Ice Swimmers Brace Themselves for The Thaw
Published: April 4, 2006 (Issue # 1158)
The thaw began this week in St. Petersburg and the city seems ready to melt and disappear.
But for “walruses,” the name given to those people who like nothing better than to swim in holes cut into the frozen River Neva, rain and rising temperatures signal that the ice-swimming season is winding down.
April traditionally marks the end of ice-swimming fun. The frozen river flows again and soon after, beaches become crowded with fair-weather bathers.
Some “walruses” turn to cold showers, ice filled baths or punishing fitness regimes for consolation, but there is still time to catch them swimming or even to test the water oneself before the end of the season.
During the Epiphany celebrations in January, when temperatures plummeted to less than minus 30 degrees Celsius, nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared on television that “This is why Americans can’t understand what a Russian is!” before plunging into a pool cut into the ice at Lake Bezdonnoye near Moscow.
Indeed, the idea of swimming outside in such extreme conditions is alien to foreigners of many nationalities. There is, however, method in the madness.
On a corner of the Peter and Paul Fortress, a sketch of a walrus marks the spot where enthusiasts meet to swim all year round in the River Neva.
Andrei Korotkov is one such swimmer. He is quick to reject the term “walruses” — morzhi in Russian — which is often used to describe winter swimmers, as it encourages an image of exclusivity.
“This is not a club. We are all individuals and everyone is welcome here,” Korotkov said as bystanders nodded in approval.
“It is of no importance whether you are a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim — it is just a question of the strength of your soul,” Korotkov said as he gestured to the Sobornaya-Kafedralnaya Mechet, St. Petersburg’s biggest mosque, nearby. “Anyone can swim in the Neva as long as they are strong spirited.”
The pastime is a great leveler and contrary to Zhirinovsky’s remark, Korotkov said it is certainly not exclusive to Russians.
“Scots, Finns, Germans and Englishmen all swim here,” he said.
When someone is half-naked at the edge of icy cold water their profession, religion and nationality seemingly become irrelevant.
But there are rules. Relieving oneself in the water, using lard as insulation or drinking vodka before jumping in are frowned upon.
At a meeting of morzhi a steady stream of enthusiasts come throughout the day. Swimmers slip into the ice pool, splash around and then leave, and the activity is spontaneous.
The majority of swimmers are pensioners, which gives the impression that the practice may be a secret way to remain youthful.
Korotkov, 68, gave three reasons for ice swimming.
The first is to maintain good health. Korotkov said that the practice is excellent for the immune system, back problems and circulation.
“Ordinary people get ill from having wet feet — swimming here makes you resilient!” he said. With a smile, Korotkov added that it also boosts the libido.
However, the shock of jumping into icy water could induce a heart attack in someone who is unprepared so it is recommended that newcomers acclimatize themselves gradually.
The second reason offered is that, as with the banya, the experience is partly spiritual. The cold water is seen to cleanse the body and mind of sin, which is why religious Russians jump into the ice holes during Epiphany.
The mystic Porfiry Ivanov (1898-1983) argued that swimming in icy water gives spiritual energy by bringing one closer to nature.
Korotkov expresses a similar view, describing a feeling of “newness” and “heightened perception” on leaving the water.
Some swimmers adopt a near-meditative state before methodically entering the water.
The third reason is that ice swimming is simply addictive. Although Korotkov claims that he could quit tomorrow, many around him describe how the activity is like a drug. The water is generally warmer than the surrounding air so getting in can be surprisingly easy. But after submerging oneself a feeling of numbness overcomes the body with alarming speed.
After scrambling to get out of the pool a sense of lightheadedness and general disorientation takes over which is followed by an enormous feeling of well-being.
In a city with as many temptations as St. Petersburg, it is a euphoric experience that is both free and legal.