MOSCOW — The big freeze is thawing out, giving way to longer, brighter days. Caked snow and layers of ice have dwindled away, leaving gobs of slick mud in their wake.
And the deadly season has arrived on lakes and rivers across this wintry country, as foolhardy fishers venture onto thinning ice for one last fling in a melting landscape.
In the grip of a perilous obsession, thousands of Russians drown every year as they push the limits of safety for one more day on the ice, fishing officials say. The fishers know it's dangerous, but they go anyway. They tiptoe gently onto melting ice, making exploratory jabs at the surface with picks, scanning for a telltale blue tint in the surface. They buck themselves up with swigs of vodka and tall tales.
"We fishermen say that a good man will never drown," said retiree Vyacheslav Koryavin, 65, "and we're never sorry if a bad man drowns."
He boomed with laughter at his own joke.
"We say the time you spend fishing is crossed out of your life span," roared his friend, Valery Andronov, a 56-year-old driver. "That means I'll live longer!"
The two men had headed for the inaptly named Picturesque Bay, a flat spread of water fed by the Moscow River on the fringes of the capital. All around, men were hunched over the ice, working the lines with bare hands, smoking cigarettes and staring into the frozen depths. The sun beat down, but waves of bitter cold radiated from the ice.
Belly laughs rolled across the ice as the two men waited for a bite. The handful of fish they'd already hauled up flopped in a plastic trash bag. They had sandwiches, a jar of coffee and plenty of bait. Both the men have fallen through the ice before, but they managed to survive -- and keep coming back for more.
Andronov pointed to the southern horizon, where the buildings of Moscow were visible through the naked trees. "There in that megalopolis, we just barely exist," he said. "Out here is where we can live a real life."
His friend interrupted his soliloquy. "Only one of my sons is a fisherman," he blurted out, eyes twinkling. "The problem with the rest is that my wife cheated on me."
And then the two laughed some more.
Ice fishing is a way of life in Russia, passed down through the generations. Risky fishing also happens to be the best fishing, the men insist. When the ice gets thin and the water warms up, the fish get more oxygen and start biting.
"It's like being an alcoholic," said Anatoly Kuznetsov, 75, a retired stone mason who huddled alone over the ice, lost in thought. "You wake up in the morning with an unbearable urge to go out and fish. Not just to fish, but to be out here on the ice."
Scabby forests and construction sites fringe Picturesque Bay, and the highway into Moscow mutters past. But out on the ice the sun falls in huge sheets. The crows rise and fall over the lake, picking for crumbs dropped by the fishermen.
Alexander Bronyakin, 50, took the day off from his job restoring buildings to head to the pond. He parked on the muddy slope, leaped to the ground and began to stack his gear on a red sleigh, beaming in anticipation of a day on the ice.
"Just two or three more days and ice fishing is finished for the year," he said, tugging rubber galoshes on over his shoes. "These last days are such a pleasure, even if you don't catch much fish. You can fish and suntan at the same time."
But wasn't he nervous about that melting ice? Certainly not, he scoffed.
"That ice is plenty thick," he said, scrambling down the muddy embankment. "Come on, I'll be your guide. It's perfectly safe."
He plunged his feet ankle-deep into the soggy edges, then stepped onto the ice. He took about four bold steps forward and then, with a sickening crack, the ice gave way beneath him. Bronyakin splashed down to his waist, and flailed dazedly for a moment, grasping for his gear.
"That's it!" he sputtered, splintering shoreward through the ice, "Fishing is done for the day. I'm soaking wet."
Looking on from the water's edge, Igor Pankin, 55, shook his head ruefully, pausing during a midday stroll through the birches. "They're fanatics, walking out there between life and death," he said, nodding toward the dozens of fishermen who dotted the ice.
"I don't understand what moves them. One wrong step and down you go."