The eyes of the world are on Russia these days, watching devoted Olympic athletes compete for gold, silver and bronze in Sochi. But elsewhere in that huge country, a curious ritual is taking place, one that seems to be embedded in Russian culture. Chopping a hole in the ice on a lake and going swimming.
Photo credit: EPA
“During the long, cold and dark days of winter in Russia, not everyone is concerned with staying warm. In fact, we found one group that takes advantage of the icy, bone-chilling winter. And why not?
Every weekend, they practically bare it all to take a refreshing, cool dip in a frozen lake. That’s right – so frozen, that they have to cut out a huge block of ice just to make the pool. The weekend devotees claim that the cool dip improves circulation, detoxes the body and increases energy and vitality.
This weekend ritual isn’t for the faint of heart. Irene, a regular ice-swimmer credits Russia’s power to the extreme activity. “That’s why we’re powerful,” she says with a laugh, “because we’re crazy.”
Some Russians believe that the practice has health benefits, such as alleviating joint pain and “stress relief”.
There also seems to be a religious aspect to this practice, where Russian Orthodox Christians take an annual plunge in “blessed” ice-water to commemorate the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan River. My guess is that the Jordan River is a heck of a lot more pleasant than a hole in the ice of a Russian lake, but you go with what you’ve got.
The hole in the ice may sometimes be cut in the shape of an Orthodox cross. In some photos a priest was on hand for the swimming. Whether this was to provide a blessing…or last rites for any who succumbed to hypothermia…. I could not discern.
The practice has, in any event “gone global” with the annual New Year’s Day “Polar Bear Plunge” held across the US (and elsewhere) in any suitable body of very cold water.
A colleague of mine proudly recounts his polar bear plunge a few years ago in Atlantic City, and the fact that he woke up in the hospital… which he attributes to “a few beers” consumed right before diving in.
I once fell into a glacial river while hiking, so I have punched that ticket. To those who like to swim in ice water, I say…”go have fun”, but give me the azure blue (and deliciously warm) waters of the Caribbean!!!