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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Icy Baths for Good Health

ST. PETERSBURG - Balancing on bare knees on the frosty surface of Shuvalovskoye Lake, Anna Nikolayeva clutches the arm of her grinning 7-month-old daughter, Tanya, and dunks her in a hole in the ice.

With the air a bracing 18 F, it's perfect swimming weather for Tanya and other children whose mothers believe bathing in icy waters is a key to good health.

About a dozen families, members of the Bereginya club, travel to the lake on the outskirts of St. Petersburg once a week. First they crowd into a sauna on the shore and sit in the hot steam until they can no longer stand it. Then, with cheeks ruddy and skin glistening, they run out into the frigid air.

Their bodies warmed in the sauna, they barely flinch as they jump into the water from a flight of wooden steps. Toddlers wearing swimsuits and plastic sandals play with stuffed animals on the snow-covered lake surface as if it were July.

When the children begin to shiver, the families make their way back to the sauna to begin the cycle again.

The Bereginya members, who altogether number several hundred, are not the only Russians who adhere to traditional beliefs that temperature contrasts make the body stronger. Many people, both villagers and city-dwellers, pour buckets of cold water over themselves as part of their morning ritual.

Bereginya translates roughly to "Preserving Tradition" - and its adherence to tradition does not stop at winter bathing. Members try to stick to traditional child-rearing techniques, avoiding conventional medicine. Many of the mothers - who don't abstain from their winter swims even when they are pregnant - choose to give birth at home and refuse to have their children vaccinated.