MOSCOW, 19 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the Moscow police, together with physicians, had urged Russians to refrain from the bathing ritual this year because of the exceptionally cold weather.
But this did nothing to dishearten the staunchest of believers, thousands of whom braved the bone-chilling cold to plunge into cross-shaped holes cut in frozen lakes, as priests chanted prayers. According to the police, 2,000 people bathed today in the Moscow region alone.
This age-old ritual commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, or the Epiphany, which the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates on 19 January. By bathing on this day, believers symbolically purge their sins
This age-old ritual commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, or the Epiphany, which the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates on 19 January. By bathing on this day, believers symbolically purge their sins.
Aleksandra Khamirova, a middle-aged bather clad in a yellow bikini, was so enthusiastic about her dip in a Moscow lake that she invited journalists present at the scene to take a plunge.
"You should take off your clothes, dip into the cold water, and accept baptism to rid yourself of your sins and prolong your life," she advised.
Religion aside, Russians have long believed in the beneficial effects of bathing in freezing water. Many do so throughout the winter, earning them the nickname of "morzhi," or walruses.
Vladimir Grebyonkin, the president of the Russian Winter Swimming Federation, bathed both yesterday and today.
"In fact, this is extraordinarily healthy," Grebyonkin said. "I can give dozens of examples of people who were cured,
hundreds of examples. There were invalids -- in-va-lids! -- who became healthy people. People come out of the water all red, this is the body's reaction -- the internal temperature rises to 40 degrees (Celsius) for a brief moment, 15 or 20 seconds. This has a curing effect, no viruses survive."
Most physicians, however, are skeptical about the benefits of swimming in sub-zero temperatures.
Abdullah Davlatov, a neurologist at a Moscow hospital, says a high proportion of patients he receives are "walruses."
Immersing oneself in freezing water, he says, carries other serious health risks.
"Putting your body under such physical stress is very dangerous," Davlatov said. "Those who go and jump in the water without preliminary preparation are guaranteed kidney inflammation, and women gynecological problems."
By gradually accustoming the body to sub-zero temperatures, people can teach themselves to bathe in freezing water without much risk, provided they are in good health. But Davlatov says preparation for an outdoor winter dip should be meticulous and last at least six months.
The wave of Arctic air from Siberia hit Russia on 16 January and has not relented since, with temperatures plummeting to minus 31 degrees Celsius (minus 24 Fahrenheit) yesterday night. According to Moscow's weather forecasting service, this is the lowest recorded temperature on this date since 1927.
The mercury dropped still lower in Siberia. In Yamalo-Nenetsk Autonomous Okrug, the temperature plummeted to minus 61 degrees Celsius (minus 78 Fahrenheit), an all-time record low there.
The painfully cold temperatures have reportedly killed at least 31 people in European Russia since 16 January. Most of the casualties were among the homeless, despite an order by authorities to allow homeless people to sleep in train and metro stations.
Animals in zoos across Russia are being given shots, or in some cases buckets, of vodka to keep them warm.
But even in homes, heat is not always guaranteed. Thousands of people were temporarily left without heat in several Russian regions after central heating pipes burst.
The cold spell has put huge pressure on Russia's power system -- the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems said yesterday that electricity use has reached a 15-year high this week.
Amid fears of a massive power blackout, Moscow authorities have established what they called a "strict" energy-conservation regime, including forced power cutbacks to some 250 nonessential companies in the region.
Amid fears of a massive power blackout, Moscow authorities have established what they called a "strict" energy-conservation regime, including forced power cutbacks.
Electricity, for instance, has been cut back in casinos, gaming halls, billboard advertisements, and at construction sites that use powerful floodlights for nighttime work. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has also called on employers to let their staffs have today and tomorrow off in order to save energy.
To cope with the exceptional energy demand at home, Russia yesterday reduced oil and gas supplies to Europe, and Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said he had sent the prime minister a proposal to tap into the country's strategic fuel reserves.
Temperatures are expected to ease over the next few days, but Russians are already bracing for the next cold wave -- meteorologists predict that another deep freeze will follow early next week and could last until the end of the month.