In Moscow, locked in a deep freeze since Monday, seven more people reportedly died overnight from exposure. That brought the toll in Moscow to 18 and nationwide to 38, but the final number is likely to be higher because many regions have not reported deaths caused by the cold yet.

Electricity use has surged to record levels this week, with towns and cities struggling to keep indoor temperatures up and Russians turning to additional heating sources including electric radiators.

Russian media reported that dozens of homes in Tomilino, a town outside Moscow, were without heat because of problems with a heating plant, and some were left in the dark overnight by a power cut.

Russia's big freeze

The current cold snap is Russia's chilliest winter since 1979 when temperatures touched -39 degrees Celsius.

Moscow's temperature of -32 degrees was colder even than the South Pole, which was -29C.

Temperatures in the Siberian city of Tomsk plummeted to -57C last week, with many thermometers rendered useless.

Oil production has been reduced by 200,000 barrels a day as oil reserves in Siberia have frozen.

The unprecedented energy demand has left some homes without heating and has disrupted energy supplies to Europe. Italy has already reported shortages.

Despite the inhuman temperatures some hardy souls have defied the freeze:

1000 runners took part in the Omsk half marathon recently and a group of people known as The Walrus continue to dunk themselves in ice holes or rivers

Moscow temperatures were slightly warmer than Thursday, when the minus 31 degrees Celsius recorded in the early hours was the lowest on that date since 1927, but a weather service official told Ekho Moskvy radio that temperatures in the capital were unlikely to rise above minus 20C before February.

This winter is the coldest in the capital since 1978-1979, when temperatures reached minus 38C.

Taking a dip

Russians are used to the cold - many live in Arctic areas where such temperatures are normal for winter - and consequently feelings of suffering and misfortune were to be found mixed with some of higher spirits and ambivalence.

Schools were shut, 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.

But thousands of religious believers - along with other hardy souls - plunged into icy waters nationwide on Thursday for an annual ritual marking the Russian Orthodox Christian holiday of Epiphany.

Even Russians used to severe
cold are feeling the chill

Vladimir Grebyonkin, 65, an avid winter swimmer and a scientist said the frigid temperatures gave the water special qualities. "I'm not a believer (in God), but I'm a believer in physics," he said.

For Moscow's animal life, however, the cold brought a rise in spirits in one way. At a zoo in Lipetsk, south of Moscow, monkeys apparently were to be given wine three times a day "to protect against colds," while a circus sea lion was reportedly being treated for pneumonia with brandy body rubs.