Why Russians plunge into icy water in January

A successful plunge for Russian Orthdox holiday Epiphany (Photo credit: Daniel Kozin)

A dip into the Neva’s icy waters has been a tradition for centuries

Yesterday (19 January) in St Petersburg, hundreds of Russians bathed in an ice-hole cut into the Neva river just across from the Winter Palace. People stood in line for up to an hour to participate in the event, carrying bags with towels and bathing suits, sometimes in families of up to three generations.

The occasion was the Orthodox Christian holiday of the Epiphany (kreshenie), which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. After a church service to bless the water, believers took turns to submerge in the ice-hole. Heated army tents were located nearby for anyone needing to warm up after their bath. Prospekt Magazine talked to some of the participants about why they chose to make the jump.

Russians celebrate Orthodox Epiphany with a dip in the Neva (Photo credit: Catherine Barney)

(Photo credit: Catherine Barney)

Lilia- retired woman

 

“I’m already doing it for the eighth time. I do it because I’m a believer and because I hope for good health in the coming year so that I won’t get sick. It really helps me. People come here to bathe in order to truly warm themselves.”


(Photo credit: Catherine Barney)

Nastya

 

“Today is the baptism of the Lord. I know because I’m from an Orthodox family and my dad reads the gospel in the evenings. We went to the church service this morning. It was beautiful. I’m going to jump in! But I’m not sure yet. Maybe I’ll get there and then leave. It’s kind of scary.”


(Photo credit: Catherine Barney)

Piotr

 

“I’ve done it a few times already, in Yakutia. I don’t really do it for a religious reason. It’s more cultural than religious for me. I’m not baptised Orthodox, but my great-grandfather was a Russian priest. I only know about him through stories and photographs. His name was Father Sergei.”


(Photo credit: Catherine Barney)

Misha and his friends

 

“We’re from the protestant church. We’re not bathing, but we’re also here to celebrate the holiday. Before we were addicted people —drug addicts and alcoholics—but then Jesus came into our lives and saved us. And now we’re all here to spread the good word.”


(Photo credit: Catherine Barney)

Alexei and Pasha (after jumping)

 

“The feeling was incredible, like a total retransformation. As if a thousand pins are in your body. We decided to try it for the first time for the experience, in order to overcome. We’re doing it more from a cultural point of view. I think it relates somehow to being Russian. The church doesn’t really push it strongly.”


Bathing in open water on Epiphany has been an Orthodox Christian tradition for centuries and is practiced widely across Eastern Europe. The holiday was banned by the Soviet authorities but in recent years it has revived as a popular cultural tradition in Russia. The holy water is believed to have special properties, including the improvement of spiritual and physical health. 1.8 million Russians are reported to have taken the plunge this year.

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