Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ice Swimming in the Name of Russian Religion

This morning I woke up to the coldest temperatures I’ve experienced yet in Russia: -21ºC (or -6ºF). While that might seem like child’s play for those who just survived America’s Polar Vortex, I had grand plans to go ice swimming. Russia is celebrating the Orthodox Epiphany, which marks Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River. The Bible claims that any body of water contains healing and miraculous powers today, though I remain skeptical that any prophet would’ve said that that if he’d had to cut through sheets of ice to get to said holy water. For better or worse, Russians aren’t deterred by cold or ice (or safety concerns), so when my friend Nastya invited me to partake, I agreed to join the masses climbing into frozen rivers, lakes, and ponds across the country.

One of the fancier venues (Source: RIA Novosti)

I started questioning my decision on Friday night, however, when a friend told me that her husband’s grandpa died participating in his fourth “Крещение” (baptism).  He’d jumped in the water, and his heart had immediately given out.  “But you’re young,” Polly reassured me, “He was 50.” I fired off an email to my friend Rose, a surgeon in Portland, and asked her if this was a foolhardy idea. She didn’t respond, which I chose to interpret as tacit approval of my plan.

Nastya selected Ekaterininskiy Park for our dip, where a hole had been cut in Ekaterininskiy Ponds. Her parents live within walking distance, so they came along for moral support, photo documentation, and to ensure we didn’t die. Thank god they were there—I had prepared for this endeavor with all the foresight of Napoleon trying to invade Russia and hadn’t even thought to bring a towel. They also explained the proper baptismal ritual, which requires crossing yourself (right to left, per Russian Orthodoxy) and submerging yourself three times over. 

A borderline religious experience

Nastya went first, and since she didn’t grimace or scream, I wasn’t scared off from taking my turn. I was expecting the water to stab with the pain of a thousand ice picks, but it was actually not that bad. The worst of it was climbing out and realizing that my body was totally numb and my limbs had been rendered useless. I attempted to fumble out of my bikini and into my thermal top without exposing myself to passersby and small children, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an egregious nip slip.

Warming up with cognac

I forced my feet, which were essentially glorified ice blocks at this point, into my boots, and gratefully accepted Nastya’s mother’s fur coat and a glass of cognac-spiked tea (which felt even more healing than the water I’d just bathed in). Once we’d bundled ourselves up like babushkas, we hurried back to Nastya’s parents’ to warm up and eat homemade blinchiki and borscht. All in all, my Russian Baptism was way more fun than the one forced upon me in infancy.  Maybe I wouldn’t have cried during that one if I’d been allowed cuter swimwear and a glass of cognac afterward.


  1. When I was in Budapest I dipped in the cold pool then went into the sauna. However, this seems so much better. Not. At least you ate and drank well afterwards.

  2. Nip slip in the same of Jesus. Dibs on that for my band name.

    Oh, and glad you're alive!

  3. Well done, Son of Dad. Also, I want that bag back. I'm glad you finally got yourself into some fur. I hope you didn't give it abck to Nastya's mom.

  4. IM SO SORRY!! I did read your email. And I did feel quite confident that your risk of death from a cardiac event was near zero. I intended to write back with some cautionary advice, HOWEVER, about the dangers of hypothermia and the need for re-warming with a sense of urgency. #friendfail #doctorfail I'm glad you survived! :) Miss you!

    1. I'll forgive you since I lived. And next time you can join me :)