swimming


Never-sinking Lenin

 

(ht sk)

It takes quite something to beat January in these parts. It’s hot, the beach is irresistable, the days are long, the sun shines. But beyond that January has a distinct feel – the relaxed, mind-is-elsewhere, do-it-next-week feel. It matters little whether you are actually on holiday, having begun some time before Christmas, or whether you are back at ‘work’. For instance:

I walk into  main office and ask about something or other for which I’ve been waiting. The person behind the desk is reading a worn paperback, totally absorbed. She looks up at me blankly and takes quite a while to focus. ‘Oh, I think it’s on order but there’s a bit of a delay. Might be a couple of weeks’.

Someone calls me from Melbourne about a talk and radio stint at the end of the month. He is just back at work, has the dates wrong, forgets my name, has over 280 emails to deal with. ‘Why don’t you just hit mass delete?’ I suggest. ‘If anything is important, you’ll get another email’. ‘What a wonderful idea’, he says.

And then you have the ‘shutdown’. Many places simply shut everything down before Christmas and then open again around epiphany. Computers don’t work, doors are locked, no-one responds to anything. But is this counted as part of your holidays? Not at all all: four weeks holiday are on top of the two-week shutdown.

One of things I love about summer is swimming in the ocean and then letting the salt water dry on my skin. In fact, with a daily swim I don’t bother with any other form of washing – at times for days, if not weeks on end. I’m like a salt shaker and what’s left of my hair gets bleached. But the best part is sniffing my armpits. Why? They smell like the deep blue sea.

Last week the swimming season at the beach’s ocean baths began … and the sea water was  absolutely freezing, like melt-water from the alps. 16 degrees said the sign, but it felt like maybe 12 degrees. All the same, we plunged in, gasping and yelping. After about four laps, the tingling feeling goes, the extremities either retreat or become numb. About 15 minutes later we emerged, a deep shade of purple.

Yet every day, throughout winter, some old fogeys take their constitutional dip: half an hour or more, marching up and down, waist deep, or swimming their laps. How do they manage? I would suggest that at a certain age the nervous system simply packs it in, sensations disappear, and you can plunge into Antarctic waters as though in the tropics. The brain too slows down, since any normal person will find that basic functions are fatally affected if you swim in less than 16 degrees.

A lesser known aspect of the Russian Revolution is the flourishing of … nudism. After the revolution, the famous actress, Ida Rubenstein, played naked on stage. The poet Goldschmidt would appear naked on the streets. A movement called ‘Down with shame’ would walk the streets in Soviet cities, catch trams, go about their daily lives wearing nothing but a red sash over their shoulders. A White Army newspaper joked in 1919 that the price of suits must have skyrocketed, since so many people were going around naked. At international nudist conferences in the 1920s, the Soviet delegates far outnumbered those from other countries. Over the summers, rivers, beaches and lakes witnessed millions of old people, children, families, singles in the prime of their life gathered to play games, picnic or enjoy the sun – all naked.

How did it begin? It appears that during his long exile before the Revolution, Lenin visited a nudist beach in Austria and was favourably impressed. It was not so much the naked bodies everywhere, but the emphasis on healthy living. Given that Lenin was – as many noted – a muscular man with a love of outdoor activities, nudism was a natural extension of that passion. Soon enough both he and Krupskaya were regularly tossing their clothes in a corner and diving into the nearest river, lake or sea completely starkers. I’m not sure whether they also hiked and rode their bicycles naked (ice-skating might be a little tricky), but in this light one of Lenin’s favoured phrases, ‘tearing off the fig-leaf’, takes on a whole new meaning.

As do regular observations in the letters concerning swimming. For instance, Krupskaya writes about their stay at Pornic in France in the summer of 1910, ‘He went sea-bathing a lot, cycled a good deal – he loved the sea and the sea breezes – chatted gaily with the Kostitsins on everything under the sun’. Of course, one can enjoy the breeze much more when naked, even while chatting away with all and sundry. It mattered not where they were, for they would swim naked – in Longjumeau or in Pornic on the French coast, or in Stjernsund in Sweden, or in swimming pools in Munich, or in Poronino or in the Vistula River in Krakow. Nor were they alone, for other Bolsheviks were also given to stripping down whenever possible, among them Anatoly Lunacharsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexander Bogdanov.

After his return to Russia in 1917, Lenin bemoaned the fact that people still gathered in summer and swam in costumes, so he asked why they couldn’t do so without clothes: ‘We have much work to do for new forms of life, simplified and free’, he observed.

Why? As one of those early communist nudists observed, ‘In nudity class distinctions disappear. Workers, peasants, office workers are suddenly just people’. An image of a classless society, perhaps.

Lenin addressing a nudist convention in the Kremlin.

All sorts of rumour on this one – that he was an ascetic, that the relationship was purely convenient for party purposes, that he was gay, etc.

But when Nadya arrived in Shushenskoye in 1898, they set about swimming, ice-skating, hiking and … energetic bonking, as randy young couples do. So why didn’t she become pregnant? In reply to the discreet inquiries from Lenin’s mother, Maria Alexandrovna, as to when she might expect a grandchild, Nadya wrote:

As far as my health is concerned I am quite well but as far as concerns the arrival of a little bird – there the situation is, unfortunately, bad; somehow no little bird wants to come.

Krupskaya in Lenin’s Collected Works, Volume 37, p. 578.

Much speculation on whether this was a large shark leaping out of the water at Newcastle beach on the weekend:

I was actually in the water that day, about 100 metres away while all these super-fit people were competing for Ironman/woman. The waves were stunning, so I stayed in for quite a while. Too big for a dolphin, some suggest it was a pilot whale, others a shark. Mind you, it appeared a few days after the surfer was chomped down at Redhead beach, just south of here.

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