By Miriam Elder
MOSCOW, Russia -- It was an odd proposal, to say the least.
As Russians buckled down for the long, hard winter that has characterized life here for centuries, Yury Luzhkov, the longtime mayor of Moscow, decided he'd had enough of snow.
It was messy, it was cumbersome and it was expensive to deal with. So he did what any logical man would do: He banned it from falling on the Russian capital.
"You know how every year on City Day and Victory Day we create the weather? Well, we should do the same with snow," Luzhkov said in September.
The plan would expand the cloud seeding program that the city rolls out for all major holidays to ensure that no rain, well, rains on the parades. Jets take to the skies, spraying silver iodide into coming clouds, ensuring that all precipitation falls before it reaches the capital.
Ever mindful of the Kremlin's eagerness to promote measures to combat the ongoing financial crisis, Luzhkov presented the plot as a cost saving measure.
"It will make financial sense," he said. After the city council approved the measure, city officials put the annual savings at $4 million. (Each year, the city spends about $10 million on the 5,000 heavy trucks and 50,000 workers that regularly attempt to clean the snow off Moscow's roads.)
The experiment was due to start in mid-November. Now it's late December and the city is covered in snow mounds and slush. What happened?
Getting an answer to that question is no easy feat. No one seemed to want to talk to me about it -- not the city government, not the City Department for Municipal Services, not even the Federal Service of Hydrometeorology and Monitoring of the Surrounding Environment.
Perhaps they're a bit embarrassed. The program was, after all, hailed in the international press as one of the biggest examples of weather control ever, with some likening it to pigs flying and others (ahem, I think it was me) saying Mayor Michael Bloomberg might consider cloud seeding to save funds in New York City.
The most lucid explanation has come from Valery Dyadyuchenko, the deputy head of the above-mentioned Federal Service of Hydrometeorology and Monitoring of the Surrounding Environment, better known by its Russian acronym, RusGidroMet.
The problem, he told state-owned newspaper Rossisskaya Gazeta, was twofold. First, the construction of new skyscrapers has disrupted radar capacity at the service's headquarters, impairing its ability to spot coming clouds. That problem will be fixed by next winter, he said.
If you don't buy that reasoning, Dyadyuchenko offered another. "It's more complicated than dealing with rain clouds," he told the paper. It's a matter of wind speed, he explained.
City officials have taken pains to say the project is still on, it's just a question of when.
Luzhkov told the newspaper that the problem came down to inefficient weathermen.
"There are, of course, difficulties with organization," he said. "The pilots that are to lay siege to the clouds say that to work effectively they must know about snowfalls two weeks in advance. And meteorologists, as practice shows, even the day before can't predict them."
"We will find a solution," he promised.
No one here is holding their breath. Several snowfalls over the past couple of weeks brought traffic in the capital to a halt, with one light snowfall in mid-December leading to 125 miles worth of traffic jams. Muscovites continue to exchange horror stories of being stuck in traffic for up to seven hours that day, as nearly 3,000 road accidents were reported around the capital.
At the time, Luzhkov's spokesman blamed the ordeal on the poor weathermen again, saying they had predicted 1.2 centimeters (half an inch) of snow, while the capital was covered in some 15 centimeters (6 inches) instead.
It wouldn't appear that anyone is listening, however. When asked how much snow fell in the capital in December, a spokeswoman for RusGidroMet told me just 25.6 millimeters (1 inch) had fallen so far, with around 90 millimeters (3.5 inches) more expected to fall through February.
So, for now, Russians are taking Luzhkov's plan as yet another promise that won't be fulfilled. And many aren't too upset about it. Winter and snow are dear to Russians, as much a part of the national character as vodka and Dostoevsky.
As President Dmitry Medvedev put it in a nationally televised end of the year program on Thursday: "Life has never been easy in our country. The weather is cold, and we have lived through various disasters -- all these formed the national character."