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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Text Andy Potts

As Russia’s film industry came to grips with the freedoms and commercial responsibilities of post-Soviet life, it was the ‘Peculiarities …’ series which helped forge a new, slapstick style. Part ‘Carry on’, yet with a distinctive Russian accent, they took characteristic obsessions of the country’s men folk - from the banya to the bedroom - and poked aff ectionate fun from the bottom of a regularly-charged glass of vodka.

Among them was ‘Peculiarities of national fishing’, a fitting tribute to a passion that unites the lowliest worker with the guardians of the levers of power. Whatever the weather, given a rod, a line, a patch of water and probably a bottle or two, Russians will happily embark on a mission to land whatever carp might be within reach.

And a harsh winter is no cause to halt the fun. Sub-zero temperatures merely shift the action from river bank to ice floe. Just as surely as every stretch of water has a sign reading ‘It is forbidden to walk on the ice’, so there will be hunched figures in the middle of the lake huddling over holes waiting for the bite.

Of course there are risks: in Petersburg every year brings tales of stranded anglers plucked from a bobbing raft of ice as it passes the naval base at Kronstadt. Nationwide, thousands are drowned after misjudging the ice. Yet for devotees this remains the ideal time to fish. Within the fraternity, risks are laughed off: “A good man won’t drown, and we’re never sorry if a bad man does.”

Equipment is pretty much standard - any hunting and fi shing store in town can kit out a would-be angler. Venues aren’t hard to find either, since anywhere popular with summer’s open-water fishermen will also have its share of ice-anglers. From the lakes of Tsaritsyno and Izmailovsky to the beaches of the Moscow Canal enthusiasts will gather for action. Motives vary: a return to nature in the heart of the city, an escape from ’her indoors’, even a chance to cheaply restock the fridge - the traditions of catch and release are seldom respected here.

As for avoiding the risks without merely trusting that you are a ’good man’, an experienced colleague is useful. Apart from recognising some of the danger signs, he can also help with a rescue if the worst happens. Confi rming a long spell of deep frost also helps, since currents, water depth and pollution can turn a seemingly solid freeze into a deceptive coating of treacherous slush with no visible warning. Above all, if a stretch of ice seems to be uncolonised in an otherwise busy area, assume there’s a reason for it.

Of course there are those who believe that a planned dip in icy waters is actually good for the health. The so-called ’morzhi’ (walruses) who cut out plunge pools in the cities frost-bound waterways follow a tradition of religious penance that is claimed to absolve true believers of the previous year’s sins. After a jolt of almost heart-stopping cold, most beginners find the waters seductively warm - at least compared with the air - before being hauled out and told that they have been mysteriously cleansed by embracing part of Russia’s obscure ’dusha’. But the ritual is best attempted without a fishing rod in hand!

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