A life in the day of the Russian bathhouse

In early spring, a time when New York typically emerges from its winter blues, we received the news that the city was entering a new kind of hibernation. Our Mayor, Bill de Blasio, had just declared the immediate closure of all non-essential businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Like many other New Yorkers, I began to imagine life in a city without any of its shops, bars and restaurants. I reflected on the times I had chosen to stay home instead of venture out to some museum, or nightclub, certain that I had all the time in the world.

As others mourned their favourite hole-in-the-wall establishments, I began to lament the Russian bathhouse – “the banya”, my favourite place in all of New York – just off Wall Street.

I do not remember the first time I went, but my parents claim I was two.

Convinced the banya was as crucial to the city as its sidewalks, I found the news particularly hard to swallow.

Nothing has stopped this banya from opening before. Not Hurricane Sandy, not the great blackout of 2003, not even the events of 9/11, the day after which the owner had woken early to dig the rubble away from the entrance.

Now, it seems, the banya had finally met its match – a global pandemic that had shaken the world.

Oddly enough, I did not always enjoy the banya. For most of my youth, I resented my mother for making me go. I found the place disturbing. It was dark, sweaty and full of large, hairy men. And every so often, I would see a cockroach scurry across the floor.

But still, my mother believed that the banya was a necessity. Anytime I would catch a cold or a spell of stress-induced insomnia, she would drag me there and insist my health depended on it. Like many Russians, she remains convinced of the healing powers of this ancient institution. That the banya can cure us of all our ailments – mental and physical, and everything else in between.

To many ex-Soviets around the world, the banya is the ultimate panacea. The Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced that his nation would fight the coronavirus with the banya (and vodka).

I do not remember exactly when I started to enjoy the banya, but it must have been sometime in college when my mother suggested I go to sweat away a hangover. To my surprise, I found the banya to be a good place to recover – far more effective than Pedialyte or any of my other usual remedies.

I started going weekly. Every Friday evening, after an exhausting week, I would escape to a Fulton Street basement to purge whatever had been causing me trouble.

Until several weeks ago, when I bid it farewell.

The last steam

The day of de Blasio’s announcement, my family hurried to the banya to have one last sweat. We arrived just as it opened, hoping to squeeze in as much time as we could.

Unlike most of my other visits to the banya, this one felt eerie. There were no first-time guests, no bachelor parties or Wall Street brokers, or couples on a Groupon date. Today it was just the die-hard regulars desperate to get a sweat in before its indefinite closure – a bevvy of post-Soviet emigres and a few American outcasts we have adopted as our own (a former marine and an ex-Hasidic Jew who left the community). All of us espousing theories about what was to come in the next few weeks.

Some were getting rowdy, taking vodka shots in the lounge. I, too, had been drunk at the banya before. I have spent numerous holidays sitting in a crowded sauna, with a group of debaucherous Russians singing and drinking all day long.

But now, I did not feel like participating. I was focused on getting a good session in, convinced that if I sweated harder, I would be better prepared for the next few weeks.

My father, who has a reputation for making the best steam, started preparing the hot water for the sauna.

We filed into the hot, dark room and took our seats. I made my way to the top shelf, where the heat is most intense. My father grabbed a ladle and threw the water into the furnace, which sizzled and let out the steam. He took a towel and spun it above his head to gather the heat from the furnace and distribute it across the sauna. The blistering air seeped deep into my pores. My face turned red-hot and, within minutes, I was drenched in sweat.

When the heat became unbearable in the banya, I raced to the plunge pool. Submerged in bitterly cold water (3 degrees C, 38 degrees F), I gasped for air and momentarily forgot about the state of the world. Once I felt like I was nearing frostbite, I sprinted back to the sauna to heat up and do it all over again.

The owner of the banya, a Russian man of gargantuan stature, was pacing around, shaking his head. He would be shutting the doors for the first time since the banya had opened in 1998.

His employees did not know what they would do for work in the coming weeks.

I researched to see if any one of the city’s numerous banyas would remain open, but could find none. The 10th Street Baths’ website announced that they had all closed their doors for the first time since 1892.

Get thee to the banya!

The banya is an Eastern Slavic sweat-bath, sort of like a spa. But, anyone hoping to be pampered may be disappointed. A trip to the banya can be strenuous and demanding. But, if you do it right, it can sedate you better than any melatonin I have ever tried.

The custom is intended to detox the body, improve circulation and cleanse the skin. Slavic women like my mother swear that the banya is a fountain of youth. If you saw her, you would probably agree.

A traditional banya has several rooms: a sweltering sauna that hovers around 200 F (93 C); an area for showering; an ice-cold plunge pool for cooling off; and a lounge for resting, to catch your breath or scarf down some borscht (a classic Russian beet soup to help you refuel).

To amplify the effects of the banya, some will rub honey all over their skin. Others choose to scrub their skin with dry brushes. The platza treatment, my favourite, involves hiring a muscular man to beat you with a venik – a bundle of leaves. The leaves create a layer of hot air, which sends the heat further into your skin.

When you are sufficiently hot, you plunge into a cold pool (or, in the winter months, brave the snow). The extreme heat followed by the extreme cold forces a brief deprivation of the senses – a reset. The contrast exhausts you and, for a short moment, your mind is free, and your body goes numb. For many, the experience is rejuvenating. For others, it is harrowing. I have known both.

The Russian love for the banya runs deep

In Without the Banya We’d Perish, historian Ethan Pollock writes: “Wherever and whenever there have been Russians there have been banyas.”

Several months ago, I came across Pollock’s book. Hoping to supplement my love for the banya with some knowledge of its roots, I delved into it.

The banya dates back to ancient times, before Russia was even Russia. As early as 440 AD, nomadic tribes on the Black Sea would bathe in steam they generated using hot stones.

The banya, and its steambath ancestors, were embraced by various Russian institutions. During the Muscovite period, for instance, the Orthodox Church promoted its use as a means of physical and spiritual cleansing. The Church believed that bathing could purify women after sex and childbirth and failure to go would make you vulnerable to evil demons.

As Russia evolved into Tsardoms and, later, an Empire, the banya morphed into a tool for economic development and societal health.

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