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How a Ukrainian Mystic’s Ice-Water Cure Helped Me Cope With the Chaos of 2022

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Ukrainian-Russian mystic Porfiriy Ivanov, photographed at the end of his life in 1982, believed exposure to cold water made the body more resilient.  (Edward Ettinger/Ogonyek)

This week, as we near the end of 2022, the writers and editors of KQED Arts & Culture are reflecting on One Beautiful Thing from the year. Here, during a year of violence and tumult in her home country, editor Nastia Voynovskaya finds herself reconnecting with old ways to help reckon with the increasingly precarious present.

W

hen Russia invaded Ukraine in February, visceral panic spread through my immigrant community as we watched bombings and evacuations playing out live on social media. Some of my friends had relatives fleeing the attacks, and they waited for WhatsApp updates with worry and fear.

Many Russians and Ukrainians are literally kin, as we are in my blended family, and the war began to tear us apart. Clashing views led to schisms in relationships. Russians like me who didn’t support the invasion were forced to reexamine the foundations of our identity.

My reexamination came about in a somewhat unexpected way — yet maybe one that was predestined.

Assimilation comes with a sense of loss. Immigrants acquire a new accent, and new habits, and grow alienated from our old ways of life. I’ve held on, trying to find a bicultural identity in the aisles of Russian markets, in music and in books. But I’ve had to make a concerted effort to stay in touch with my culture as I get older and more American. After the war started, questions began to run through my mind. Was it actually worth the struggle to prove I belong to something that seems so hateful? Wouldn’t erasing my identity because of shame become its own form of pain?

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I was grieving on multiple levels. My grandfather, my last grandparent, passed away in St. Petersburg a week before the invasion. As economic sanctions, flight cancellations and mass arrests of anti-war protesters sparked chaos in Russia, it began to sink in that I had no idea when I might be able to safely return to my hometown.

My Russian group chat lit up with relief fundraisers and updates, and even as I tried to find productive ways to help, my anxiety showed no signs of letting up. I knew I needed to get grounded, to get back into my body.

In March, I was invited to a wedding in snowy Utah, where my outdoorsy friends incorporated skiing into their nuptials. I had only skied a handful of times in my life, so I was unaccustomed to how the cold air numbed my chin, and how snow felt going down my ski pants when I fell. But as I descended the slopes at speeds way beyond my comfort zone, I had no choice but to be present. Gripping my ski poles in simultaneous awe and terror, I flew past green pines glistening with puffs of powdery snow, and watched snowflakes swirl as wind and fog drifted in over a mountain ridge in the distance. After a few hours, my jaw unclenched and my brows unfurrowed. And as I defrosted in the shower, I realized that the cold air had filled me with an aliveness that I hadn’t felt in months.

I had to do it again.

The snow trip unlocked a deep memory, and I remembered that cold temperatures were my people’s ally. When I was a kid in St. Petersburg, my mom, like many Russian mothers, poured buckets of cold water on me and my sister after baths. It was part of a cultural belief that controlled exposure to cold temperatures would boost your immunity and make you more resilient the same reason people take their children swimming in the frozen waters of Siberia’s Lake Baikal. In Russian it’s called “zakalivaniye organizma,” or hardening of the body. And it was preached as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle by a controversial Ukrainian-Russian mystic with a Zeus-like beard, whose teachings helped me understand my experience on the slopes.

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orfiriy Ivanov was an eccentric character born in 1898 in the Luhansk Region of Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian Empire and is currently on contested land. An ice-water evangelist, he claimed to have cured himself of cancer by dousing himself in cold water and walking in the snow barefoot. Throughout his long life, he wore shorts in freezing temperatures. His nonconformist attitude and allusions to supernatural powers were so controversial that he was tortured by Nazis during World War II. Later, he was twice sentenced to a brutal Soviet mental institution. After he died in 1983, the Russian Orthodox church labeled him a heretic.

My mom had been one of Ivanov’s followers in the early ’90s. I had always regarded this as a quirky fact of our lives in the old country, but my recent exposure to the cold made me wonder if this strange healer’s methods might have a place in my life.

Blasting myself with cold water at the end of a shower became a hack for treating anxiety. The sheer physical shock forced me to breathe deeply and enter a Zen state that I rarely had the patience to achieve through meditation. When I took turns roasting myself in the sauna and jumping into the freezing cold plunge at San Francisco’s Russian bathhouse, Archimedes Banya, the extreme temperatures banished my intrusive thoughts like a lobotomy.

Could this be the cure for my chronic affliction of overthinking? Newly emboldened by my cold water tolerance, and thanks to the encouragement of a surfer friend, I recently immersed myself in the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean — in November. The waves thrashed me around as I attempted to get up on a board, and even though I only made it to my knees, I felt proud. Once again, the cold temperature put me in an altered state where sensory experiences felt more real: My eyes widened, and I was conscious of my heartbeat. Amid the intensity, I felt a calm that’s hard to come by on an average day of consuming news on social media.

Nastia Voynovskaya attempts to surf in Pacifica. (Joi Ward)

Maybe Porfiriy Ivanov had a point: Cold water makes you more resilient. I had started 2022 feeling spiritually weakened. After two years of the pandemic, and then a war, I felt lost and hopeless. Every now and again, I remembered the memes about 2016 being the worst year ever. Then 2017, and 2018, and so on. After 2020, many of us began to accept that life is simply full of turmoil.

Not to leave you with the bleak ending of a Russian novel, but isn’t there power in knowing the difficult truth? I’m a realist, but I’m an optimist too: Accepting things as they are doesn’t have to mean resignation, so long as you have a constructive way to cope.

Otherwise, reality can hit you like an icy bucket of water.

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