Sunday at the Banya

Russia's steam baths are part social club and part purification ritual. During his time in Moscow, Steven Lee Myers became a true believer.

"Zhelayushchiye!" a familiar voice calls out by the door of the room, a large brick box with vaulted ceilings of cracked veneer and peeling paint. I am sitting in a dressing stall that vaguely recalls a booth in a worn-out American steak house, minus the table. I have no clothes on. They hang on hooks around the booth, along with the clothes of my friends and of Russian men I don't know at all.

"Zhe-la-yu-shchi-ye." The word does not translate neatly into English, I'm convinced, because of some lingering Victorian reti­cence ingrained in the majority of American souls. It literally means "those who wish," or better, "those who desire." What is being desired can be anything, but after five years in Russia it means one thing to me: an act of purification and reju­venation and, as an outsider in this vast, enigmatic country, the closest I've come to a true immersion in the par­tic­ularities of Russian life. I refer, of course, to the banya, or bathhouse.

The beckoning voice be­­longs to Grigory Alek­san­drovich Konkin, or Grisha. He's a carpenter who since 1993 has made a habit of com­ing on Sundays to the Seleznyovskiye Baths in Mos­­cow, an assemblage of single-story brick buildings erected in the 1850s not far from where the old Red Army Theater stands today. Grisha prepares the steam that is the essential feature of the Russian banya (as opposed to the hot, dry Fin­nish sauna or the varying temperatures of the Turkish hammam). It sounds simple enough, but at its best the making of steam is a skill that aspires to art. Grisha is not a professional banshchik, hired to maintain the steam room, as the other banyi in Moscow and elsewhere in the country keep on staff. He does this purely for the pleasure of it—his and ours.

"Zhelayushchiye pogret'sya!" he continues, shouting from the door. Those who desire to warm themselves! It is an in­­vi­tation, a command, the incantation of a holy man calling us to gather and partake. On any given Sunday, two or three dozen of us are there, almost all because of Grisha. We oblige, filing from our dressing booths to a much larger washing room and through the door of the banya's inner sanctum, the parilka, or steam room. We wait until Grisha gives an order and then we enter as one, wearing only rubber slippers and felt hats that would look silly anywhere else.

The first time I saw Grisha, he was standing a few feet in front of me inside Seleznyovskiye's steam room, stark naked except for a black mask, a balaclava like the ones Russian commandos wear when they take down terrorists. He was carrying a large paddlelike fan two feet across. Still new to the banya, I imagined that I was about to experience the initiation rites of some bizarre cult. In a way, I was.

The parilka at Seleznyovskiye is a large room with two sets of wooden stadium-style bleachers and stairs leading to a higher platform with a single wooden bench. Affixed to a metal pole in the center is a large rotor blade, which churns the air near the ceiling. An enormous gas-fired furnace occupies a corner of the room, covered by an iron door like those on an old basement boiler or steam engine. Inside, a heap of iron ingots glows all day, translucently red-hot.

The heat hits you as soon as you enter, enveloping the entire body. Oddly, the first sensation races down your spine like a chill. It is routinely 160 degrees Fahren­heit, even as hot as 210 degrees, a heat inten­sified by the moisture in the air. The temperature rises the higher you are seated in the parilka. If I stand on the platform, my head nearly reaches the ceiling. (That, typ­ically, is ill-advised.)

Grisha wields his fan— a loop of cloth held by a round wire frame—with big sweeping motions, some­times slowly, sometimes freneti-cally. Undulating waves of sweltering air blow across us like the Santa Ana winds of southern California, making the space feel even hotter. Within seconds, beads of sweat form. Within minutes, a torrent flows. Men moan and in­­hale softly through clenched teeth. The pulse quickens. The heart works over­time to pump blood through the veins, ar­­teries, and capil­lar­ies. Breath­ing becomes labored.

Often Grisha puts down the fan or passes it to someone so he can throw more water into the furnace. Most banyi have long-handled ladles; Grisha uses a large metal washing pan. As the water vaporizes, a deep whoosh­ing sound emanates from the back of the furnace and a burst of steam courses around the walls. Those on the platform crouch to escape it. After a few minutes—three, four, five, as many as ten or more—the men rise one by one and file out.

