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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.

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A retrospective of the films of Roman Polanski starts today at Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt, with a screening of ‘Repulsion’ at 7 p.m. and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ at 9:15 p.m. The series runs through Feb. 4 and will include Polanski's eminently creepy ‘The Tenant,’ the cult comedy ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ and ‘Cul-de-sac’ among others. Tickets are 150-200 rubles and the complete schedule is available at www.vk.com/artpokaz/



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