Ice Swimming in Moscow's Frigid Water

Many Russians believe a sub zero dip on the day of Epiphany has 'healing powers'

January 19, 2010, 10:48 AM

MOSCOW, Jan. 19, 2009— -- Hundreds of thousands across Russia braved sub-zero temperatures today to dive into frozen lakes and rivers for the annual Epiphany celebration.

For those of the Eastern Orthodox faiths, Epiphany is the commemoration of Jesus Christ's baptism in the Jordan River, celebrated on Jan. 19 with a dip in frigid waters that is thought to cleanse believers of their sins and keep illness at bay.

"We believe that on this day, the water changes its chemical composition and it has healing powers," said Muscovite Roman Faizov, shortly after jumping into the Moscow River at midnight.

"After you go jump in the water three times, you're supposed to be strong of body and of soul and you're not supposed to catch any colds or diseases [for the rest of the] year."

The Moscow region saw temperatures dip to 13 degrees below zero Fahrenheit while in other places in Russia it went down to minus 75. As the clock struck midnight, lines snaked up to the holes (traditionally shaped like a cross) cut into the thick ice and priests blessed the waters.

Most 'swimmers' then submerged themselves three times, often doing the sign of the cross, before retreating to their towels. State television, however, showed images of swimming pool-sized holes and participants swimming lengths.

One man's nonchalant explanation for his plunge into glacial temperatures was, "We're Russians, so it's normal for us."

Two Epiphany first-timers found that getting into the water wasn't the worst part. The worst was waiting to get in and then getting out. Standing in line semi-naked with just flip flops and a towel in the bitter chill almost helped forget what was about to be done.

The air on the river outside of Moscow was so biting that the water didn't seem too bad. The water wasn't pleasant, but not as painful as expected. However, upon getting out of the water, one had to know exactly where his towel and flips flops were in order to be able to beeline it back to to the clothes pile and get dressed as fast as possible.

"You want to get dressed up and go back into the warmth," said Faizov, "but once you catch your breath you really feel great."

The president of the Russian Winter Swimming Federation insisted it was impossible to get sick by swimming in the freezing temperatures.

"Physicists have established that on Epiphany the crystalline structure of water changes on Earth, including in the human organism that consists of 75 percent water. Water self-purifies, so even an unprepared person won't catch a cold when swimming in cold water on Epiphany," Vladimir Grebyonkin told the state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

Nevertheless, the Emergency Situations Ministry announced they would dispatch 260 rescuers to the more than 30 locations around Moscow.

Six percent of Russians said they would take part in an Epiphany swim, according to a survey by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center. Around half said they would attend church and just under a third would celebrate with a holiday feast.

Western Christians celebrate Epiphany on Jan. 6 when they commemorate the Three Kings' visit to the baby Jesus. The Julian Calendar used by the Russian Orthodox Church is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar.

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