the lack of snow.

On Russian television, meteorologists have become the new stars of debate programs, with some saying global warming is killing Russia's famed winters, others that this winter is only a rare exception.

Critics of global warming point out that last year Russia experienced one of its coldest winters on record. Temperatures plummeted to minus 34C in Moscow on Jan. 20 last year, the lowest recorded since 1927.

Weather forecasters in Russia are predicting that temperatures will fall by the end of January and that snow might finally arrive as early as next week.

Accustomed to spending winter weekends skiing, skating and ice fishing outside the city, many Muscovites can hardly wait.

"We bought our little boy a new pair of skis and he keeps asking us when he'll be able to use them," says Evgeny Tikhonov, a 33-year-old furniture maker.

"I keep saying, 'Soon, soon,' but he's losing patience."

Still, not everyone is pining for freezing temperatures and knee-deep snow.

"Are you kidding?" says 22-year-old student Anya Dolginova when asked if she's bothered by the warm weather.

Strolling Moscow's trendy Tverskaya Street in a short skirt with her jacket open, Dolginova says she doesn't understand how anyone could miss the cold. "This is great. It feels like London. I wish every winter was like this."