Moscow―From the first snowfall in November to the very end of the thaw in April, Moscow enlists a small army of shovelers, scrapers, road gritters and plow drivers to keep the city moving.
Trucks carry mounds of snow through the night towards melting plants in the capital’s outskirts, while smaller vehicles hum down the pavements scattering salt mix.
“Russia without snow is not Russia,” says Alexei Babunashvili, the head of one such melting station, on a January morning after a normal week’s worth of snow has fallen overnight.
“It’s like a man without a woman... no life at all,” he adds, as behind him a truck carrying around 30 cubic meters of dirty snow dumps its load into a pit of heated water.
But Babunashvili, like many residents of the city, has questions over the salt mix that Moscow has in recent years been using in increasing volumes to keep the roads and pavements clear of ice.
On the streets and social media, complaints from Muscovites about the substance locally known as “reagent” begin as soon as temperatures drop below zero.
“Reagent spoils shoes and car wheels, but for melting snow it’s good,” Babunashvili says, as workers use poles to break up floating chunks of ice before the water goes into the sewage and re-enters the city’s supply after purification.
Other people are less equivocal about the mix of salt, marble chips, calcium chloride, formic acid and other chemicals that is liberally scattered around Moscow.
In 2009, a study by scientists from Moscow State University found that “reagent” harms soil, underground pipes and clothing, and can aggravate human and animal skin.
But Moscow officials who oversee snow clearing insist the substance is safe and that its exact makeup is constantly being developed.
One expert scattered road salt on black bread and ate it on state television two years ago.
“It’s disgusting,” says Ksenia Schmidt, a 20-year-old student chatting with friends in central Moscow.
“My dog got sick from reagent, it was awful. We went to the vet and he said it was most likely salt poisoning,” she says, adding that the substance ruins leather boots.
Pet owners across the capital say they have to dress their dogs’ paws in “shoes” to protect them from the salt, carry the animals or simply avoid areas where reagent is spread.
Opposition politician Ilya Yashin this winter released an online video entitled “Sobyanin (Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin) is poisoning Moscow with reagent. Why?”, in which he argued city hall was continuing to use the substance so it could award big contracts to preferred businessmen.
This year the city spent a record six billion roubles ($91 million, 79 million euros) on the mix, according to official data.
Yashin said that in the West other salt combinations, sand or roads with better snow resistance were more common.
“The reality is that the chemicals our city services use are far from safe,” the politician said.
“What’s used in Moscow, before it starts being used, is tested by experts,” the deputy head of the city’s roads department Andrei Sokolov told AFP, however.
“You just need to clean your boots. I clean my own maybe once a week.”
Like others in city hall, he says there is no way Moscow could function without reagent.
“If we didn’t use anti-freezing material, it wouldn’t be physically possible for us to collect all the snow straight away or to clean the roads,” he added.
And, Sokolov suggested, if other countries get by without it, perhaps it’s because their task is not on the same scale as in Russia.
In Europe’s largest city -- with an official population of 12 million but likely home to several million more -- some 60,000 people and 14,000 vehicles are employed by the Moscow roads department to clear the snow.
This does not include those working for other departments or private contractors.
“I don’t know if it’s harmful or not,” says 64-year-old plough driver Viktor Antonov of reagent, sitting in a traffic jam between the Kremlin and Moskva river.
Antonov is at the front of a dozen-strong convoy of vehicles that are scraping the roads clear before laying anti-freezing agent ahead of further snowfall.
At the back, Evgeny, 30, controls the quantity and spread of reagent from his tobacco smoke-scented truck cabin decorated with a small Russian flag.
The pair and their colleagues spend winter days waiting for the call sending them out on their two-hour, 25-kilometre (15-mile) route through the city centre.
Antonov says of their Sisyphean task: “I’m not against the snow. But it’s important that the streets are clean, and not icy.”