Long lines of people waited in freezing temperatures of -20 C (-6 F) for the chance to strip down and jump into a hole cut through the ice, on the traditional holiday of Epiphany.
Oh, what people we have!
On the frozen Neva
"Flame!" "Brace up!", "Yeah, warm water!", "Fresh milk" was the kind of commentary that could be heard in the crowd that gathered on the frozen Neva River.
Over 26,000 people took the plunge in St. Petersburg Jan. 19, and about 50,000 people swam in icy waters in Moscow (video report here).
Flip flops required
"Flip flops, flip flops, don't forget your flip flops," warned the emergency response officials who observed the events. The men wore special uniforms for diving into frozen water to save someone in trouble. They also helped swimmers out of the water, handed them towels and helped them navigate the slippery steps.
"Citizens, we ask you to move off the ice onto the shore - there is crack in the ice!" the officials said at one point, when too many people had gathered on the river ice to watch the spectacle of the swimmers.
A dip in blessed water
Epiphany is an important holiday of the new year for the Orthodox church, which symbolizes the baptism of Christ on the River Jordan by dipping into water. The water is blessed by holy men from the church, and people believe bathing will bring them the blessings of God.
Many Russians also say dipping into the freezing waters (Kreshchenskoe kypanie) protects against illnesses and strengthens the body against cold.
"Now you won't get any illnesses!" a pair of parents told their son, who was about 7 years old.
Many people came with their children for a dip in the blessed water.
'Walruses' regularly bathe in freezing waters
By tradition, "walruses" also came out to Peter and Paul Fortress and bathed at another hole, even though it had not been blessed by holy men from the church. People slid down an icy slope holding a rope to get to the water's edge.
But some tougher walruses discouraged using the rope to avoid slipping: "Only wimps use the rope!" yelled one man, who had apparently celebrated the holiday with strong drinks, and invited swimmers to join the walrus club.
The swimming continued all weekend without incident.