Text by Stephanie Droop
Drawings by Elena Krivovyaz
The Russian soviet writer, Zoshchenko, captured the everyday absurdity of going to a banya – the naked man has no pockets to keep his locker key in. This might be a witty comparison to the state you find yourself in with other naked people when you don’t know what to do with your hands or eyes. For some people, wandering about pink and sweaty with nothing on but a pair of plastic sandals and a hat and the thought of dithering in the doorway wondering: glasses on? glasses off? while people who know what they’re doing chivvy around you can be very daunting. Firstly, remember, embarrassment has no place in the banya. There seems to be a law that it is usually the younger and more beautiful bodies who are more shy and modest. So, a lot of the bodies in the banya might have a lot more to be ashamed of than you but slop around and scrub themselves with no self-consciousness. In fact, sometimes you even feel it might be better with the ‘glasess off’ option so you can feel your way around, guide yourself by sounds and humidity levels in a soft steam haze with no frightening details.
Usually you can leave any keys and tokens in the pocket of your jeans hanging on a hook in the changing room. It is easy to get it wrong with banya etiquette, such as trying to go into the parilka too early, not shutting the door tight enough, or taking the wrong slippers from the pile left by the door. But the more you know about it, the more confi dent you will be visiting banyas in Moscow.
There is a changing room with hooks for clothes and benches, a washing room with taps, basins, showers, and a cold pool for after the steam, and the parilka which is the dark moist heart of the establishment. The people who know what they’re doing get the steam ready, wafting it with towels to make it soft, and when they are ready you can all file in and take a seat on the benches. Those higher up will be hotter. It is not done to talk in the parilka at least at first. It is important that the parilka is made of wood because it gives a cosy dark timeless feel. I did not think about this until I found myself in its opposite: a public banya that was all white tiles and clinical concrete. All these naked girls crouching on the floor, heads hunched between knees protecting their heads with their hands, trying not to think about how airless and oppressive it was, and my friend Sarah goes, ‘Psst! You ever sent the film Shindler’s List?’
So, what do you need to take to a banya? The bare minimum is: sandals, not just because of hygiene or because the floor is slippery but mainly because the floor in the parilka is so hot that if you don’t have sandals you wont be able to get to a bench to sit down; and a sheet or towel to wrap round yourself and sit on in the parilka. Keep a separate towel for drying off at the end and don’t take it near the parilka or it will get wet and full of birch sap and leaves.
Then there is a whole collection of optional paraphernalia to enhance your banya, such as a hat to protect your head from the steam. It is surprising how much hotter temperatures you can sit in when you have a hat on. A normal woolly hat does just fine or you could acquire one of the special banya hats (beige, felt, pixie-like) that you see at markets or in toiletries shops. They sometimes have cute or funny designs on and come in small sizes for children, but it does seem to mark you out as a nutcase if you wear it outside the banya. I knew a girl who, when she first came to study in Russia at the start of the winter, saw some merry little hats at a market that were like felt versions of the flower fairies, or Robin Hood’s hat, and she bought it and wore it for a few days before the granny brigade told her to take it off because it was a banya hat. All respect to her; the strong girl defiantly exploded convention by wearing it every day, but I know that if it was me, the laughter that follows you on the street and the sympathetic stares on the bus would get me down.
Plastic loofah or scrubby sponge. Not just for lathering and washing but take it in with you when you first go in the steam because when the first sweat comes and the layers of dead skin cells let go with quiet abandon your skin starts to itch and having a loofah to scratch with is brilliant.
Assorted every-day kitchen products as face-masks and cosmetics: the original and best is salt and honey – salt makes you sweat more and honey makes the skin soft. Coarse salt is a good exfoliator and makes a good paste with olive oil. The main use for olive oil is as a treatment for hair. Smetana moisturises the skin and soothes sunburn (ha ha likely any time soon). Instant coffee is also a good exfoliator but tends to dissolve too easily. Beware of overdoing it with multiple products at the same time. Coffee, smetana and olive oil are not too savory when mixed. No reason why you have to stick to these staples – have a look to see what is in your cupboards and go wild with yogurt, porridge, condensed milk, beer, eggs. Just remember to have your little session near the showers so you don’t drip unappetising goo all over the place. Get perhaps two close friends with you and you can do each others’ backs and as a bonus look like the really popular and cool proponents of unorthodox condiments as beauty products. Also, remember to wash off masks before going in the parilka (although salt is ok) or you will be severely admonished.
And of course you need a venik (bunch of leafy branches and twigs) which you soak in hot water when you come in and then get someone to hit you with as you lie on a bench in the parilka. It is not painful but heavy, hot and wet, like being licked by a big mother cat. It opens the pores and makes your body zing and resonate. You need to do it all over to get the most out of it, not just backs and legs but belly, breasts, face, and soles of feet. Birch is the original and fragrant best but some banyas have other foliage on sale like oak, eucalyptus or pine.
There are hundreds of saunas in Moscow that offer private banyas for 8-10 people along with various massages and Finnish saunas which are dryer than the parilka. A lot of them have luxurious facilities or televisions, restaurant services and pool tables, everything for a relaxing party. You can search on mirsauni.ru or www.banisauni.ru. But it seems that there are fewer and fewer no-frills public banyas where you can go for a communal sweat. Of course there is Sanduny, and you should go there at least once in your life maybe if you have guests visiting you, but a 2-hour session there now is 1500 rubles. There are also the public banyas Astrakhanskiye at Metro Prospect Mira and Seleznyevskiye on Seleznevskaya ulitsa, but my favourites are Legky Par on Ulitsa Rogova near Shukinskaya, and Vorontsovskiye bani (Vorontsovsky Pereulok 5/7, between Taganskaya and Proletarskaya). It is 450 rubles for a 3-hour session and people are friendly. The washing room and changing room are spacious and clean and the parilka is also very spacious, which is very important if you don’t want to feel like you are imposing on other peoples’ venik sessions. Also if you are ever in Almaty, the central public banya there next to Pamfi lovsky park knocks spots off Sanduny for domes, cornices and quality of par.
The final point about what a great place the banya is is that it is the cheapest beer in town. Most banyas have assorted beer bottle or draught for about 50 rubles. The banya is the ideal place to get clean and relaxed either on your own or with friends and to spend a pleasant few hours pondering the link between skin, body and soul. Just don’t forget where you left your specs and keys.