Some then shower or douse their bodies with wash pans like Grisha's to cool off. The most effective thing, though, is to submerge the body in water, the icier the better. Seleznyovskiye has a small rectangular pool, about neck deep. Stairs lead into it, which some descend slowly, toeing into the water as if it were a hot bath. In fact, the water never gets warmer than Moscow's tap which, depending on the season, is usually only marginally above freezing. During the winter no one stays in for long.

I usually make a shallow dive from the top step. It is such a shock that I nearly always try to talk myself out of it beforehand. Momentum alone carries me underwater to the back wall, where I surface, breathe deep, turn, and swim back to the stairs in a stroke or two, thinking of Emily Dickinson's poem: "As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow/First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go." I clamber out, breathing hard, my heart racing.

I never feel more alive.

The banya—or something like it—is older than Russia itself, dating back to the ancestors of the Slavic tribes that populated Central and Eastern Europe and before that to the public baths of Rome and Greece. Its original intent is inherent in its name, which seems to come from Latin via Italian. Bathing is a necessity anywhere, but the notion of doing so in extreme heat almost certainly resulted from the harsh realities of living in a northern climate. Its association with Russia is as deeply rooted as that of vodka.

Public bathhouses such as Seleznyovskiye emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries as temples of hygiene in cities and villages that did not yet have electricity, heating, or plumbing. Even through the modernization of more recent decades, the banya was, for the vast majority of people, a preferred alternative to the communal bathroom. The banya's core purpose remains the same, but in post-Soviet Russian life its status has changed. With crowded apartments broken up and sold, with new homes emerging from the failed USSR housing ex­­periment, many such facilities closed, their rituals of ablution deemed old-fashioned, their convenient, central public spaces taken over by more profitable enterprises. To some Russians living in this age of newfound freedom and luxury, there is something almost pedestrian about them.

Those that are still around have become more like commercial health clubs segregated by sex, though smaller private banyi can be reserved for couples or groups, and there are coed versions for naturalists. Public banyi are now part spa, part social club, and, as always, a meeting place where the outward trappings of social, economic, or political status are stripped away. Oleg Malyshkin, a presidential candidate who ran against Vladimir Putin in 2004—albeit as the longest of long shots—joined the crowd at Seleznyovskiye a few times.

Even Moscow's most famous and most exclusive banya, San­dunov, is accessible to anyone willing to pay the entry fee. Sanduny, as it is affectionately known, is the most beautiful banya I've seen, with its fin de siècle decor of columns, carved wood, and polished brass. It is also a gathering spot for the city's political, cultural, and criminal elite. (Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith's world-weary detective in Gorky Park, has an only slightly implausible encounter with his main suspect in Sanduny's steamy palace.)

All banyi adhere to tradition and a loose code of etiquette which, like the law in Russia, remains so flexible—and so often violated—that I still haven't quite figured out what is or isn't per­missible. Not long ago at the Bateninskiye Baths in St. Peters­burg, a man scolded me for jumping into the pool before I had used the venik, a kind of hand-tied broom made of dried branches, usually birch or oak but sometimes eucalyptus or juniper, that are soaked in water to soften the wood.

Veniki, ordinarily sold at the bathhouse en­­trance or on the street outside, are as essen­tial a part of the experience as the steam room and the dunking pool, though their exact purpose mystified me at first. The branches are used to thrash your body—or have it thrashed by someone else. (It is a matter of taste and the friends you're with.) At Selez­nyovskiye the venik is typically frowned upon in the first, newly made steam, where the aim is simply to sweat, but after the first cooling off the men return, veniki in hand, and set to work. When enough people do it at once, it sounds like a round of applause. The point, I've learned, is not to beat the body but rather to capture the steam in the air and transfer it to the skin, intensifying the heat the way Grisha's fan does.

In St. Petersburg I found some veniki for sale at the Batenin­skiye counter. A new ac­­quain­tance and fellow traveler of the banya, Ivan Pavlov had assured me that Bateninskiye—on Aleksandr Matrosov Street, in a drab neighborhood out of the historic center—was the best banya in Russia's second city. Its luxe section is open to families on Tuesdays, women on Sundays, and men on other days. The dressing room leads out to an open-air patio, with a small log cabin built around a small parilka and three pools of tem­peratures varying from warmish to frigid (the latter of which was the site of my apparent faux pas).

