Détente at the Russian Baths

Travel Stories: Peter Wortsman didn't mind peeling off his clothes at the banya. But he feared the worst when he revealed that he was American.

07.15.09 | 10:34 AM ET

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Wading into the murky lake last summer in the Russian village of Roshchina, about a two hour train ride from St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, I initially mistook the decomposing mass floating at knee level for a dead fish and only later noticed the drainage pipe. Environmental protection had not been a pressing Soviet priority.

Feeling soiled, unsettled in mind and body, I welcomed the invitation of our Russian friend Margarita, at whose old wooden dacha we were staying, to visit the local banya. It was Saturday afternoon and we were not the only ones with bars of soap, rough sponges and leafy veniks (trusses of dried birch branches) in hand, heading for the baths.

The once whitewashed façade of the local facility was in dire need of a fresh coat of paint. The bathhouse itself was shoebox-shaped, 1950s nondescript, but there was something cave-like and primeval about the faded blue, paint-chipped interior, as if humans had been coming in out of the cold for a ritual cleansing ever since the first amphibian crawled ashore.

The ancient Scythians did it, according to Herodotus. So did omnipotent czars, wealthy boyars, impoverished peasants, conspiring revolutionaries, pious priests and party apparatchiks, and so to this day does every Russian man, woman and child, at least once a week. A predilection for the baths transcends any question of personal hygiene and social class, but, I suspect, even in summer, is an antidote to the lingering chill of the long hard winter, a bearlike need to hibernate, and as such deeply rooted in the Russian soul. And though the once excellent Soviet medical system has fallen into disarray since Perestroika, the baths, commonly known as “the people’s first doctor,” remain a cherished remedy for every meta- and physical malaise, with vodka a close second.

An ardent devotee, Margarita, a woman of late middle age—the walls of whose cramped apartment in St. Petersburg are hung with drying bushels of birch—insists the baths “will cure whatever you’ve got,” citing its multiple restorative virtues for the circulation, respiration, fortification of the immune system and hormonal balance, and adding, with a wink at my somewhat reticent wife, that it likewise enhances matrimonial bliss.

To tell the truth, I too had sudden misgivings when Margarita led my wife through a door to the left and I shuffled alone past the ageless, expressionless matron armed with a mop standing guard at the entrance to the men’s section, shed and deposited my clothes on a wooden bench in the changing room, and stood up stark naked. I was acutely aware of my circumcised penis, the only one in the crowd—all the more so when the mop-wielding matron ambled by—though the blank looks of my fellow bathers registered no response. Americans mask embarrassment with a smile. Russian faces are unvarnished, gruff as unpeeled potatoes.

My sense of malaise grew as I passed from the changing room, via the urinals, into the washroom—the matron following with her mop—where naked men dumped buckets of frigid water over their heads. Having come this far, I told myself there was no retreating now. I did like everyone else, doused myself with a gasp and a shudder and dodged through a heavy wooden door into a burning inferno. The blast of intense heat literally took my breath away. Suffocating and feeling like the skin would peel off my bare feet—nobody had warned me to wear slippers—I staggered to one of the surrounding bleacher-like benches, on which I deposited my body for roasting. Only now did I dare look up. I had entered a den of hooded sadomasochists gathered in a circle around a heap of red hot stones, their faces glowing, sweat dripping, gleefully beating each other with birch switches, preparing, so it seemed, to engage in human sacrifice. What folly brought me here? There was still time to cut and run, I pondered in a wild panic, incapacitated by the heat that burnt the hairs in my nostrils, when a man pushing 65 or so tapped me on the shoulder and nodded for me to bend over. The first sting of the birch switch on my back smarted. I didn’t feel much after that.

Beckoning for me to follow him back out into the washroom, he filled a bucket with melt-off from the polar ice cap, and dumped it over my head. (I would have welcomed a little global warming just then.)

“Harasho! Good!” he grunted, having pegged me right off for a foreigner.

The tooth-rattling shock of the first bucketful was followed by a flurry of not altogether disagreeable tremors at the second and third, as if the inside and the outside, ego and superego, resolve and resistance, met and melded at the transom of the skin, the dead epidermal layer of which he scraped off with energetic sponging.

“Spasiba! Thanks!” I sputtered through blue trembling lips.

And back he led and I followed from the ice box into the furnace, where the heat hit with a colossal wallop, sucking the sweat out of my every pore, practically ripping off my very envelope of self. But now the tenderized birch leaves left to soak in a bucket of hot water had softened into a balm which he pressed against my chest, wrenching open every bronchiole and alveoli, jump starting respiration.

