And, until recently, residents of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, indulged in their own invigorating winter dips through the auspices of the city’s Walrus Club, an 800-strong organization of committed cold weather swimmers.
The club, founded in 1952, has traditionally provided its members with facilities for winter-time swimming and diving in Tashkent’s Anhor Canal, a manmade body of water that bisects the city.
Now the club’s members are up in arms over a sudden shutdown provoked by local authorities, who have destroyed the group’s waterside clubhouse and ordered the swimmers to disband.
“The mayor’s office closed us. Everything that the winter swimmers were using for dressing and diving was destroyed,” Jamshid Obidov, 70, an Uzbek film director and Walrus Club president told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service. “The club, which existed for 60 years, is closed. They gave us no papers. They just said, ‘Get out, we don’t need these walruses.’”
A spokesman for the mayor’s office explained the action by saying that local residents were offended by the sight of underdressed winter swimmers in the water and on the canal bank.
But there may be economic considerations at play, as well. The canal is lined by some of Tashkent’s most expensive real estate, including a presidential residence for Uzbek autocrat Islam Karimov, who last year identified the canal banks as a prime area for urban development.
Obidov expressed his surprise and dismay that members’ swimming attire would draw offense, noting that the club has its “own regulations” ensuring that the swimmers be properly clothed in swimming gear. “They can’t swim in trousers,” he said.
Tashkent’s Walrus Club is well known for playing host to several of Uzbekistan’s most prominent artists and intellectuals. It’s also dominated by Russian Uzbeks, who make up just a small minority of the overall population in this former Soviet republic.
Winter swimming enjoys a strong following in Russia and among ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Union. BBC correspondent James Rodgers reported on a ‘walrus club’ in the Russian city of Perm, in the shadow of the Urals, in 2008.
The idea for a walrus club in Tashkent, where average January temperatures sit around 0 degrees centigrade, originated in 1948 according to Obidov. He says that before the construction of a canal clubhouse in 1952, members swam in a nearby lake.
By 1975, the group’s expanded membership rolls called for a bigger facility. Club leaders appealed in writing to local Soviet leader Sharov Rashidov, the First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party. “He invited us into his office,” Obidov recalls. “There were some veterans, and culture and art representatives among us. [Rashidov] was interested in the effect of winter swimming on health, and promised to give us the facility we needed.”
The city’s closure of the Walrus Club’s storied clubhouse is just one of several recent high-profile decisions that have sought to enforce a greater standard of public modesty in this majority-Muslim capital.
Last week, city officials announced a ban on the display of bras in women’s clothing shops.
Karimov’s regime has walked a fine line in its relationship with religion in the public square.
It is known for keeping a tight lid on religious groups it classifies as extremist, and has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for “fiercely [suppressing] any religious group that functions outside state control.”
Crackdowns on small issues -- like women’s clothing and winter swimming -- may be a means of appeasing otherwise discontented religious conservatives.
Indeed, some Uzbek observers have already applauded the city’s move for putting a stop to a practice that is “not in accord with Uzbek culture.”
But one commentator on RFE/RL’s Uzbek-language website had his own thoughts about that. “Before closing these guys down,” he said, “They should shutter Tashkent’s strip clubs.”
-- Charles Dameron with reporting from Shukhrat Babajanov