At one point over the weekend in Ufa, I found myself lying belly down on a wooden bench, face inches from a burning hot brick wall, in a steamy room, stark naked, being beaten with birch branches.
This is the culmination of a certain piece of Russian culture I had heard about, evaluated in passing, and decided was not for me: the banya. But, the power of peer pressure and the comfort of my Fulbright friends, combined with the isolation of our private banya at the country cabin, and of course a little wine, made me cave, and I stripped down with six other girls to round up a couple more Russian Soul points [(c) Randi Leyshon].
The banya is kind of like a sauna, in that there’s a stove with heated stones, and you pour water over them to produce steam. It’s not like a sauna in that you’re completely naked with people you may or may not know well. And you follow the sweating with dousing yourself in cold water and/or rolling naked in the snow. And you get beaten with birch branches called veniki to get your circulation flowing and maybe to clear your pores? I’m not real clear on the purpose: as I said, I haven’t researched this deeply. Prior to last weekend, my only exposure to the inside of a banya came from one of the opening scenes of the film Burnt by the Sun:
I’ve picked up bits and pieces of banya culture from living here. My grocery store sells birch branches and hats for the banya. I know some of my Fulbright colleagues go to the banya with their fellow teachers and even with their students. Some people do wear towels or bathing suits, depending on how public the banya is. Any time it comes up in conversation with a group of Russians, they tell me that they go once a week with their friends. (Though I recently met a student who told me she doesn’t like going to the banya because it makes her light-headed).
I don’t think the banya will become a regular part of my life here in Russia, but I’m glad I tried it. And I’m glad I tried it with Americans. Maybe that makes the experience less “authentic” or whatever, but it’s authentic to the way I’m experiencing Russia. I’m not a Russian, and I’m never going to be. I’ll always be an American in Russia, for better or for worse. But while the American perspective certainly affects the way I see Russia, being in Russia is also affecting the way I see America, and Americans.
I can think of few circumstances in America in which I’d be comfortable getting down to birthday suits with a bunch of people I’ve only met a few times. Even skinny dipping in Paradise Pond back at Smith never happened for me. Maybe it’s those pesky Puritan forefathers shaking their fingers at the taboo of nudity. Maybe it’s media-reinforced insecurities about my body. Maybe it’s American individualism making me overvalue my personal space. But here, in Russia, the nakedness wasn’t weird. It just was. And after I was done being beaten, I got up and beat my friend in return, and then we went back to the domik for tea and water to rehydrate.