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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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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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