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 Sunday, 19 January, 2003, 17:37 GMT
Orthodox Christians enjoy icy celebration
Girl plunged into water
An Orthodox priest plunges a girl into the water

On the banks of the Moscow River, a few miles outside the capital, political leader Boris Nemtsov is preparing for a freezing cold reception - he's about to plunge into an icy river.

Like many Orthodox Christians, Mr Nemtov is celebrating one of the major Russian Orthodox holidays - the Baptism of Christ.

A boy dips in the icy waters of the Moscow River
A boy braves the icy waters of the Moscow River
This happens each year on 19 January, which is 12 days after the Russian Orthodox Christmas Day.

At midnight the water is blessed, from then onwards anyone who baths in the ice hole is said to be cleansed of their sins.

It's also claimed that it brings health to the soul and body.

The ceremony is based on the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

Ancient tradition

Volkova Marina Evgenyevna has brought her two grandsons to the spectacle, but they are only here to watch.

"It's a Christian tradition, we call it bathing in the Jordan. It dates back more than 2000 years. I don't take part but well done to those who do."

For a few seconds you don't feel anything at all, then it hits you

Boris Nemtov
All day people wearing dressing gowns over their swimming costumes, briskly walk down the river bank through the snow.

The whole of the river is frozen but when the water was blessed, the ice was broken by a cross.

An oblong hole was then cut into the thick ice.

Orthodox Christians in Macedonia jump into the Vardar River
Macedonians celebrated in the Vardar River
Instead of jumping in, a set of metal steps have been fixed to the ice so that people can easily step into the freezing water.

There are sharp intakes of breath and loud cries of pain from people climbing in - no one stays in the water for longer then a minute.

People who are crowded around the ice hole clap and cheer.

"I feel excellent, fresh and revived," says Vasily Karaganov as he quickly gets out.

Many of the people here are supporters of the rightwing SPS party.

They were encouraged to come by their leader Boris Nemtov who's taken part in this ceremony for the last seven years.

Freezing temperatures

"For a few seconds you don't feel anything at all, then it hits you. It is an amazing experience. But I wouldn't recommend this to everyone, only people who've done it before."

The temperature in Moscow is currently around freezing so the water isn't as cold as it could be, but two medics are on hand in case anyone gets into trouble.

Vera Lykerva
Vera Lykerva: "I feel very good"
One of the ambulance men Yury Ilyin admits that bathing in an ice hole can be dangerous.

"There's a possibility that you could do yourself harm, for example you could have a heart attack if you weren't properly prepared. But if you're ready for it and you're a healthy person it's not a shock getting into the water."

But rather than making you ill, Orthodox Christians believe that this ice hole baptism actually makes you stronger.

Vera Lykerva is one of the few women who took part, now wrapped up in a scarf and fur coat, she's convinced of the benefits.

"I feel very good, very beautiful I have never been in such cold water in my life but I will definitely be back next year."

See also:

11 Feb 02 | Europe
07 Jan 02 | Middle East
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