Gates-way to Neva-land: Russian Humility, One Banya at a Time
By Ethan Gates
In my previous updates from Petersburg, I have mentioned my mild surprise at the “Westernization” of Russia — of the comfort this city offers a bratty American like me in the form of fast food chains, pop music and general commercial, capitalist decadence. No matter how strange or unfamiliar the experience I stumble into, I can always rely on a juicy Big Mac or the dulcet tones of “Like a G6” blasting from a café speaker system to make me feel like I’m sitting back in the Amherst dorms again.

But that is not what I would like to talk about with you today. No, it’s time for me to embrace the bizarre, the exotic, the uniquely Russian aspects of a semester abroad. After all, dear readers, you are not reading this to learn how much life in Petersburg is just like your life; we might as well just all sit in a happy circle and join hands and sing “It’s a Small World After All” together if that were the point of this column. So it’s time to share an incident I have been suppressing from publication for some weeks now, because, quite frankly, there is no way that I can describe it to you that will satisfactorily explain the experience (or allow me to escape the likely permanent ridicule it will earn). You see, this particular event, this distinctly and undeniably Russian occurrence, prominently features my sitting naked in a boiling hot room filled with other naked men, swatting at each others’ naked bodies with leafy, sopping wet tree branches.

All right, so some clarification is probably in order. This testosterone-laden ritual is known as the banya, and is essentially Russia’s specific version of a sauna. The premise is simple: take the single hottest experience of your life (the sweltering, steamy sauna room) with the single coldest (a quick dive in an ice-cold pool), and somewhere in between you emerge, reinvigorated and ready to face another day of the Russian “spring.” The locals refer this process as refreshing your “organism,” a rather enigmatic part of the human anatomy that I confess I don’t recall ever learning about in my junior high Health and Wellness class, though it is apparently a delicate structure of paramount importance to one’s physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Who knew?

For American students here at Smolny College in St. Petersburg, the banya has apparently become the go-to site for male bonding; once a semester, the veteran banya-goers initiate the rookies in a private suite, reserved for us with pleasure by the College (hey, it’s a cultural excursion). The clarion call first went out via e-mail, an inspiring St. Crispin’s Day-worthy missive with the declarative subject heading, “BOYS, WE’RE GOING TO THE BANYA!!” After a few days, in which final holdovers (including myself, I’ll admit) were won over and the concept of gender equality was introduced to Russian society (a separate reservation was made for the girls in the group to have their own banya outing), us firstva-timers rallied together and journeyed inside this temple of brotherhood, still entirely nervous and unsure of how comfortable we were with the whole deal.

Our confidence was not particularly enforced when, two minutes after walking inside our suite, one of the veteran students announced that it was already time to strip. Awkwardly, we clambered out of our five layers of winter clothing, immediately clutching at towels to protect our modesty. But the banya is no place for humility, and after a few minutes of standing around in half-nudity and hesitant silence, one fellow finally declared, “screw it” (or perhaps an even less civil Russian equivalent), and removed his towel. The tension was broken, and we all followed suit. In what felt like no time at all, the atmosphere transformed from that of a middle school locker room to the Russian version of Diner. With much back-slapping and guffawing, we entered the sauna for half an hour of dirty jokes, self-humiliating An-American-in-Petersburg tales and tree-branch swatting (oh yeah, I forgot: smacking your skin with birch branches apparently stimulates the circulation, just in case you were wondering).

By the time we got up to dive in the chilled pool, we were all positively giddy from the liberating thrill of this new experience. In fact, in his excitement, one of my friends literally leapt down from his seat atop of one of the wooden benches in the sauna, forgetting of course that a room full of steam makes for an extremely slippery tile floor. The fortuitous location of a plastic bucket prevented a buzz-killing trip to the emergency room: instead of the floor breaking his head, his head simply broke the bucket. And what better souvenir to return home with than an authentic piece of a Russian banya pail?

From there on, the banya experience was mostly lather-rinse-repeat: bake for a while inside the sauna, then head back out for an energizing jump in the pool. Our two-hour reservation went by all too quickly. Having discovered this newfound sense of camaraderie, we could hardly just go our separate ways immediately, and so the entire group spontaneously decided to grab a pizza (or at least, something that Russians appear to consider a pizza) afterwards. The Fraternity of the Roasting Banya had been born.

Going to the banya was the kind of experience I will never be able to simulate back in the States. For the two months I’ve lived here now, I’ve tried to seek out those moments: the times that I will look back on next year in Amherst and think, “I can’t believe I was there,” or “I can’t believe I did that.” Well, I found at least one, that’s for sure.

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 21:41:29