Russian leader Vladimir Putin dipped into frigid waters early Friday at a lake in northwestern Russia to mark the Orthodox observance of the Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
The president arrived for the pre-dawn ceremony flanked by journalists with video cameras and monks holding gold icons depicting Jesus and Mary Magdalen, then strode to a wooden platform cut into frozen Lake Seliger. He lowered himself into the water, made a sign of the cross and submerged himself for a moment, in a scene captured by state media. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the water temperature was about 21 degrees Fahrenheit.
Russians observe the feast of the Epiphany on January 19, rather than January 6, as in the West, because they follow the Gregorian calendar, which observes Christmas on January 7.
The ceremony to purify the spirit drew half a million worshipers to natural and artificial pools at 4,000 sites across Russia on Friday, the government-run Channel One reported -- including some who took a dip in the sea at Sochi and others who plunged into minus-58 degree waters in remote Yakutia. That region holds the title of the world's coldest permanently occupied village, where even eyelashes freeze.
The devotional moment represented another bare-chested media day for Putin, a leader who oversees a corrupt political system, imprisonment and torture of gays, ongoing harassment of and violence against journalists and apparent involvement in U.S. election meddling, but also a public relations operation to sustain the mythos of his machismo.
This is not the first time Putin has taken part in the Epiphany ceremony, although it is the first publicly viewed occurrence, Peskov said. That may represent an effort to appeal to religious voters ahead of the March presidential election, which comes as public support of government policies dips to its lowest in a decade.
Putin has made an effort in recent years to connect religion and Communism, Newsweek reported, two concepts at odds since the anti-religious Russian Revolution a century ago.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, was also scheduled to take part in an Epiphany ceremony on Friday, state media reported. The embassy in Moscow referred inquiries to the State Department, which declined to comment.
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