Cold is relative – when I complain about the Beijing winter, my friends from Dalian just laugh. The Siberian would simply roll her eyes at them. So, taking all that into account, coming out of a restaurant into the hutong last night the cold made me involuntarily gasp out loud as it took my breath away.

Books about the battle of Stalingrad cropped up in a conversation recently, and I was put in mind of this passage from Enemy at the Gates:

Thirty miles northwest of Stalingrad, at Kotluban, a group of Russian nurses heard the German prisoners coming long before they saw them. They listened in astonishment to the mournful groaning as lines of soldiers crept over the horizon and shuffled through snowdrifts towards them. Lowing like cattle, the Germans were a procession of rags and dilapidated earmuffs, blanket-wrapped feet, and faces blackened by beard and frost.

John Steinbeck wrote about the war in the frost as well, describing his 1947 visit to the Soviet Union in A Russian Journal.

With the soft music, the lights and the peaceful river below, our friends again began to speak of the war, as though it were a haunting thing they could never get very far from. They spoke of the dreadful cold, before Stalingrad, where they had lain in the snow and had not known how it would come out. They spoke of horrible things they could not forget. Of how a man had warmed his hands in the blood of a newly dead friend, so that he could pull the trigger of his gun.


Poltarazki told a story which is very hard to forget. He told of being with a Russian patrol which was sent to attack a German outpost. And he said that they had been so long in getting there, and the snow had been so deep, and the cold so severe, that when they finally made their attack, their hands and their arms and their legs were stiff.

“We had nothing to fight with, except one thing,” he said. “That was our teeth. I dreamed about that afterward. It was so horrible”.

We do have it easy, don’t we?

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