In Russia, Epiphany Comes With A Shockingly Cold Swim | KUOW News and Information

In Russia, Epiphany Comes With A Shockingly Cold Swim

Jan 20, 2016
Originally published on January 21, 2016 3:49 pm

Tuesday was an important holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church: Epiphany, which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.

Russian believers mark the event by re-enacting that baptism in ponds and rivers, and since Russia is far north of the Jordan, that means plunging into freezing water through holes cut in the ice.

Big cities like Moscow often set up elaborate stations where people can take the plunge, but people in other cities go for the do-it-yourself approach.

Take the Church of the Merciful Savior in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don: its congregation meets in a former cafeteria on a busy road in the city's industrial zone.

It's a low, concrete building that doesn't look much different from the auto shops and tire dealers that line the road. The only outward indication that it's an Orthodox church is a small gold onion dome on the roof, topped with a cross.

Inside, though, it's already packed with people, bowing and crossing themselves before the icons. There's a decorated Christmas tree and the icon of Jesus is shielded by an arch of fresh fir boughs.

In contrast to many churches in Russia, there are lots of young people here, and kids. People move about, lighting candles or placing 5-liter plastic water jugs near the altar, where the water will be blessed.

The service starts at 9 p.m. and lasts nearly four hours, propelled by the singing of the priests and a remarkably good choir for a small congregation.

Around midnight, people who plan to take the plunge start to gather on the icy slope above the pond. It's a few degrees above freezing, so the ground is a slurry of ice and mud.

Most people wear swimsuits under their clothes, swinging their towels and underwear in plastic bags. Twenty-nine-year-old Artur Guzanov says this is his fifth year taking the plunge and his second time at this church.

"Epiphany is purification," he says. "My soul is cleansed and I'm charged with a good mood for the whole year ahead."

The place where people take the plunge is a small wooden platform with a hole cut in the shape of a cross that opens into the icy water of the pond. Two warmly dressed emergency medical technicians stand by in case anyone is overcome by the cold.

At 1 a.m., the service ends with a peal of bells — well, not bells, exactly, but lengths of steel tubing hanging from a frame.

The Rev. Vladimir Osiak and his deacons make their way down the slope, carrying candles and gilded banners from the church. He ducks under the icy water three times, crossing himself each time he rises.

A couple of hundred parishioners follow, giving themselves to the power of the ritual and the shock of the water.

How does it feel?

"Good," one man told me. "Absolutely good."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yesterday was an important holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church. It was the epiphany, which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Russian believers mark this event by re-enacting the baptism in ponds and rivers. Now you may note that Russia is a little bit north of the Jordan. As NPR's Corey Flintoff discovered, that means plunging into freezing water through holes cut in the ice.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Big cities like Moscow often set up elaborate stations where people can take the plunge, but this is Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. The church sits on a busy road in an industrial zone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: It's a former restaurant below concrete building that doesn't look much different from the auto shops and tire dealers that line the road. It does have a small gold onion dome that perches on the roof like a party hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHURCH CONGREGATION: (Singing in Russian).

FLINTOFF: Inside, though, it's already packed with people, bowing and crossing themselves before the icons. In contrast to many churches in Russia, there are lots of young adults here together with their kids. People move about, lighting candles or placing 5-liter plastic water jugs near the altar where the water will be blessed. The service starts at 9 p.m. and lasts nearly four hours. Around midnight, people who plan to take the plunge start to gather on the icy slope above the pond. It's a few degrees above freezing, so the ground is a slurry of ice and mud. Most people wear their swimsuits under their clothes, swinging their towels and underwear in plastic bags. Twenty-nine-year-old Artur Guzanov says this is his fifth year taking the plunge and his second time at this church.

ARTUR GUZANOV: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "Epiphany is purification," he says. "My soul is cleansed, and I'm charged with a good mood for the whole year ahead." The place where people will take the plunge is a small wooden platform over the ice with a hole cut in the shape of a cross that opens into the freezing waters below. At 1 o'clock in the morning, the service ends with a peal of bells, well, not bells exactly but lengths of steel tubing hanging from a frame.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

FLINTOFF: The priest and his deacons make their way down the slope, carrying the candles in gilded banners from the church.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Russian).

FLINTOFF: The priest, Father Vladimir, is the first to take the plunge.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

FLINTOFF: He ducks under the icy waters three times, crossing himself each time he rises. A couple hundred parishioners follow, giving themselves to the power of the ritual and the shock of the water. How does it feel, I asked one man. Good, he said, absolutely good. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.