We were there on an evening in late April, brilliantly sunny and only 39 degrees. My venik came, only it was accompanied by two strapping young men, Kostya and Sasha, who instructed me to lie on a bench in the small steam room and proceeded in turn to work me over. Sasha, in particular, flailed me from head to toe as intensely and rhythmically as Keith Moon playing drums, the heat rising until I felt the flesh on my back burning and started writhing on my pyre. "That's all," he said at last, and I rose, staggered outside like a punch-drunk boxer, and lurched into the coldest pool, as I had been instructed, properly.

Not everyone takes to it, not even all Russians. A friend once told me he felt like a chicken being roasted. A visiting American law-enforcement officer was visibly unnerved by the presence of so many unabashedly naked men. I can no longer imagine life without it. I have sought out banyi not only in Moscow but also during my travels to other parts of the region: in St. Petersburg and the old Golden Ring cities of Yaroslavl', Uglich, and Suzdal; on the remote shore of pristine Lake Baikal, where the icy waters of the world's deepest and oldest freshwater lake became my personal plunge pool; and even in Chukotka, the farthest, most remote corner of Russia.

There, in Vankarem, a tiny coastal village on the Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle, I met a Chukchi hunter, Sergei Lavry, who built a banya out of an old military wagon that once held generators and had been abandoned by the Red Army after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He towed it on a dogsled to his house in the village and fashioned it with a rusting metal stove, welded out of scraps and fired by wood that Sergei somehow collects in the treeless tundra (mostly from old shipping crates). "It's very primitive," he said apologetically, adding some wood and boiling water that started as ice.

It was five degrees outside, a fairly mild spring for Chukotka, but inside I felt the familiar heat and the warm chill pass through my body, even as a stiff Arctic wind whistled through a small drain in the floor. Sergei was amused by my interest in the banya and also puzzled by the idea of one in Moscow's urban jungle. "You don't bathe in the snow," he said, knowing no other alternative in a village without running water and a winter that lasts ten months. Thoroughly heated and needing to cool off, I stood naked on the wooden steps of Sergei's military wagon and looked out into the white blankness, where the swirling snow blurred the sky and sea, erasing the horizon. Primitive, yes, but I felt exactly as I do every Sunday at Seleznyovskiye.

Russians ascribe curative powers to the banya. Beyond simply cleaning, they say, it purges the body of accumulated toxins, stim­ulating the circulation and calming the nervous system. "All the poison leaves your body," Ivan told me after my thrashing in St. Petersburg. To some, its effects are almost mystical. Grisha speaks of its energizing power.

Once, during minor surgery to remove an infected thorn from my foot, I asked a Russian doctor about such claims. His answer was a Hippocratic classic: "It won't hurt you." I think he underestimates the essential good it can do. When I arrived in Moscow, I had the fortune to fall in with a group of friends—expatriates and locals—for whom the banya served as a social bond and also as a coping mechanism for the physical and psychological strains of Russian life. We have at one time or another tried most of the banyi in Moscow, including Sanduny. Each has its own characters and qualities, and one can argue over the merits of any of them endlessly, the way one argues over the best vintages of wine, the comparative beauty of Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, or the greatest boxers of all time. So it is entirely subjective but thoroughly defensible for me to declare that the best steam in Moscow is at Seleznyovskiye. And Grisha is the reason.

He insists that there is no mystery to preparing steam, but he is an alchemist, infusing it with aromas, using scented oils and herbs, such as wormwood, mint, or sage. And beer—cheap Russian beer, not the expensive imports, which in Grisha's mind are better for drinking but otherwise lacking. The smell of a steam permeated with beer is among the greatest on earth, reminiscent of your grandmother's kitchen or a bakery in the morning. "It's a great sensation," Grisha explains, "as if you enter something soft and warm, like down. It breathes so well. It reminds me of the smell of dough fermenting, when you open the lid and the yeasted dough is rising."

In a typical two hours Grisha will re­­peat the ritual four or five times, readying the steam room, calling us, fanning us as he banters about current affairs as deftly as a stand-up comic. I remember once watching him in the center of the room, hands on hips, smiling beatifically as two dozen men flogged themselves rhyth­mically with branches. This will be my indelible memory of Russia.

Afterward we dress and emerge from Selez­nyovskiye's damp, sweaty cocoon onto Moscow's hard streets. Because we meet on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m., it has become my church, my weekly ritual in search of brotherhood and revival. I walk home with a heightened awareness of my own body and an acute sense that vsyo budet khorosho, as the Russians say: Everything will be okay.