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A tradition of plunging in an icy river persists in Ukraine, despite the war

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many Ukrainians jumped into the icy cold waters of Dnieper River yesterday. It's become a tradition for some members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to mark Epiphany. And for many, it's about starting the year afresh, with a clear mind. NPR's Elissa Nadworny went out to see the custom for herself.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Along the bank of the river, groups of friends huddle in their bathing suits and towels, deciding who will go first.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NADWORNY: About a half dozen men in their 20s race into the water. It's a tradition loosely tied to the holiday that celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has long said there is no religious reason to be in winter water. But it's tradition.

What is the thought that goes through your head right before you get in?

NIKOLAI PASTUSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken). Faster. Faster.

NADWORNY: Faster.

PASTUSHENKO: Faster. Faster.

NADWORNY: Just do it faster.

PASTUSHENKO: Faster. Faster.

NADWORNY: Don't scream.

PASTUSHENKO: Don't scream (laughter).

NADWORNY: Nikolai Pastushenko has been plunging for many years. This year, he says the dip is a needed distraction especially now in here. A Russian missile decimated an apartment building last Saturday, killing more than 40 civilians.

PASTUSHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: He says it doesn't really feel like a holiday this year. It doesn't feel festive. Then, he wades in waist-deep, does the sign of the cross over his bare chest. And then, he dunks.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NADWORNY: Once...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NADWORNY: ...Twice...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NADWORNY: ...Three times. Uilyia Zhezkina (ph) is bundled up on the shore watching her husband Vitali (ph) plunge.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

UILYIA ZHEZKINA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's cold just watching," she says. In years when the river is totally frozen, people cut holes shaped like the cross and jump through them. This year is warmer than in the past. The river isn't frozen. But there are floating chunks of ice, which prompts the question, what are all these people getting out of this?

STANISLAV BAZHENOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Stanislav Bazhenov explains he gets a sense of clarity when he plunges.

BAZHENOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's like freedom," he says, something he relishes since he's on break from fighting on the front line.

BAZHENOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Yes," he says. "It does feel like small daggers all over your body."

BAZHENOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's hard to describe," he says. "You just have to do it yourself."

Ready.

So I do.

It is very, very cold.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

NADWORNY: All right. Elissa Nadworny, in the Dnieper River. Whoo (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF TWICE SONG, "STRAWBERRY MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.