, MOSCOW, Jul 16 – Russians sweltered Friday in the hottest weather since the Stalin era as droughts caused crop devastation across the country and hundreds drowned in bathing accidents often influenced by alcohol.
Friday was expected to break a record in Moscow, topping 33 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature that day since 1938, according to the state weather centre.
At the weekend, the temperature was forecast by the state weather centre to hit 37 degrees in central Russia.
An emergency drought situation has been declared in 19 of Russia\’s 83 regions with crops dying on an estimated 9.6 million hectares of fields.
The drought-struck areas were suffering "colossal destruction," Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik said Tuesday at a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev.
The coldest place on earth in winter, Oimyakon in the Sakha region, was forecast to swelter at 32 degrees centigrade on Friday, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.
In Moscow, people paddled in fountains to escape the heat and bought record amounts of ice cream.
"Sales of fruit lollies have gone up 10 times," the general director of the Union of Ice Cream Makers, Valery Elkhov, told the RIA Novosti news agency, with Muscovites gobbling 250 tons of ice cream per day.
Commuters in Moscow metro sizzled with temperatures inside some stations topping 29 degrees.
The Kremlin cancelled a weekly ceremonial performance by mounted troops from the presidential regiment, due to fears that the troops and horses would suffer in the heat.
Customers have flocked to buy air conditioners and fans to beat the heat in airless concrete office blocks and apartment buildings.
"The yearly stock of air conditioning systems and fans has already sold out, and we had to order extra," said Nadezhda Kiselyova, a spokeswoman for electronics chain M-Video.
"Over the past four weeks of unusual heat, the sales have been 10 times higher than last year\’s figures."
Gennady Onishchenko, the head of the state health and safety watchdog, called for Russians to take longer lunchbreaks to evade the midday sun.
"Given the heat, work could be carried out earlier or later while during the hottest hours of the day we can institute a prolonged pause," Onishchenko was quoted by state mouthpiece Rosskiskaya Gazeta as saying on Tuesday.
July could be a record-breaking month for Moscow, with the average temperature more than six degrees Celsius above the norm so far, according to the state weather centre.
The last records were set in 1972 when temperatures soared over 30 degrees for 13 days.
Alexei Lyakhov, the head of the Moscow and Moscow region weather centre, said in televised comments on Friday that temperatures would hit 36 degrees in Moscow on Saturday and no rain was expected over the next five days.
"It\’s very serious, very unfavourable weather, and I call for everyone to take care," Lyakhov said.
As many cooled down by swimming in rivers and ponds, often with no lifeguards, hundreds have died from drowning.
The emergency ministry said more than 400 people had drowned since the beginning of July, while 1,244 people drowned in June.
"The main reasons for people drowning is swimming in places that are not equipped and the use of alcohol," an emergency ministry spokesman told the RIA Novosti news agency.
In a shocking case, two teachers at a Moscow school were charged with negligence this week after six children and an instructor drowned during a summer camp trip to a beach on the Sea of Azov in southern Russia.
The children were swept away by strong currents after the teachers allowed them to swim at a beach without any safety equipment. One of the teachers was drunk, investigators said.