Red Square shrouded by haze as smog chokes Moscow
The multi-coloured cupolas of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Red Square were little more than a shadow in the haze Friday as Muscovites wheezed and coughed through the city's worst smog in a generation.
As health officials warned residents to stay inside and avoid physical exertion, red-eyed Muscovites struggled to deal with the smoke as it spread through city streets, filtered into shops and even seeped underground.
Russia's worst wildfires on record have sent smoke pouring into the capital that has already been subjected for weeks to a relentless heatwave.
In a pharmacy on central Tverskaya Street, coughing residents lined up to buy sanitary masks that they hoped would make it easier to breathe.
"I don't know if it really helps, they're meant to protect against viruses, but they're very popular. We used to sell them individually, now we're only selling them in batches of 10," said pharmacist Svetlana Gugova.
"But I don't see anything else that can really help," she said, adding that she had sold more than 300 masks on Friday morning alone.
The air quality was so bad that visibility was no more than 100 metres (yards). Monuments -- from Saint Basil's to the spires of the Kremlin and Stalin-era skyscrapers -- were barely visible behind a thick curtain of smog.
Despite health officials' pleas for people to stay inside, immigrant workers -- mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz -- were seen at building sites, toiling like any other day.
"Of course it's more difficult to work, to breathe even! But what can we do, they tell us to work, so we work," confided Nurbek, a Kyrgyz worker picking up debris at the building site of an Intercontinental luxury hotel.
Health officials have also called for reduced work days, but the workers said they were putting in just as many hours, on sites where the dust from construction mingled with the heavy smoke.
"Immigrants are slaves, not workers," said Aibek, a welder at the same construction site.
The smoke was even working its way underground where, in underpasses loaded with small shops, saleswomen said they were suffering without relent.
"We have been sitting here for weeks already in the heat, that was bad enough, but now we have the smoke and that's just unbearable," Irina Klachkova, a woman in her 50s with a damp cloth pressed to her face, said at her drinks kiosk in an underpass near Pushkin Square.
As the smog intensified, Russia's health ministry published a list of measures for Muscovites to take to protect their health.
"Try to avoid going outside early in the morning, that's when the concentration of smoke is at its maximum," it suggested, as well as "avoid being outside too long" and "avoid physical activity".
Yevgenia Semutnikova, head of state environmental body Mosecomonitoring, said even those without health issues needed to worry and that the best solution was for residents to stay indoors.
"This is a serious reason not to go outside, not only for the elderly, children under three, pregnant women and people suffering from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, but also for people in good health," she said.
And the worst news for Muscovites was that there were few sign of the smog letting up as wildfires continued to burn.
The emergencies ministry said the total area ablaze was down slightly at 179,600 hectares (444,000 acres), but there were still 588 fires across the affected region in European Russia and 248 new fires had appeared over the last 24 hours.
© 2010 AFP