A life in the day of the Russian bathhouse

For thousands of years, the banya has been a symbol of human tenacity and endurance, a place to cleanse and transform.

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

In early spring, a time when New York typically emerges from its winter blues, we received the news that the city was entering a new kind of hibernation. Our Mayor, Bill de Blasio, had just declared the immediate closure of all non-essential businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Like many other New Yorkers, I began to imagine life in a city without any of its shops, bars and restaurants. I reflected on the times I had chosen to stay home instead of venture out to some museum, or nightclub, certain that I had all the time in the world.

As others mourned their favourite hole-in-the-wall establishments, I began to lament the Russian bathhouse – “the banya”, my favourite place in all of New York – just off Wall Street.

I do not remember the first time I went, but my parents claim I was two.

Convinced the banya was as crucial to the city as its sidewalks, I found the news particularly hard to swallow.

Nothing has stopped this banya from opening before. Not Hurricane Sandy, not the great blackout of 2003, not even the events of 9/11, the day after which the owner had woken early to dig the rubble away from the entrance.

Now, it seems, the banya had finally met its match – a global pandemic that had shaken the world.

Oddly enough, I did not always enjoy the banya. For most of my youth, I resented my mother for making me go. I found the place disturbing. It was dark, sweaty and full of large, hairy men. And every so often, I would see a cockroach scurry across the floor.

But still, my mother believed that the banya was a necessity. Anytime I would catch a cold or a spell of stress-induced insomnia, she would drag me there and insist my health depended on it. Like many Russians, she remains convinced of the healing powers of this ancient institution. That the banya can cure us of all our ailments – mental and physical, and everything else in between.

To many ex-Soviets around the world, the banya is the ultimate panacea. The Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced that his nation would fight the coronavirus with the banya (and vodka).

I do not remember exactly when I started to enjoy the banya, but it must have been sometime in college when my mother suggested I go to sweat away a hangover. To my surprise, I found the banya to be a good place to recover – far more effective than Pedialyte or any of my other usual remedies.

I started going weekly. Every Friday evening, after an exhausting week, I would escape to a Fulton Street basement to purge whatever had been causing me trouble.

Until several weeks ago, when I bid it farewell.

The last steam

The day of de Blasio’s announcement, my family hurried to the banya to have one last sweat. We arrived just as it opened, hoping to squeeze in as much time as we could.

Unlike most of my other visits to the banya, this one felt eerie. There were no first-time guests, no bachelor parties or Wall Street brokers, or couples on a Groupon date. Today it was just the die-hard regulars desperate to get a sweat in before its indefinite closure – a bevvy of post-Soviet emigres and a few American outcasts we have adopted as our own (a former marine and an ex-Hasidic Jew who left the community). All of us espousing theories about what was to come in the next few weeks.

Some were getting rowdy, taking vodka shots in the lounge. I, too, had been drunk at the banya before. I have spent numerous holidays sitting in a crowded sauna, with a group of debaucherous Russians singing and drinking all day long.

But now, I did not feel like participating. I was focused on getting a good session in, convinced that if I sweated harder, I would be better prepared for the next few weeks.

My father, who has a reputation for making the best steam, started preparing the hot water for the sauna.

We filed into the hot, dark room and took our seats. I made my way to the top shelf, where the heat is most intense. My father grabbed a ladle and threw the water into the furnace, which sizzled and let out the steam. He took a towel and spun it above his head to gather the heat from the furnace and distribute it across the sauna. The blistering air seeped deep into my pores. My face turned red-hot and, within minutes, I was drenched in sweat.

When the heat became unbearable in the banya, I raced to the plunge pool. Submerged in bitterly cold water (3 degrees C, 38 degrees F), I gasped for air and momentarily forgot about the state of the world. Once I felt like I was nearing frostbite, I sprinted back to the sauna to heat up and do it all over again. 

The owner of the banya, a Russian man of gargantuan stature, was pacing around, shaking his head. He would be shutting the doors for the first time since the banya had opened in 1998.

His employees did not know what they would do for work in the coming weeks.

I researched to see if any one of the city’s numerous banyas would remain open, but could find none. The 10th Street Baths’ website announced that they had all closed their doors for the first time since 1892.

Get thee to the banya!

The banya is an Eastern Slavic sweat-bath, sort of like a spa. But, anyone hoping to be pampered may be disappointed. A trip to the banya can be strenuous and demanding. But, if you do it right, it can sedate you better than any melatonin I have ever tried.

The custom is intended to detox the body, improve circulation and cleanse the skin. Slavic women like my mother swear that the banya is a fountain of youth. If you saw her, you would probably agree.

A traditional banya has several rooms: a sweltering sauna that hovers around 200 F (93 C); an area for showering; an ice-cold plunge pool for cooling off; and a lounge for resting, to catch your breath or scarf down some borscht (a classic Russian beet soup to help you refuel).

To amplify the effects of the banya, some will rub honey all over their skin. Others choose to scrub their skin with dry brushes. The platza treatment, my favourite, involves hiring a muscular man to beat you with a venik – a bundle of leaves. The leaves create a layer of hot air, which sends the heat further into your skin.

