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'Walruses' Find Their Winter Chill Out

Published: January 28, 2003 (Issue # 838)



  • One of St. Petersburg's hardy morzhi, or ice swimmers, preparing to take the plunge by the Peter and Paul Fortress on Friday.
    Photo: Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

While Sergei Ivanov's colleagues at St. Petersburg's metro system hurry to grab a bite on their lunch breaks, he races off for a quick, refreshing dip near the Peter and Paul Fortress in the frozen Neva River.

"I feel extreme excitement and physical euphoria when getting out of that cold water," said Ivanov, a 43-year-old engineer, pulling on his clothes over skin reddened by the sub-zero water on Friday. The air temperature was minus 2 degrees Celsius.

Ivanov is one of at least 100 St. Petersburg ice swimmers - or morzhi ("walruses") - who regularly make their way to the 12-square-meter pool formed by cutting through the 30-centimeter-thick ice on the Neva.

Nina Lyubitskaya, at 66 years old still energetic and vibrant, with sparkling eyes, is another of the site's afficionados. After undressing and stepping into the pool, she swam gracefully back and forth across the opening, smiling all the while.

"It was a passionate desire to live that made me take this up," Lyubitskaya said after her swim. "You don't need to have a strong will for that."

But her husband, Alexei Kirillov, also 66, undressing for his swim on the snowy edge of the opening, wasn't quite as certain.

"I have to force myself every time to get into that water," Kirillov confessed. "It was only because of pressure from my wife that I tried it for the first time."

"I had to obey. She is the head of the family, and she knows what's best," he said with a grin.

The morzhi tradition finds its specific origins in the teaching of a 20th-century Russian folk healer, Porfiry Ivanov. While taking a quick dip in cold water after some time in the banya or sauna is a long-standing tradition, Ivanov, who would walk barefoot wearing only light undergarments year round, stressed the ice-water swims as a way to improve health through a union with nature.

Ivanov died at the age of 87, in 1985, having survived torture while a prisoner of the Germans during WWII, the appalling conditions of a Soviet psychiatric hospital, and general Soviet restrictions on the activities of folk healers. But his ideas gained and maintained currency, and thousands of Russians follow his teachings today.

The morzhi say that swimming in the icy water charges them with energy, and helps prevent colds, flu and nervous breakdowns, among other illnesses.

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Saturday, Nov. 29


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Sunday, Nov. 30


Remember the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 during today’s reenactment titled “Winter War: How it Was.” More than 200 people will take part in recreating the opening salvoes of the battle for the north in Kamenka, a small village situated between Vyborg and St. Petersburg, using authentic equipment and vintage vehicles from the era. The faux battle begins at 2 p.m.



Monday, Dec. 1


Serbia filmmaker Emir Kusturica is the featured guest this evening at the Lensovet Palace of Culture the Petrograd Side. Fans of the director will get the chance to watch his movie “Black Cat, White Cat,” as well as ask questions about his award-winning filmography. Tickets for the event, which starts at 7 p.m., start at 2,000 rubles ($42.50).



Tuesday, Dec. 2


Today is the final day of “Takoy Festival,” a three-week program of plays based on the works of Dostoevsky, Remarque and other famed European writers, whose work is transcribed for theatrical performances. Tonight’s festival finale is “Fathers and Sons,” a two-act drama staged by the Novosibirsk Academic Drama Theater based on Turgenev’s classic about familial relations.



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