Several buckets of ice water and bakings later, I followed my friend back to the changing room, feeling giddy and light as a hot air balloon.

“Alexey!” “Peter!” we introduced ourselves.

“Gdzie? Where from?” I gathered the gist of the question from his facial expression and hand gesturing.

I hesitated, wondering, as I often have while traveling in recent years, if I ought not pretend to hail from someplace anodyne like Andorra. Warsaw had recently agreed to let Washington plant a missile shield on Polish soil. Hostilities were simmering between Georgia, an American ally in the post-Cold War era, and the break-away Russian-speaking enclave of Abkhazia, pitting Tbilisi against Moscow on the brink of war. The U.S. was pushing for Georgia’s inclusion in NATO. Tensions between Washington and Moscow were once again on the boil.

“American,” I muttered, half hoping he wouldn’t hear me.

“American!?” he repeated in disbelief.

I nodded, awaiting the worst.

Whereupon a smile erupted on his lips, the first I’d seen in Russia, and rippled, as word spread, like a wave of welcome across the faces of my fellow bathers, thawing any lingering icicles of distrust.

Our conversation was elemental with more good will than comprehension. We made do with my three words of Russian, some French, a pinch of German, and a sprinkling of technical English supplied by a young engineer named Nikolai who’d worked in Ireland, diluted and washed down with sweet gulps from a shared bottle of kvass, the traditional Russian equivalent of Coca-Cola.

“How you like Russian bath?”

“Hot.”

This elicited a peel of laughter.

“And Russian women?”

“Krasotka,” I employed a term Margarita had taught me, roughly translatable as “hot number,” to describe the blond bombshells parading nightly on the Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s fashionable amalgam of Fifth Avenue and the Champs Elysées.

More laughter.

“What you do?”

I mimed fingers striking a keyboard.

My fellow bathers looked baffled, the engineer ruling out mechanic, masseuse and pianist, in turn, till a flat-faced man with Mongolian features, a grinning Genghis Khan, piped up: “Hemingway?”

“Dostoyevsky, Gogol,” I grinned back.

Brows were raised, eyes opened wide and heads nodded with a respect and admiration no American locker room crowd would ever have mustered for my craft.

Then and there I suddenly had a vision of a new kind of détente. Why not henceforth hold all high-level diplomatic talks in the banya! Have ambassadors, foreign ministers and heads of state strip naked and face off, sweating out their differences and beating out any lingering post-Cold War gripes with hot wet birch switches. It’s a climate far more conducive to compromise than that of the committee room. And though the Russians may, admittedly, have an unfair advantage, being better able to withstand the heat, subsequent talks could always be held on the beach in Hawaii.

Waiting for my wife and Margarita, as agreed, in the bar next door, I sat purging my entrails with vodka and salt pickles.

One by one my friends filed in for a spiritual lift, though we did not initially recognize each other dressed in the dimly lit room.

“Hemingway!” Genghis greeted.

In the doorway leaned the expressionless matron minus the mop, silent witness to our ablutions, she who kept the floor clean and the rocks hot from morning till night, high priestess of the Russian baths, whose gaze belied nothing of the midriff bulge and other failings of manhood.

“Krasotka!” I winked.

Even she cracked a smile.

And we all clinked: “Nasdrovya!


Peter Wortsman’s travel writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Washington Post, FranceGuide, the 2008 Lowell Thomas Best Travel Book Gold Award-winning book "Encounters with the Middle East," and Travelers Tales’ The Best Travel Writing 2008 and 2009. A writer in multiple modes, including fiction, drama and translation, he was selected as a Fellow in 2010 at the American Academy in Berlin. His translation of Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist is forthcoming from Archipelago Books in 2009.


4 Comments for Détente at the Russian Baths

Lindsey 07.15.09 | 3:31 PM ET

Crazy! Thanks for sharing your experience!

Christy 07.15.09 | 11:04 PM ET

LOL I love those kind of conversations made up of whatever it takes to get a point across…Sometimes they seem more effective than a regular conversation complete with boring explanations and niceties…!

Kirk Richardson 07.16.09 | 10:37 AM ET

прекрасный (beautiful) - thank you Peter!

Jenny 07.16.09 | 1:57 PM ET

Your piece enveloped me in a fog of steam, scented with Birch switches and Vodka (seeping out of pores). I want to go to Russia now.
Spasiba!

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