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Moscow Diary: Walrus club

The BBC's James Rodgers meets Russian "Walruses" in the city of Perm - people who like nothing better than to jump into ice-cold water in mid-winter. His diary is published fortnightly.

BATHING RUSSIAN-STYLE

Russian Walruses in Perm
The swimmers hacked a perfect rectangle in the thick ice

The Russian winter wears on. This year, like last, it has not been as cold as usual.

It is a mixed blessing. Milder temperatures mean damp. Even if it is not freezing, the nights are still long enough to make even the days feel gloomy. TV and magazine advertisements for tropical resorts with sunshine and warm seas seem unfair.

My most recent trip did not take me anywhere quite like that - although there was a lot of water, and there were people swimming.

The skies overhead were not clear blue. They were covered in clouds heavy with the threat of a blizzard. Underfoot was no sandy beach but a thick layer of snow.

To conduct their time trials, the swimmers had hacked a perfect rectangle in the thick ice covering the river Kama.

The Kama flows through the city of Perm, at the edge of European Russia. Beyond lie the Ural Mountains, and Siberia.

The temperature was around 0C - very mild for the time of year. Still, it was hardly swimming weather - too cold for me, at least.

It was not really cold enough for the members of the Perm "Walruses", the winter swimming club.

INVIGORATING

I had only ever seen pictures of this before. Until you have stood on the river bank in warm boots and feet freezing all the same, it is hard to imagine what it feels like actually to take the plunge.

Eduard Sevastyanov (left) and Vladimir Chudinov
Eduard (left) and Vladimir radiated health

In fact, I still cannot. But a quick conversation with Eduard Sevastyanov made me curious about what I was missing.

Eduard told me he was 67. That in itself is an achievement in Russia, where male life expectancy is 59.

Eduard radiated health. "I feel great," he said, catching his breath after his dip.

"I don't take any tablets, don't use any other medicine. My blood pressure is 120/80." (Russian friends tell me that's the blood pressure of a cosmonaut, by the way.)

"I'm going to carry on doing this until the end of my days," Eduard said proudly.

Eduard and the swimming club's president, Vladimir Chudinov, pressed me and my colleague to stay for lunch in their clubhouse - two shipping containers on the riverbank.

Unfortunately, we had to go. We had a string of other interviews arranged for the same afternoon.

ACCEPTING CHALLENGES

I had gone to Perm to prepare a report ahead of the presidential election on 2 March, won by Dmitry Medvedev - President Vladimir Putin's choice. But I did not talk to Eduard or Vladimir about politics.

Whatever their views, they must have been pretty disappointed at some stage in the last 20 years. Everyone here has.

Communists have lost the system they believed in, and even the country which created it. Western-style democrats hoped for a new dawn in the 1990s. Now they are in disarray.

The supporters of Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev back them because they credit them with ending the chaos many endured after the collapse of the USSR.

If the "Walruses" wanted to take it easy, they could just swim in the summer.

Recent history shows that "easy" is not always the way in Russia. But when you meet people like Eduard and Vladimir, you feel that there will always be enough enthusiastic, energetic and optimistic people here to chop a hole in the ice and just get on with it.

GAY CELEBRATION

Travelling in Russia often throws up surprises. Meeting the "Walruses" drove away the winter blues.

I got back to Moscow to hear a tale of barriers breaking down.

A friend had been at a gay club for their celebration of Defender of the Fatherland Day.

This is an annual public holiday to honour anyone who has served in the armed forces. In effect, it's "men's day", just as Russia marks 8 March - International Women's Day.

Homosexuality was illegal for most of the Soviet period. Opinion polls suggest many Russians think it still should be.

So my friend was surprised, gobsmacked is probably a better word, when a military band - apparently made up of serving personnel - came on as part of the evening's entertainment.

They had altered their repertoire to reflect the move from parade ground to nightclub. It included songs from hit musicals, and a version of I Will Survive.

My friend says the band members confessed to having stilled their pre-show nerves with a few shots of vodka. They were apprehensive about venturing into the venue.

Once their performance was over, though, they stayed for a dance.


Your comments:

How could you not eat Lunch with the Walruses? Very rude - probably would have given you a better story/insight, and you wouldn't have had to stray towards the end to talk about a'tale' involving Men's day in a gay club. However, I do love these Russian articles - give me more!!!! Cheers!
Hunter, Denver, Colorado

I live in the South West of England and swim in the sea throughout the year in just a swimsuit. My only companion was a visit from a seal once who swam up to me. I am partially sighted and love the freedom of cold water swimming in the sea. I entered the Winter Swimming Championships at Tooting Lido in February - the water was about 5 degrees. There were many Russians and Finns amongst the 670 international competitors. Having acclimatised to cold water I really enjoy the feeling of well being. I only wish there was a cold water swimming club in the south west.
Sue, Crediton England

I was but 10 years old in 1940 when the Russians stayed their terrible course with Hitler. But I did read the papers and did realize that far across the seas those Russians were protecting me. It is re-assuring to know they continue get on very well under tough circumstances in tough times ...
Wallace Rogers, Tucson, Arizona, USA

I know Russian people well but i wonder how they survive this ice water.In my country the temperature is colder than Russian capital territory but we,the Mongolians, don't swim like that,anyway nice to see the people enjoying!
Bilguun, Mongolia

Thank goodness for James Rodgers' balanced comments, and refreshing portraits of the real Russia. I tire of Edward Lucas and Tony Halpin and all their ideological mutterings - Rodgers gives us a fuller picture, one where some things are good, and some are bad (just like life everywhere).
J North, Welwyn, Herts



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JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

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