'Walruses' Find Their Winter Chill Out
Published: January 28, 2003 (Issue # 838)
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
One of St. Petersburg's hardy morzhi
, or ice swimmers, preparing to take the plunge by the Peter and Paul Fortress on Friday.
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.
"I began ice bathing when I felt that I had no energy to work," said Irina Krasnogorova, 60, who still works as an engineer. "I was already feeling tired when I was still on my way to the office."
According to Krasnogorova, who also comes to the pool on her lunch break, along with a colleague, Leonid Kirichenko, she feels she still has lots of energy in the evening after work.
"And I'm always in good mood," she added.
Kirichenko, 68, who has been ice swimming for forty years, says that he began because he was experiencing severe back pains.
"My friends told me that I could either suffer with those pains all my life, or get rid of them with the help of ice swimming," Kirichenko said. "The pain went away when I started ice bathing, and it hasn't returned."
For one of the morzhi, Yelena Yekimova, even an ice-swimming induced injury hasn't diminished her passion for the practice. Yekimova, 51, has been involved in ice swimming for 15 years and credits the practice with helping her cure her bronchitis. She slipped once, however, on the snow beside the pool, and ended up with a broken leg.
"While I was in the ambulance, which came and picked me up right from the ice, my biggest concern was that the trauma would prevent me from swimming for a while," Yekimova said.
While Yekimova's leg has healed, some of the morzhi have found themselves in even more hazardous situations. Yekimova said that one of the elderly regulars at the spot had a penchant for shocking tourists visiting the fortress. Once, in early spring, the man jumped onto an ice floe that had been drifting by on the river. Not having noticed the strong current, he quickly found himself sitting naked on the block of ice in the middle of the Neva, waving his arms frantically and callling for help.
He managed to grap hold of the pilings at one of the bridges and, only then, was rescued, Yekimova said.
Kirichenko, for his part, said that he had once found himself struggling for half an hour to climb back to the river bank from the opening cut in the ice.
"It was February, and I came to swim alone. The slope down to the pool was icy, so I just slid down to the water. But, when I tried to get back, I realized that it was impossible to climb back up the slope. I ended up with broken nails and a frozen body trying to get back up that 2 meters," Kirichenko said.
The ice swimmers say that, far from freezing, they feel warm when they get out of the water, after which they experience a feeling of "lightness" in their bodies.
Research by the Crimea Medical University backs their claims, reporting that the temperature of the human body jumps for about two minutes after bathing in water that cold, causing what it calls a "warm stress" to the system. The warm stress helps to kill off bacteria, open and cleanse pores and speed up the circulation of blood to the body's organs.
At the same time, doctors warn people with heart problems that the activity can be dangerous, and the morzhi themselves advise newcomers to the practice to acclimatize themselves gradually in cold water in the fall or spring, and to do it every day.
The ice swimmers say that most of their acquaintances react positively to their passtime, although some raise concerns that the activity could cause kidney problems or other ailments. Yekimova says that such concerns have prevented her from telling her mother about the activity.
The Peter and Paul Fortress' walruses are not organized as a club, each coming to swim when it is convenient for them. They do, however, meet at the spot every year on Dec. 31 to celebrate New Year's.
"This year, it was a particularly cold New Year's party, with the temperature outside at -30 degrees," said Yekimova. "But we had hot wine, vodka and pies to cheer us up."