Sunday 1 July 2012

Russian Banya

According to the Russian Primary Chronicle (AKA “The Tale of Bygone Years”), a history of Russia written in 1113, the apostle Andrew visited the lands that today constitute Ukraine and European Russia and made the following observations of the Slavs’ bathing practices:

"I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."

Andrew purportedly saw the Slavs’ willing self-flagellation as a sign of their spiritual strength and predisposition to Christianity. To any normal observer, that description suggests savagery, masochism or just plain stupidity. However, the tradition of the Russian banya (bath) is still a strong one, and when my friend’s father invited me to use his own banya, I pushed thoughts of St. Andrew’s description to the back of my mind and I accepted.

Although their dacha has only the most rudimentary outdoor toilet, there is a beautiful banya in the garden, which I think really goes to show the continued importance of the banya in Russian culture. It is a wooden building with three rooms: an entrance room, a second unheated room with the window open, and the steam room itself. In the steam room are a large stove, hot and cold taps and a bench.

Unheated room for relaxing and drinking water inbetween steam room sessions.
There's a venik on the bench, in the left of the image.

Steam room. It's considerably bigger than it looks in this photo.

The first step was stripping naked in the second, unheated room. Communal nudity isn’t something I’m used to or especially comfortable with, so I was dreading this a little bit. But I kept in mind that this is an entirely commonplace practice here, and in fact found myself undressing without any qualms or embarrassment. Interesting that my social conditioning was so rapidly and easily overcome by a different cultural environment. When we entered the steam room, it was not yet at full heat. We both donned ridiculous-looking felt hats that would protect our heads from the intense heat to come. I sat on the bench while Yevgenii (my friend’s dad) periodically threw water onto the stove and the temperature gradually rose. He explained that this was a “white banya”, as opposed to a “black banya”, the difference being that in a black banya some of the smoke stays inside, turning the wooden walls and ceiling black, while in a white one the smoke is all carefully channeled outdoors. After getting a considerable sweat going, we both returned to the unheated room, where we sat, rested and drank plenty of water. Then it was back to the now-sweltering steam room, where I was instructed to lie on my front on the bench. Yevgenii then took a venik (a bunch of dried birch branches and leaves), dipped it in water, heated it in the stove for a bit, and proceeded to whip me repeatedly on the back, legs and arms. He had told me an anecdote of the last time he took a foreigner to the banya: a Lebanese friend who, when the whipping ensued, had cried out in horror and surprise. This had got me expecting a thoroughly unpleasant experience, and I was preparing myself for the embarrassment of having to tell him to stop. But in fact the experience was entirely pleasant: he started out gentler and gradually got more forceful, but even at its most painful it was more like a strange massage than any sort of torture. After a sufficient whipping of my back, I rolled onto my front and received a similar treatment on my front. This was somewhat less pleasant, as I’d just eaten a huge lunch, but was still far from the ordeal I’d anticipated. At the end of the whipping Yevgenii held the leaves over my face and told me to breathe deeply. Next I had warm water poured over me before standing up and being given shower gel, a cloth and a bucket of warm water with which to wash myself.

After this I returned to the unheated room, where I relaxed, drank some water and waited for Yevgenii to whip and wash himself. When he joined me, we sat for a long time and he shared with me a lot of his views on life and imparted to me a great deal of advice: for example, the importance of balancing work with relaxation, and the importance of learning foreign languages through immersion. This heart-to-heart reminded me that communal bathing is an important social event in Russia, and that businessmen often go to a banya together in order to secure a deal. Yevgenii himself uses a banya once a week.

However this conversation marked an interlude, not a conclusion, to the bathing ritual. We eventually returned to the steam room, where I once again lay on the bench and was beaten with the venik on the back and then the front. After this, cold water was poured over my legs and torso, providing brief respite from the oppressive heat. I then stood up and was instructed to submerge my head in the bucket of cold water; as I did this, Yevgenii held my head down and ruffled my hair, which I hadn’t been expecting, and did make me fear briefly for my life. After finally being released from this baptism, he told me to kneel on the floor, and when I did so he poured the cold water over my head. This final bucket of water being dropped over me was incredibly refreshing and rejuvenating, and marked the end of the ritual.

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