When you are sufficiently hot, you plunge into a cold pool (or, in the winter months, brave the snow). The extreme heat followed by the extreme cold forces a brief deprivation of the senses – a reset. The contrast exhausts you and, for a short moment, your mind is free, and your body goes numb. For many, the experience is rejuvenating. For others, it is harrowing. I have known both.

The Russian love for the banya runs deep

In Without the Banya We’d Perish, historian Ethan Pollock writes: “Wherever and whenever there have been Russians there have been banyas.”

Several months ago, I came across Pollock’s book. Hoping to supplement my love for the banya with some knowledge of its roots, I delved into it.

The banya dates back to ancient times, before Russia was even Russia. As early as 440 AD, nomadic tribes on the Black Sea would bathe in steam they generated using hot stones.

The banya, and its steambath ancestors, were embraced by various Russian institutions. During the Muscovite period, for instance, the Orthodox Church promoted its use as a means of physical and spiritual cleansing. The Church believed that bathing could purify women after sex and childbirth and failure to go would make you vulnerable to evil demons.

As Russia evolved into Tsardoms and, later, an Empire, the banya morphed into a tool for economic development and societal health.

Peter The Great, for one, recognised the popularity of the banyas and began to tax their proprietors to generate income for the state and expand the empire.

Catherine The Great, on the other hand, was not interested in potential revenue. Rather, she hoped to expand the banya’s role as a necessary resource for public health and hygiene.

Though Russians were confident of the hygiene benefits of the banya, many of their Western European counterparts believed otherwise. To many Europeans, the ritual seemed like a freakshow. A German scholar named Adam Olearius visited Russia in the 1630s and came to the conclusion that the Russian addiction to the banya was a sign of “vile depravity we call sodomy” and used the banya as evidence of Russia’s backwardness.

From the 15th to 18th centuries, much of Western Europe linked bathing to infection. The French, for instance, believed that bathing could expose pores to bacteria and trusted that changing bed linens alone would suffice for hygiene. Apparently, King Louis XIV was so afraid of bathing, he had his perfumer develop a new scent every week to mask his body odour.

Meanwhile, the banya remained essential to Russian life. Under her reign, Catherine the Great sought to challenge those who were dismissive of the practice and disprove the myth that Russians were uncivilised for bathing. To make the health benefits of the banya known, she enlisted the help of a Spanish doctor who believed the banya could cure ailments like measles, exhaustion, headaches, stomach pain and even rabies. Together, they convinced European medical professionals to reconsider the use of the banya.

More recently, in Soviet times, the government viewed the banya as a necessary part of a foundation for building socialism. For many in rural villages, the banya was the only source of indoor plumbing. The Soviets hoped to fund and construct banyas throughout the state. However, they were largely unsuccessful. Banyas were not built quickly enough to keep up with population growth and many were in poor condition. Nevertheless, the banya endured, providing a much-needed space for Soviets to get together.

The Soviet banyas had separate quarters for men and women, allowing women to temporarily break free from their double burden of work and domesticity. Moreover, during World War II, the banya functioned as a haven for Russian soldiers to regain strength and morale in the face of foreign invasion and gave them a space in which they could dream about life after the war.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the state was no longer concerned with promoting and regulating the banya as an enterprise. Instead, Russians frequented the banya to survive this tumultuous time, to escape from the chaos and comfort the soul.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president in the 1990s, turned to the banya for guidance, a major influence for his politics. Throughout his presidency, he held many of his political meetings at the banya, bathing with the leaders of Finland and Germany, in the hope that he could gain their trust. Moreover, he once stated that it was in the banya where he disavowed Communism.

With the Soviet Union gone, the banya had emerged from the rubble as an unwavering reminder that Russians could withstand anything (as long as they had the banya).

No end to the banya

In the weeks since my local banya’s closure, I have called my mother several times, asking if she knows when it will reopen. My mother teases me: “You used to cry when I told you to go to the banya, and now you can’t go six weeks without it.” I laugh. She’s right. Once upon a time, the banya’s closure would have come as a relief.

My mother tells me she has no clue when our local banya will reopen. Perhaps it never will. As is the case for many of New York City’s establishments, months without revenue can crush a business. But she is confident that the banya, as an institution, will not go anywhere. As Pollock’s book reveals, the banya is an unchanging thing in a forever changing world.

It is a symbol of human tenacity and endurance. For thousands of years, Slavs have gathered at the banya to rejoice and commiserate. In periods of peace, peril and doubt, it reminds us how we withstand the heat, the cold and the chaos to come out on the other side, stronger than before.

And, try as I may, I fear my wordsmithing may fall flat. So, to close, I will borrow from Vladimir Vysotsky, a beloved Soviet folk-singer and songwriter.

In 1971, Vysotsky composed his Ballad of the Banya, in which he describes the restorative processes that take place within the banya. In his eyes, it can cleanse and transform you. You enter in one state and exit in another. As he sings:

The steam that’s just been made
kicks your pores like bullets
What’s been tormenting you will evaporate
And rise up to heaven
Now that you’ve been cleansed, you must come down
Sins coupled with steam will correct themselves

Source : Al Jazeera

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