Immersing Themselves in a Chilly Tradition

ISTRA, Moscow Region -- It was below freezing, and many of the worshipers had been standing for hours in a poorly heated 17th-century church.

The priest even gave them a last-minute warning. "You don't have to submerge yourself," he told the crowd of several hundred people gathered at the riverbank Saturday morning. "That is only for the physically strong."

But when the time came, dozens of men and women stripped to their underwear and plunged into the ice-cold water to celebrate Epiphany, one of the most important holidays in the Russian Orthodox Church.

"I don't feel cold at all," Alexander Romanov, a paunchy, middle-aged manager at a Moscow medicine company, said as he dressed afterward.

From elderly pensioners to publicity-hungry politicians, thousands of Russians partook in the tradition of ritual immersion Friday night and Saturday morning.

There was even a sizeable crowd in the Siberian city of Yakutsk, where temperatures hit minus 41 degrees Celsius and authorities had to cut a hole through meter-thick ice on the Lena River, Interfax reported.

Several politicians announced plans to participate in the Epiphany ritual, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. The flamboyant LDPR leader has made a tradition of immersing himself every year, usually in the presence of television cameras.

Other devout deputies include Konstantin Kosachyov and Lyubov Sliska, both from the pro-Kremlin party United Russia.

"I don't regard this ritual as a PR stunt, like some politicians," Kosachyov said, Interfax reported. "I perform the ablution in a font of icy water because my soul calls for it."

An aide said Kosachyov, head of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, would participate in the ritual at a monastery in Chuvashia.

Sliska, a deputy speaker in the Duma, also said she would take a dip. "This ablution gives strength and health, so that you will always defeat foes and demons in battle," she said, Interfax reported.

To the Orthodox faithful, water blessed by a priest on Epiphany has miraculous powers, a belief that goes back to the baptism of Christ.

Unlike in Western Christianity, where Epiphany commemorates mainly the appearance of the infant Jesus to the visiting Magi, in the East it focuses on the appearance of the Holy Trinity during Christ's baptism in the River Jordan.

Hence Epiphany's traditional Russian name, Kreshcheniye, or Baptism, and the theologically more correct Theophany (Bogoyavleniye), or Appearance of God.

Orthodox tradition holds that any water blessed on this day -- whether it comes from a river, pond or simply a tap or a shower -- becomes Christ's baptismal water. This water is said to stay fresh for years, wash out all sins, protect from evil and heal.

At the New Jerusalem monastery in Istra, hundreds of people lined up Saturday with jugs full of water to obtain the blessing of a priest.

But those jumping into the river were adamant that it was the best way to go.

"That was totally awesome!" exclaimed one young Air Force soldier as he ran out of the water. "There's no other sensation like it."

Romanov, the manager at the medicine company, said he had undergone ritual immersion a number of times before and that he always felt better afterward.

"I never get sick from it," he said. "And I have high blood pressure and diabetes."

Russia's top doctor would not be surprised. Chief epidemiologist Gennady Onishchenko told reporters Friday that immersion in cold water is beneficial for healthy people, and that it can boost the immune system, Interfax reported.

City authorities said about 11,800 people partook in ritual immersions from Friday night to Saturday morning at locations around the capital, and only two had to be hospitalized, Interfax reported.

Cisterns were set up in much-visited locations like Ploshchad Revolyutsii and the All-Russia Exhibition Center, and in some places people could get hot tea after immersing themselves.

But for those willing to go a bit further afield, New Jerusalem was one of the more popular places in the Moscow region to celebrate Epiphany.

Founded in 1659 by Orthodox Church reformer Patriarch Nikon, it is located on a hill above the Istra River, and its centerpiece is a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Nikon named the monastery and called a nearby park Gethsemane. He also renamed the local stretch of the Istra River the River Jordan.

And the passion for renaming bits of Russia after bits of foreign countries is still alive: On the road from Moscow to New Jerusalem, there is a new housing development named Barcelona.

Oxana Oniko / MT

Oxana Oniko / MT

Oxana Oniko / MT

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Oxana Oniko / MT

Oxana Oniko / MT

Oxana Oniko / MT