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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nudists Get Their Place in Moscow

This is the time of year when hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of Muscovites head to a kilometer-long stretch of Moscow River beachfront and cast off the soft shackles of clothing.

Serebryany Bor is a safe, secluded area fringed by a pine and birch forest where nudists have frolicked for decades, first on the sly and now in the one place in all of Moscow officially designated for the purpose. Young and old, taut and tanned, pale and flabby, Muscovites are flocking to the beach in increasing numbers for reasons as varied as voyeurism and health.

On a recent weekend, Dr. Yelena Galdner, 34, was lying naked on the beach with her 10-year-old son, also nude, by her side. Her reason for visiting Serebryany Bor once a week? Her son's health.

"He has become more quiet and his appetite improved," said Galdner. "Unfortunately, I cannot make my husband, a professor, join us. He must be shy because he is a little bit stout, and I guess that is why he violently refuses to come with us. But that's OK. I will reform him one day."

According to veteran nudists, there was a time when only a handful of unsanctioned beaches for naturists existed in the entire Soviet Union, where a publicly unclothed person could be fined the equivalent of $10 and jailed for 10 days.

Ilya Romin, a 41-year-old math teacher and longtime nudist who is among the informal leadership at Serebryany Bor, fondly remembers trekking to the Crimean beach at Koktebel on the Black Sea. "Of course, everybody knew each other, and usually we were not more than 20 on the beach, but people came from all over the country."

Romin said the area was intensively patrolled by Border Guards in motorboats, who, upon spying the unclothed sunbathers, would yell through megaphones, "Comrades, dress immediately!"

"Now all that seems to be ridiculous but then we were really afraid," said Romin, who once spent 72 hours in jail for "anti-social behavior."

In the early 1990s, the winds of change blew across the white sand and volleyball courts of Serebryany Bor as nudists became increasingly defiant. At first the local militia tried to stifle the movement but more and more people joined in and, in 1992, municipal authorities officially recognized it as a naturist area. During this formative time, there were several instances of con artists shaking down the naked for fees to pay for "beach maintenance." Incensed nudists met en masse to discuss how to best deal with the fraudulent fee collectors.

"We must have looked very amusing from a distance," a naked Army Colonel Alexei Grebnev, 53, recalled. "We all gathered on the meadow by the volleyball ground. We were very many, about 400 people, all naked. It was a real heated debate, people made proposals, fought for the floor and argued their points of view."

Problems of crime, hooliganism or general disorder are rare at Serebryany Bor, where naturists tend to police themselves.

"Sometimes we have problems with cases of people's clothes being stolen, but almost never any drunkenness or fighting here," said Sergeant Alexander Ilyichov, 29, during a break from a recent weekday patrol of Serebryany Bor. "I think this is because the majority of people coming here are from the intelligentsia."

Indeed, hard-core nudists pride themselves on having reached a higher level of enlightenment than their clothed counterparts.

"Not everybody could venture to strip in public," said Vladimir Ponkin, 84, an architect wearing magenta swimming shorts. "Only a person free from inner barriers and inhibitions can do it. ... Even now, when people have been given democracy, a nudist in Russia is in a state of greater spiritual maturity."

At least some people come to Serebryany Bor for the mental health benefits. One 56-year-old man who identified himself only by his first initial, N, said, "I had noticed that I was developing a very dangerous tendency. I felt sexually attracted to very young girls. By mere chance I came here, and this dangerous aberration of my psyche disappeared, because here nothing is hidden or secret."

Others arrive with less lofty goals.

"I've seen a lot of young boys, teenagers, who come only to look at the young women," said Yelena, an attractive nudist sitting next to her boyfriend under a pine tree. "It looks very funny because they hide in the bushes and look at us from there, scared to show themselves."