MOSCOW: Crowds of Orthodox believers took the traditional plunge in freezing waters Saturday as they celebrated Epiphany across Russia, despite winter temperatures reaching -40 degrees Celsius in some regions.
Russian police estimated on Saturday morning that over 2.4 million people in the country took part in Epiphany celebrations overnight, though it wasn’t clear how many made the three dips in water according to custom.
Authorities cut ice and sometimes install wooden steps to ease access for worshippers wanting to descend into icy rivers and lakes and immerse themselves, to remember the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
In a park in eastern Moscow, worshippers clad in bikinis or swimming trunks splashed and crossed themselves, shivering under the watchful eye of police and emergencies ministry workers.
“It’s great, it’s the best Russian tradition,” Muscovite Yevgeny Goloshchapov told AFP, a towel draped across his shoulders.
The tradition in recent years has been embraced by politicians and diplomats, with President Vladimir Putin participating last year, as well as the US Ambassador in Moscow Jon Huntsman Jr.
In Russia’s coldest region of Yakutia, the local governor submerged himself in the Lena river despite temperatures of -42 degrees Celsius, his office said.
In a poll published Friday a fifth of all respondents said they planned to take the Epiphany dive, up from 15 per cent last year.
Ironically, some Orthodox clerics say the ice dive challenge is not actually a canonical tradition and dismiss it as a fad.
“There is a trend that external rites of big church holidays become national traditions, and the original meaning of the holiday is forgotten,” said Panteleimon, a high-ranking bishop in charge of charity at the Russian Orthodox Church.
“I never dive in an ice hole,” he told the Izvestia newspaper.