Russians continue to seek swelter

SUN JOURNAL

Steam: For centuries, wet heat, lashings and cold dips at the communal baths have been enjoyed as a social activity that aids body and soul.

February 06, 2005|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The heat arrives as an assault as you climb the wide wooden steps of the sauna to sit with a towel under your derriere and a wool hat on your head - so as not to burn either end.

Once, twice, more than a dozen times, an attendant scoops eucalyptus-scented water into a furnace filled with red-hot iron ingots, creating steam. Out come the tied bundles of leafy-green birch branches so that a companion can whip your body from head to toe.

The next step awaits just outside the sauna door: a dunking tub filled with ice-cold water.

Oh, the pleasures of Russia, where the banya, or bathhouse, has been part of the culture for centuries. Friends gather every week at the same time at their favorite banya. Businessmen seal deals in the banya. One of the most popular Russian movies, The Irony of Fate, centers on a colossal mix-up that begins after drunken New Year's revelry in a banya.

Even the usually buttoned-down leader of the nation indulges himself in steam. In 2000, when voters went to the polls to choose a successor to Boris N. Yeltsin as Russia's president, the winner-to-be, Vladimir V. Putin, was asked how he intended to wait out the vote-counting.

"I'm off to the banya," he replied.

Banyas are, predictably, busiest in winter when the temperature can dip below zero for weeks and the sun rarely emerges from the sky's gray blanket. Off with the fur hats, the dripping boots, the ankle-length coats. In the banya, everyone is bare.

The steam room can be as hot as 160 degrees, and the dry-heat sauna that is a fixture at every health club in the West is thought too tepid in every way. Russians view the banya less as the study in extremes that it is - cold and hot, pain and pleasure - than as a way to purify body and soul in the company of friends.

The steam opens up the pores, and toxins flow from the skin in the sweat - allegedly, at least.

Being whacked with tied bundles of birch branches is said to stimulate the circulation and help slough off dead skin.

As for the cold tub, one must do something to cool down a boiling body.

"It's the feeling that you can fly," said Zoya Oksanova, rubbing honey into her cheeks and drinking tea after emerging, pink-skinned and blotchy, from her weekly steam at Moscow's Krasnopresnenskie Bani.

The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin had an equally exalted description. The banya, he said, is like a "second mother."

The banya tradition dates back at least 900 years, when, according medieval texts, the Apostle Andrew observed a strange local custom as he traveled up the Dnieper River.

"I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses," he wrote. "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 upon themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."

The banya was part of rites of passage. Mothers delivered their children in banyas, and mourners gathered in them to ensure that dead family members would have a warm passage to the other side. Brides and grooms steamed themselves separately on the eve of their wedding day, then together as man and wife after exchanging vows.

The tradition persisted through imperial times, even though the church decried the banya as a place of dubious morals, given that men and women sometimes bathed together. After the Bolsheviks came to power, the government established communal banyas in the name of sanitation. For many people, suddenly in communal apartments, it was the only way of keeping clean.

Today, at the Krasnopresnenskie Bani, women can intersperse a traditional steam - for 400 rubles, less than $15 - with more sophisticated pampering, including tanning, manicures and aqua-massage. There's fresh-squeezed carrot juice and Greek salads. On saints' days, clients bring bottles of champagne and multicolored cakes for all to share.

A basic steam lasts two hours. After stripping down in a sex-segregated changing room, customers head into the sauna for as long as they can stand it. Then comes the icy plunge, followed by a dip into a pool of more tepid water. After that is a round of eating, drinking and talk, usually while wrapped in a toga-like sheet.

The process is repeated once.

And then again.

And then a few more times - until it's time to bundle up again and go back into the Russian winter.

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