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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Walrus Clubs Wish for Winter

Like the bears that struggled to hibernate at the Moscow Zoo, Yelena Ekonomova is unsettled by this year's freak warm weather.

Still, she's keeping to her weekend schedule. At Serebryanny Bor in the city's north on Saturday, Ekonomova, 52, donned a swimsuit in a hut heated like a furnace. She then emerged into air no warmer than 2 degrees Celsius, picked her way to a pond where the water was just above freezing, waded out and ducked underneath.

"It's a shame. The mood's different," Ekonomova said as she stood dripping after her swim, her skin red and covered with goose bumps. "You don't get the same high as when there's snow and ice.

"I waited all summer. Nature fooled us."

Ekonomova is one of about 6,000 "walruses," or winter swimmers, in the city. Groups are venturing out into Moscow ponds, lakes and rivers as usual this season, but the experience is unusual, even disappointing: The ice is either precariously thin or has disappeared.

The Jan. 19 festival of Epiphany, when the Eastern Orthodox Church primarily celebrates the appearance of the Holy Trinity during Christ's baptism in the Jordan river, will also be very different to that in 2006. Then, walruses, believers and some publicity-seeking politicians dived into ice holes blessed by priests as air temperatures hovered around minus 30 C. This time, they'll likely paddle in from muddy banks or use platforms.

"This weather we have, this European heat, it doesn't mean that the holiday will be lost," said Sergei Zevonaryov of the Moscow Patriarchate's external relations department. "There'll be services in the church, and someone will consecrate the water in rivers and lakes."

"It's impossible to say that cold water, ice water, is a better means for salvation of the soul," he reassured.

There won't be any fresh ice on Epiphany, and temperatures during the day Friday could hit a record 6 C, reported Monday. The previous high on Epiphany, 2.9 C, was set in 1937.

About 20 walruses strode into Maloye Bezdonnoye Ozero, or Little Bottomless Lake, at Serebranny Bor on Saturday. Its ice hole is considered the main one for winter swimming in Moscow. The ice is usually half a meter or one meter thick come January, but now it is only 2 or 3 centimeters. In some places, it has melted away completely. Green grass rings the water, free of snow like the skeletal trees.

"In my life, the only happiness, which I wait for all week, is ice swimming," said Alexandra Gavrilova, 69. "I wait for this like a holiday." She genuflected as she stepped into the water, and held her arms up to the sky and looked up for a few minutes after she climbed out.

One elderly woman lifted weights clad only in scarlet underwear. Valentin Kvivolapov, 68, jogged for 1 1/2 hours wearing nothing except shorts and sneakers.

Men and women get changed together in the humid hut, lit by a wood-fed stove. While one person is swimming, another supervises. If a swimmer's fingers go numb, they should get out. "If your internal organs start to shiver, it's a bad sign," said Kvivolapov.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Maximov climbing out of Little Bottomless Lake on Sunday. The ice is almost gone.
"Drink hot tea with lemon, not vodka," after ice swimming, advised Sergei Maximov, the club's director.

Maximov, 70, has been head of the club for two years; it was founded at the instigation of Soviet authorities in 1960, and is one of 60 in Moscow. He showed photos of himself doing yoga in a jockstrap, and has elaborated a five-point philosophy, which other members follow to varying degrees. There's a mandated fast every week, and precise nutrition rules: Members should strive to eat 7 percent fats, 7 percent sugars and 7 percent starch every day, for example. Other points cover being active, having massages and taking dips in icy water.

"Look at his figure," Maximov said, gesturing to the slender, swimming trunk-clad form of Viktor Kukushkin, 50, who adheres to most points in the plan.

The club is expecting 2,000 participants at its ice hole for Epiphany on Thursday night and Friday. About 30 church representatives are to officiate and themselves take a dip. Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who took a dip last year, will be there, Maximov said. United Russia deputy Konstantin Kosachyov, who attended last year, will be in Chuvashia, his office said.

Maximov cautioned against blindly buying in to the festival.

"We'll go," he said, "but in their heads, people should have their own God."