‘Walruses’ of Magadan: portraits of fierce winter swimmers in Russia’s Far East

4 March 2021

Magadan is a vast port town between Gertner and Nagaev Bay on the Sea of Okhotsk in northeastern Russia. It was founded in 1929 and, along with neighbouring Kolyma, is was the notorious centre of Stalin’s gulag camps. It was believed to be the coldest inhabited place on earth among prisoners, who feared the ill-fated journey across Russia. Today, the region is known for its rich fishing industry and gold mining. Winters here last from October to June, with temperatures plummeting to -30 degrees. It is in these icy conditions that winter swimmers dive into freezing waters — all in the name of tempering health. Evgeniy Serov’s photographs capture the resolve of winter swimmers and the communal nature of the sport. For these “walruses”, as they’re commonly referred to in Russia, winter swimming is a way of life.

Serov’s portraits depict the phlegmatic disposition of winter swimmers, who stoically fill the centre of the frame. The soft bluish-white hues of the photographs are deceivingly clement. During the height of swimming in January and February, the “walruses” will dive into water regardless of the temperature — in fact, they believe that the colder the weather outside, the warmer the water will be.

Magadan’s half-a-century-old swimming club sees winter swimmers meet every Sunday for training sessions on Nagaev Bay. Founder Gennady, pictured in the black hat, headed the winter swimming club in Magadan until 2020, when he passed away. According to Gennady, swimmers would be ready to dive into the water after three months of training under his guidance.

Read more Siberia-based photographer Roma Gostev captures the snow-coated serenity of his city Nizhnevartovsk

Magadan native Serov worked on the project for almost a year and took visual inspiration from Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, whose Beach Portraits series portrays gawky teenagers standing in their swimwear in the early 1990s. While Dijkstra’s portraits contrast adolescent awkwardness with a somewhat surreal seaside backdrop, Serov’s winter swimmers are candid, confident, and serene against the niveous landscape, reflecting the psyche of Magadan’s “walruses”.

“I took the portraits at the moment when the ‘walruses’ emerge from the hole in the ice, before each protagonist had a chance to towel themselves off,” Serov explains. After coming out of the water, the skin often feels itchy and teams with heat — it is perhaps the most revealing state, when the swimmer realises their physical and emotional condition. To truly capture the spirit of winter swimmers, Serov went to training sessions in the autumn when the sea was unfrozen. “I attended classes on the beach every week. I joined the swimmers for their warm up, showered in cold water, all to understand what drives these people to pursue this lifestyle,” he told The Calvert Journal. Before training begins, a hole is made in the thick sheets of ice covering the Sea of Okhotsk. Small pieces of snow are removed from the ice hole with a special device to prevent injuries while climbing in.

We would expect swimmers to be wearing full wetsuits given the bitingly cold weather, yet the choice to wear bathing suits is indicative of the normalcy of winter swimming in the northern regions. Many have acclimatised to the water after training. Daria, pictured in a colourful pink and purple summer bikini, has been swimming for several months, and believes it revitalises her health and energy levels. Vladimir, photographed in green and white briefs, is a fishing and hunting enthusiast who spends much of his summer in the taiga. For him, the swimming club has solidified friendships built over many years of training together. While Magadan’s gelid waters and powdery panoramas point to its relentless climate, Serov manages to capture idyllic conditions for winter swimmers and the essence of community among Magadan’s “walruses”.

Read more

‘Walruses’ of Magadan: portraits of fierce winter swimmers in Russia’s Far East

On the Road of Bones: a journey along Far East Russia’s deathly gulag trail

‘Walruses’ of Magadan: portraits of fierce winter swimmers in Russia’s Far East

On the rocks: how vodka tourism shaped and shattered decades of Soviet-Finnish relations

‘Walruses’ of Magadan: portraits of fierce winter swimmers in Russia’s Far East

Set on the Black Sea, this tender documentary about a swimming pool is a window onto Bulgaria