Moscow (AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin along with millions of Orthodox believers braved freezing temperatures to take a barechested plunge into icy water in a traditional ritual marking the baptism of Jesus.
Surrounded by Orthodox priests and glittering religious icons, and with the temperature hovering around minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 Fahrenheit), Putin lowered himself into waters of Lake Seliger some 350 kilometres (220 miles) northwest of Moscow.
Many other Russians followed suit, submerging themselves in lakes and rivers in a widely-observed ritual normally taking place on January 18 and 19 that last year saw two million people take the plunge.
The president marched over the ice covering the lake wrapped in a cream sheepskin coat and wearing traditional knee-high felt boots as priests chanted and waved an incense lamp, in footage shown on state television.
Asked by a journalist: “Is it cold?” Putin braved it out: “No, it’s great.”
Then wearing just swimming trunks, he lowered himself into a hole cut in the ice, puffing slightly and crossing himself, a crucifix hanging around his neck. He then held his nose and immersed himself fully.
It was the first time the 65-year-old, who regularly poses barechested on wilderness expeditions, publicly took part in the ritual.
However, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin “has been plunging into an ice hole for a number of years now,” quoted by TASS state news agency.
Putin’s latest macho exploit comes as he bids for a fourth Kremlin term in March polls.
Amid a chill in relations with Washington, it was an opportunity for the strongman to show off his fitness as US counterpart Donald Trump faces questions over his waistline.
– ‘Extreme temperatures’ –
The Russian Orthodox Church does not require believers to go through the gruelling experience, which is more of a popular tradition.
Participants are supposed to immerse themselves three times — in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — to remember the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
To mark the occasion, Orthodox priests also go out to bless rivers and reservoirs and even seas such as the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Orthodox Christians believe the water temporarily becomes purified and has healing qualities.
In some areas with extreme temperatures — parts of Siberia dropped to minus 68 degrees Celsius (minus 90 Fahrenheit) — local authorities banned the icy plunges.
In Norilsk, a Siberian city beyond the Arctic Circle, local authorities on Thursday banned bathing “to avoid frostbite and emergency situations” as temperatures in some areas hit minus 52 Celsius and strong winds whipped up a blizzard.