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Russia Weathering Deadly Cold Spell

Arctic temperatures gripped most of Russia for a fourth day Thursday, pushing the death toll across the frozen country to more than 30 people and even hardy Russians struggled to cope with the big freeze.

Electricity use surged to record levels and towns and cities struggled to keep indoor temperatures up as temperatures in Moscow plunged overnight to as low as minus-24 Fahrenheit.

Seven people died of exposure in the Russian capital over the previous 24 hours, city emergency officials said, pushing the nationwide death toll from the Siberian cold wave that swept into Moscow late Monday to at least 31.

At a zoo in Lipetsk, south of Moscow, director Alexander Osipov said monkeys would be given wine three times day, "to protect against colds," the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

Schoolchildren stayed home and drivers struggled to start cars but thousands of religious believers, along with other hardy souls plunged into icy waters nationwide for an annual ritual marking the Russian Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany.

The temperature matched a record set in 1927, said Tatyana Pozdnyakova, a Moscow weather forecasting service official.

Vendors at Moscow's outdoor food and clothing markets shuttered their booths and outdoor ATMs reportedly froze up, while traffic was uncharacteristically light as drivers were reluctant to venture out or unable to start their cars. Outside one apartment building, residents hefted car batteries back into their vehicles after taking them home overnight to keep them warm. Others tried to jump-start their cars.

Many parents kept their children home from school. At least two towns in the Moscow region saw heat disrupted by water main breaks, leaving dozens of homes and thousands of people shivering. A similar accident left thousands without heat in Siberia's Chita region, some 3,000 miles east of Moscow. Russian buildings frequently are heated by municipal hot water systems.

Many people shrugged off the cold to mark Epiphany by dipping into holes cut into thick ice on rivers and ponds, a ritual that commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

"Minus-30 is the most intense feeling," one man in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg told Channel One television after taking a dip, his eyebrows rimed with frost.

At one location in northeast Moscow, Vladimir Grebyonkin, an avid 65-year-old winter swimmer and scientist, said the frigid temperatures gave the water special qualities.

"These waters have their own properties, their own benefits," he says. "I'm not a believer (in God), but I'm believer in physics."

Electricity use reached a 15-year high earlier this week, power monopoly RAO Unified Energy Systems said Wednesday. The company also said Russia might reduce electricity supplies to Finland in order to ensure deliveries to St. Petersburg and the surrounding region.

Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly OAO Gazprom meanwhile tried to maintain exports, a sensitive issue for Europe following a New Year's interruption in supplies stemming from a dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

Gazprom said Thursday that it was fulfilling all its contracts to European customers and said it had pumped an extra 750 million cubic meters of gas to domestic users this week to compensate for increased usage during the cold snap.

Friday was expected to bring slightly warmer temperatures, with a forecast weekend high in Moscow of about minus-4.