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Reviving winter swimming in St Petersburg

Cutting Ice Russia

Roman Karkachev reports on the return of ice swimming to the Peter and Paul Fortress

From the 1960s to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Bolshaya Neva swimming club was the biggest winter swimming club in the Soviet Union. Among its 600 members were Soviet movie stars, famous scientists and well known theatre actors. The club was based on Zayachy Island in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel of St Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. Club members swam in a 25-metre pool cut into the frozen River Neva, watched by crowds of spectators.

Dipping and swimming in icy water was a cultural phenomenon in Soviet times. Popular singers sang songs about Leningrad “walruses” and ice swimmers were the heroes of children’s poetry. But the club’s swims came to an end when the pool was removed from the Fortress soon after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Twenty-five years later, enthusiasts from the St Petersburg Winter Swimming Federation have brought winter swimming back to the Peter and Paul Fortress. With support from the local authorities and the State Museum of History of Saint Petersburg, a new 25-metre pool has been cut into the ice at the site of the original pool. And on 18 March 2017, 50 winter swimmers from Russia, Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus competed in the ‘Revival of The Winter Swimming Tradition at Peter and Paul Fortress of St Petersburg’ event.

At noon, a cannon fired from the top of the Naryshkin bastion (a daily tradition established by Peter the Great) served as a start klaxon for the first race of the competition. The day’s races included 25m ice fly, breaststroke and freestyle, 50m and 100m freestyle. After their races, swimmers warmed up in hot tubs with views of the famous Hermitage museum, Admiralty and St Isaac’s Cathedral.

If you fancy swimming in this historic location, the Big Neva Open Cup takes place on 2 March 2018.  

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Cover September17

Issue 6 September 2017

  • Swim Strong for Life - how to train right every time
  • A Love Letter to Wild Waters - swimming in Orkney
  • Coach's Advice - how to hit your swimming rhythm
  • Stay Safe - tow floats tried & tested
  • Wild Swimming Trips – Ireland and Scotland
  • Plus, wildlife, nutrition, training, event reviews and full event listings

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