Even after eleven years in Russia, I had never enjoyed the pleasures (?) of the banya. It is an institution in that country. As we collected our sandals, sheets, and bunches of birch twigs the Russian in our group said, “Citizens of The United States, prepare to suffer.”
The process was this: First into a room with walls and seats of hot wooden planks, too hot to touch. With a long handled cup, water was thrown on the walls to increase the temperature which was already, they said, at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. After about twenty minutes, the birch branches, soaked in water with oil of eucalyptus, were beaten on our white and frail bodies. We either did it to each other, one man standing covering his essentials and beaten by the other, or like Penitentes, we beat ourselves. Slap, slap, slap. If it were babushkas doing the beating, it might have been fatal. Some men wore felt caps, supposedly to protect the ears, making one look like a peasant in a Brueghel painting.
The skin a beaten red, the next step was into the pool of ice cold water. The manly way was to climb up the slippery ladder (everything was slippery) and jump into it, a pool eight by fourteen feet and five feet deep. When the body starts to shake, it’s into the private locker room, large enough for ten or so—we were five, and down a tall mug of kvass. Kvass is the Russian tea-totaler’s substitute for beer. It is made from black bread. Not bad. Some talk and gossip about poets and writers, then back to the hot room. The eucalyptus aroma soothes the insides. Soon some Russians joined us. Thin and fat, young and old. It was quitting time, we figured.
This masochistic routine was repeated four times over two hours. By then the twigs had lost all their leaves and were switches. They hurt more. The body sways a bit, and it wasn’t just me. Sitting is better. Then a shower, drying off, and taking to the street for the long walk back to the hotel.
Now, among Russians, I can claim some degree of legitimacy. The girls in the office said I looked healthy. So it must have been a good idea.
There is another role for the banya. A tough business decision was to be made affecting my company by our Russian partners. At about six one evening, I was told we would hear by ten the next morning–and we did. I learned that they (the important men) got together in the banya before going home, and decided in our favor. It was explaned that is where vital decisions are made.