Ten Secrets of the Russian Bath

Off to the Banya: The Russian Bath Explained
By Jonathon Engels

Being beaten with switches is part of the banya tradition. photo Moscowtopnews.com

It had all started off innocently enough: a Christmas party. We left Moscow blasting through first verses of every carol we could think of before being reduced to a mumbling choir, repeatedly realizing that, despite years of annual of yuletide lesson planning, after three or four lines, about the time children start forgetting the words, we’d all tuned out. Our tiny bus was still inside the city limits when the plastic cups of red wine, swigs of vodka, commenced.

1. Never underestimate a teacher’s (or Russian’s) need for alcohol at any given moment.

Soon, the classic carols of yore disbanded in favor of local sing-a-longs, chantingly slurred Russian, mostly addressing the subjects of drunken husbands and frozen weather. As the alcohol dwindled, the volume increased, our heavily female chorus of children’s teachers growing rosier through the cheeks. We’d boarded our party wagon at one-thirty, but by three or four, everyone’s spirit was running on fumes, hiccupped boozy belches that had replaced the cheer. Most of us took naps.

A week before, we’d gotten an email instructing us that we would be exchanging gifts in the hotel’s sauna, the fabled Russian bath. It wasn’t optional. Bracing myself for this event, I’d made one of my class topics banyas and had my students explain to me

the ins and outs of bathing publicly, an effort to avoid any disastrous missteps, or just to know exactly what I was stepping into. They had enjoyed using the word naked, eyebrows raised, everyone laughing at my modest squirm before telling me that co-ed facilities required swimsuits.

2. Eat a hearty meal to absorb the afternoon’s liquor.

When we arrived at the hotel, the whole place was capped in melting snow, the temperature having risen uncharacteristically above zero, and the roofs and trees dripped fat drops of water, nature involved in its own steamy endeavor. We were given thirty minutes of recreation time before we needed to be in the restaurant for dinner. Still wrapped in scarves and coats, we followed a slushy network of paths, in the dark, hoping for an early peek at the banya.

Dinner was buffet style: well-done vegetables, boiled potatoes, four or five pans of saucy meats, and a curious triad of bowls, two containing green and black olives, the last a heaping wallop of tvorog, a Russian version of fromage d’cottage. Our group spread amongst three or four tables and gorged second and third tours of the country bounty, doing our best to overcome the late evening haze of having drunk our way here. It wasn’t the dainty precursor I had expected, my belly protruding a bit more than I’d like.

3. Follow the rules or pay the price: Steamed brains and vomit bags!

bear-on-wall in Russian Banya.
A bear on the wall of the baths.

There are certain rules and regulations when entering the Russian sauna, things to keep you safe on your journey into the netherworld of heat and humidity. Rule #7: you don’t drink before; you drink during. If you drink before you go in, so my teenaged students had told me, you’ll throw up.

I didn’t know what sort of grace period I was working with: it had been a few hours since my last glass of wine. Rule #2: you must wear a chapka, a felt hat version of what women wore to the beach in the 1950s. This protects your brain from being damaged by the intensity of the heat.

Then, what happens in the sauna stays in the sauna, or so it had seemed as we set ourselves up for such depravity. All the makings of a Vegas bachelor party had been packed under the seats of our bus and brought along on this adventure: a gigantic IKEA bag of loose tall boy beers, several liters of—what else—vodka, every juice mixer imaginable, and two boxes of wine.

We’d carry this a quarter-mile from our office to the bus in Moscow, transferred the rummaged assortment to a hotel room upon arrival, and after dinner, all of the party lubricant went to the sauna.

4. You are going to need more booze once this thing gets going.

Russians go about the whole bathing thing in torturous fashion, cranking the heat up beyond the boiling point then, when you’ve basted to an appropriate pinkish, medium-rare, you shock your system with cold, flinging yourself into a snow bank before returning to the steam. Seriously, this is what they do, the actual method: steam, snow, steam—cook, freeze, repeat. If I hadn’t been edgy about seeing my co-workers in the buff (I had), then I was definitely apprehensive about my hot bare skin being blanketed in snow.

My students had also mentioned “beating” themselves with branches called veniks. This particular group’s English is fantastic, a fine glossary of strong adjectives, so even though they’d struggled for the words eucalyptus and birch, I trusted their assessment: People hit each other with birch branches, you know, to improve circulation. To begin the night’s festivities, the head receptionist had been given a birch bouquet for her birthday. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was going to be on the receiving end of it.

5. Someone might whip you with birch, but don’t assume it’s seedy.

Four able-bodied men in a sweat lodge, a dozen Russian women in bikinis, and a stable of booze does not seem like the recipe for a down-home Christmas celebration, but our private sauna oozed festiveness. It was the epitome of cozy. The main room, or antechamber, was like a hybrid country kitchen: a wet bar, a long picnic table with bench seats and a cloth cover, the muted radiance of lamps and Christmas decorations to light the way. Foggy windows, the Russian countryside—it wasn’t much stretch to imagine us snug in a cabin in the North Pole itself.

relaxing-after-bath in Moscow
Relaxing after the banya.

