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Russians learn to beat the heat (or don't)

Russians have long since thought of ways to cope with the frigid cold (think over-buttered bread and over-flowing shot glasses), but weathering the blistering heat is a newer challenge. Record temperatures across the country -- in the low nineties! -- might make Washingtonians trapped inside the beltway scoff, but for those more accustomed to donning fur coats than string bikinis, the high heat has brought out unusual (and not altogether admirable) behavior this summer.

Perhaps most alarming is the spike in drowning among summer sufferers desperate to escape the heat wave. In one July week alone, over two hundred Russians reportedly drowned -- deaths that are being chalked up to ill-advised drinking before diving. The summer-long toll would make any suburban lifeguard fall off his chair: 1,244 deaths in June, and 400 so far in July. (Moral of the story? One clear liquid at a time is best: sips of vodka or splashes of water, but never both.)

These numbers are troubling, but may not be all so surprising -- Russia typically reports five times the number of drowning deaths than the United States, regardless of thermometer readings. The real jaw-dropper of the summer made headlines last week, when a money-making project in southern Russia quickly went from cool to cruel to criminal.  The story is another case of near-drowning, but this time the victim is one you wouldn't expect to find along the beachfront: a parasailing donkey. What's now being condemned as a flagrant case of animal cruelty began as an advertizing ploy. Several businessmen launched the donkey into the air in hopes that the unusual sight would lure prospective sunbathers to their private beach. The stunt instantly attracted attention -- just not the kind the beach-owners had in mind. The donkey, not surprisingly, didn't take to his new elevation, and instantly raised complaints (what some spectators described as "screaming"). Alarmed children below added their cries to the ruckus, and concerned swimmers (or at least those with un-clouded senses) did their best to rescue the tortured animal upon its landing.

Though "no one had the brains to call police" right away, the backlash in the days that followed has been unequivocal. The story was broadcast on Russian national TV, and investigations, a precursor to criminal charges, have been launched against the offending entrepreneurs.

Some say the stunt is merely another example of widespread Russian insensitivity toward animals. Even so, the verdict is out on these misguided businessmen: just a couple of real asses.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

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