Exploring a traditional Russian Bath house, the authentic way…
by Peter Delevett, an award-winning travel writer and editor at the San Jose Mercury News. His 14-month, 14-country backpacking trek through Asia and Europe formed the basis of the forthcoming travel memoir, Walking on the Moon. He and his family live in one of America’s three remaining Japantowns.
It’s a late spring day in Moscow, the city just starting to wake from its long freeze. An expat chum who works for one of the big Wall Street i-banks has squired me to the Sandunovskiye Bani for what he promises is the quintessential Russian experience. He checks me in, wishes me luck and hits the door, which in retrospect should have told me something.
My guidebook had sniffed that this was the city’s most opulent, least authentic banya, but as I glance around the fungal confines of the public bathhouse, I’m not sure how much more authenticity I could take. (It was weeks later that I learned Sanduni, as the locals call it, offers three classes of service, and I was effectively in steerage; for twenty bucks more, I could have been surrounded by marble and snacking on shrimp.)
But then, it’s all about the experience, right? I strip down and enter the parilka, which resembles a two-story sauna. There I find myself with half a dozen Russian men wearing only conical wool hats. It looks like a convention of dunces.
At various spots around the chamber, men are whacking each other’s backsides with bundles of birch leaves, called venik, under the theory that the beatings purge the skin. And this is why my buddy stayed outside: when he’d first come to Moscow, he’d signed up for a go in a banya and was beaten to a pulp, a 400-pound man named Yuri on the branch.
“It’s a very aggressive culture,” my friend had told me with a grin. His landlady claims the fact that Russians stand during church as proof they’re tougher than Americans. His wife, on the other hand, blames the brutal winters, which not only can be cold (the average high in January is a sub-freezing 23 degrees) but dark for weeks on end.
Sanduni sits in the city’s heart, close to the famed Bolshoi Theatre and to Lubyanka prison, the former KGB headquarters. Watching the Russkies go at each other with sticks, it’s not hard to imagine their skills translating well to the torture chamber.
A young, well-muscled man yanks open the oven door and tosses ladle after ladle of water onto the rocks, which are kept hot with a wood fire. As the temperature palpably rises, the man removes his towel, revealing what I can only assume to be a transplant from an elephant seal.
For lack of anything better to do, I grab a nearby sheaf of fir branches and start taking half-hearted whacks at my legs. Beating yourself with dry evergreen needles in a steaming-hot room full of naked strangers isn’t as much fun as you’d imagine. Immediately my legs are stinging, and I head back out to the bathing room in search of relief.
Near the door, a wooden bucket sits high on a pole, attached to a rope. With a yank, I’m doused in ice-cold water, sending every neuron in my body shrieking. My friend’s landlady was right.
The old babushka and her ilk have seen plenty to toughen them up. Some 20 million Russians died during World War II; millions more lost their lives to Stalin’s purges. Nearly twice the size of the United States, Russia today has less than half the population.
The post-Soviet Wild West days were no picnic, either, with prices soaring and crime rampant. Many of modern Moscow’s billionaires got rich snapping up state assets after the Soviet Union fell apart. Despite all the Western hand-wringing over Vladimir Putin’s crackdowns, many Russians love him for returning some semblance of order; and all things considered, these are probably the best days for average Russian folk in centuries.
Back in the parilka, I’m trying to look inconspicuous when someone taps my shoulder. It’s the Elephant Man. Pointing to my wilting bunch of leaves, he shakes his head, pantomimes dipping them in water. I dutifully head back to the basins, and when I return start gently flogging myself. The man shakes his head again. “Medicine,” he says, grabbing my puny American tricep and gesturing to the leaves. I nod and give him the leaves, then my back; he proceeds to re-enact the Cold War, and this time the Russkies win.
When I regain consciousness, I thank the man and ask his name. “Alex,” he says, adding in halting English: “Special Forces. I train New York. SWAT.”
If those training sessions involved nudity and the artful application of birch leaves, I’m sure New York’s finest got quite an education.