I hadn’t understood this about Russian bathhouses: Some people just chill there, fully dressed people. Many don’t even bathe. The actual steam room isn’t even the main communal area.

It was more like hanging out at your grandma’s house: snacks and funny hats. In the end, it was me who was looking around, thinking, why don’t you people take some clothes off. I mean what kind of sauna is this, where everyone is just taking it easy, slow-paced, starting party games?

6. The party is not steamy, nor is it in the steam room.

Our sauna celebration began with a classic ESL activity: describing someone in the room and having people guess the person. It was strange hearing the translations of Russian, overly flattering words like “sophisticated” and “elegant”, normally saved for trying to get someone naked. Here we were, putting off the inevitable by delivering such sweet talk.

When I pulled Valera, my boss’s spindly, soon-to-be Speedo-clad husband, I described him as handsome and helpful. No one seemed to appreciate my lack of sincerity. The whole interaction was sugar-coated, respectful, and honest.

Usually, we are all so busy. We speak to each other monosyllabically, grunting, succumbing to the dichotomy of languages and getting on with it. Now, we were translating for one another, just for the sake of conversation, passing around grapes and oranges, offering each other sweets and drinks and smiles… towels.

After the game, people started to disappear into the back room, the door being closed behind to keep in the warmth, but nevertheless portraying the sort of seedy VIP feel, people emerging red-faced and panting, a peculiar new bounce to their step.

7. Remember that you are the star.

I’d come prepared, my jogging shorts on under my pants, three months of push-ups in my living room, but the fact that not everyone was VIP-ing it made me waffle a bit, let the timidity, not the humidity, get the better of me. But, some details I just couldn’t escape: We’d traveled four-and-a-half hours to get there, and the next morning we’d be traveling the same distance to get back in time to teach classes in the afternoon.

No one had given two glances at the others when they had gotten ready. The thought of coming all this way, missing the experience for the sake of beach attire, had left me with little option.

When I started dropping trou, a little murmur of excitement filled the antechamber, a small cheer erupted. The new guy, the foreigner, was giving it a go, throwing caution and his socks to the wind. I stepped through the secret door, and a group of maybe three or four bathers were cooling off, sitting in the little tiled room outside sauna.

They offered some last minute instructions. Then, someone slapped a chapka on my head, opened the next secret door, a short wooden portal that released a thick vapor from behind, and pushed me in, quickly resealing the entrance to preserve the heat.

Chandeliers and wood paneling add a rustic touch to the baths.

8. The heat is hot.

The room was composed of wooden-slat walls with three rows of bench seats climbing up the back and right side. In the left front corner, cordoned off by a little picket fence, a pile of limestone rocks sizzled above a supercharged space heater, steam streaming up to the ceiling.

The place smelled incredible, like baking bread, a trick achieved by pouring beer on the hot stones, the yeast then working its magic. And, believe me, with the temperature in there, 113o, you become saturated before you even sit. My fellow bathers looked exhausted…or relaxed.

My colleagues had cleared a space on the top bench, a location revered as the best, the

hottest, and from which, when someone throws more water on the limestone, you can actually feel the temperature rise a few degrees, the steam curling around your bare back. After I’d climbed up, someone told me to cover my mouth and nose with my hand, so I didn’t singe my insides. Then, everyone just sort of sat and tried to outlast the others, the equivalent to who can hold the struck match the longest, but using your whole body.

9. The cold is colder than the heat is hot.

People, especially those trying to persuade you to get in, swear the benefits of doing this are in the top tier of healthy acts. The raised temperatures provide all the benefits of sweating: cleaning the blood, tuning the kidneys, opening pores.

The second big draw to the banya is cardiovascular benefits, something about proteins digesting easier and endorphins, the same circulatory benefits that prevent people with bad hearts or one too many cocktails from getting into hot tubs or steam rooms. I don’t know why they like to ruin with a cold shock.

When I decided to get out, feeling a bit too hale and hearty for my own good, I learned why there was a third room with a big pool. The resident bathing guru, who’d earlier shown me a video of himself actually poking a sleeping bear with a stick, having taken me under his wing, told me that step two meant jumping into freezing water.

When the hibernating bear had sprung from its sleep, this coercer of foolish activities had fired shots in the air to scare the beast off. I wasn’t afraid of him, per se, no gun now, but I decided to stay in the heat a minute or two longer.

10. Do as you’re asked: cannonball style.

I jumped. Some people claim to remember their birth. I don’t. But, those first few seconds submerged in the cold pool, perhaps in some subconscious memory, I knew were close to it. The shock left little mystery about being alive, the suspension in liquid, balled up to preserve what warmth I had and fighting to stay that way, unsure of how to use my limbs, breathless and unable to speak.

Then, my head broke the water’s surface, my feet reached for the bottom, and I stood on my own, someone who’d taken on the Russian bath and lived to tell about it. I have no explanation as to why I did it again, and again, cook, freeze, repeat, but I did.

jonathon-engelsJonathon Engels, a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders full-time since 2005 and currently resides in Moscow, Russia. For more of his work, visit his his website and blog.


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