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Russian bathhouse

Book review: ‘Without the Banya We Would Perish’ by Ethan Pollock

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A history of the age-old rituals of the Russian bathhouse, which with the help of technology are becoming increasingly popular in the West.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Ethan Pollock’s ‘Without the Banya We Would Perish: A History of the Russian Bathhouse’ (£22.99 ISBN 97801955395488) in the Oxford University Press Christmas catalogue.

The concept of the Russian banya, or bathhouse, might appear rather distant to the average Brit at a first glance. Yet, on reflection, I decided that the book did have a universal appeal, for it vividly describes a peculiar institution that has helped to shape the attitudes and mentality inside the world’s largest country throughout its tempestuous history.

The book’s publication is also timely, for Christmas and New Year - traditionally celebrated in Russia 13 days after we do it in the West - mark the Russians’ favourite bathing slots, during which nearly everyone in the country visits a public bath at least once.

In my own memories, the ‘technology’ of our New Year ‘bathing’ was simple. First, a bundle of freshly cut birch-tree twigs (to whip each other in the steam room and “open up the body pores”) would be acquired at a market – one bunch for each bather – several days prior to the event. Then the bathers’ wives would be mobilised to prepare plentiful snacks (pies, dumplings and ‘poor man’s caviar’ – aka aubergine spread) to be enjoyed by their husbands in the intervals between steam-room visits. Thirdly, significant amounts of vodka would be purchased for reasons that do not require explanation.

In the years 1982-84, during the brief rule of Yuri Andropov – who started enforcing ‘work discipline’ with the dictatorial stubbornness of an ex-KGB chairman, so it was not unusual for armed militia patrols to burst into a cinema, or indeed a bathhouse during working hours to see why the patrons were not at their factories and offices – it was handy to have some kind of a certificate confirming that you were officially exempt from working on that particular day because of holidays or illness. Such ‘certificates’ could be easily forged, of course.

The ’bathing’ would carry on for the best part of the day, with plenty of sweating, splashing, whipping, boozing and stuffing our bellies (not necessarily in that order), until – despite all the food and booze consumed – we would feel weightless and almost glide in the air above the snow when we finally emerged.

To me, the social importance of the banya is reflected in a popular Russian idiom ‘Idi v banyu!’ - a politer equivalent of ‘Get lost!’. Indeed, getting lost (entirely relaxed and detached from reality) inside the banya comes naturally.

According to Pollock, whose knowledge and experience of the Russian banya are much deeper than mine, the ritual stayed largely unchanged throughout the centuries. He shows the significance of it by following famous Russian writers, such as Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Andrei Beliy, and its most notorious public figure - from Rasputin to Putin, via Catherine the Great – all of whom were banya connoisseurs and enthusiasts.

Pollock points out an interesting 1930s trend, of which I was unaware: the plan to substitute all showers in the Stalinist Soviet Union with Russian banyas. He even quotes an anonymous “engineer from the Banya-Landry Administration” who concluded ponderously, using all his technological know-how, that “in places where there were not enough showers, Russian-style banyas would remain necessary”.

However, the specially created “committee” (they liked to create committees in the USSR at every possible opportunity), facing the difficulty of building so many new banyas, recoiled and decreed “that the best the USSR could do was to emphasise showers in the unspecified future”. That makes sense for - from a purely engineering point of view - it is much easier to install a shower than to construct a proper banya, with a predbannik (a pre-bath ante-chamber), the washing room with hot water taps and mixers, and finally the heater, with its three separate compartments: a fire box, a rock chamber and a water tank at the top.

One aspect of the book that I was tempted to disagree with is what I consider an excessive romanticising of the banya to the point where Pollock states that “the most famous ultra-masculine male who brought attention to the banya was Putin”. If we accept that, then we also need to recognise that, alongside the banya’s undisputed healing qualities (opening of the body pores, relaxation and just simple hygiene), the Russian bathing ritual always carried an element of aggressiveness culminating in the bathers whipping each other with twigs in suffocating and often unbearable humidity. I always found that part of Russian ‘bathing’, which I tried all over the former USSR, from Murmansk to Siberia and the Far East, hard to take and far from pleasing. That was probably just me.

The Russian banya, indeed, seems to be conquering the world: from the New Docklands Russian Steam Baths in London, which opened earlier this year, to the so-called sweat lodges in the Americas. The latter are similar in concept to the Russian ‘black banya’, where the smoke escapes through the ceiling, as opposed to the ‘white banya’, equipped with special exhaust pipes. To crown it all, a proper Russian bath now exists at Novolazarevskaya Antarctic Research Station, Queen Maud Land – the only glued timber building in Antarctica.

I’m sure that some adventurous E&T readers would like to try the Russian bath experience during the festive season - if not by volunteering to be whipped with birch bath brooms in one of the UK’s several Russian bathhouses, then at least by reading this unusual, passionate, eccentric and well-written book.

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