Walruses Outside The Moscow Zoo
If you ever decide to jump into an ice hole, you can sing ‘I am the Walrus’ by the Beatles. It might be hard to understand the motivation driving the human Walruses of Moscow, and when I first heard about jumping into the freezing waters of the Moscow river through a chopped-out ice hole, I was sure that these people were out of their minds. And they must be staying alive by the mere chance of dumb luck. Even excellent therapeutic reasons, such as stimulation of the blood and lymph circulation, were not convincing, and the idea of just loving this kind of torture sounded ridiculous to me. Never say never... some years later I set out with my friends to find a favorite ‘watering hole’ of the local Moscow Walruses.
Almost every park pond and inlet has its regular winter swimmers, which means that there is always an ice hole welcoming everyone. Some prefer the holes left by winter fishermen on the Moscow River right in the city center. Others have organized themselves into Walrus clubs, such as in the Borisovo-Glebovo Park in northwestern Moscow. Their ice swimming takes place in a little pool, with iced steel stairs going into the water. There is even a hut where you can remove your clothes. And to use the ‘luxurious’ convenience of the unheated hut, you will have to pay a fee to the local community of Borisovo-Glebovo Walruses.
My path of courage to join the Walruses at Borisovo-Glebovo was fueled by a conversation I had with my Grandma about her youthful days in the countryside during the winter banya season. I was shocked to discover that my Grandma used to jump into the river’s ice holes near the family banya. I was amazed to see these memories make her eyes sparkle with the remembrance of the stimulation of frigid plunges into the wintery waters.
My advise to the fledgling Walrus in Moscow: the hardest part will be the time you spend trying to talk yourself into taking off your hat, gloves, shoes, coat, sweater, pants and any other bit of clothing other than your bikini – or less! If you pass this test you are a hero already! No chance to back out now; especially if your friends are there to cheer you on. Now – stand close to the edge of that icy challenge; close your eyes or not; hold your nose or not – and JUMP! Surprise – body temperature begins to adjust to the freezing challenge and you have achieved the ultimate in the Russian wintery experience. Clamber out where you can catch your breath, and you may feel like walking home just in your swimming suit. Your mind is frozen; no thoughts, just sheer excitement! (A word to the wise: put on your socks and gloves first as the hands and feet could get a case of frostbite).
There is an older chapter of this icy story. The Russian Orthodox Church has always encouraged full immersion as a ritual of ablution. This ritual takes place on the holiday of Epiphany in January – the day that most likely will have the strongest frost of the year. The ceremony is performed by priests in every major monastery in the country. One of the most popular not far from Moscow is in the little village of Dementievo. Children, their parents, their grandparents – people of all ages; queue up for a chance to plunge into the freezing holy water blessed by the priest. With the sign of the cross and a prayer, Russian Orthodox Christians take their turn; going all the way down to the tops of their heads – three times — for the washing away of the yearly burden of sin and disease.