This is not me.
I was lying naked on a bench. The room was steamy hot, approaching 200 degrees. A stranger was beating me with a venik, while keeping up a steady stream of conversation in a language I didn’t understand.
“You seem tense,” said this stranger (according to my translator).
While this may seem like a scene of torture, in fact I was just taking a bath—Russian style. I was staying at Kitezh, an intentional community in rural Russia designed to adopt and raise orphans. I was the co-leader of a group of ten university students on a study abroad trip. The community was tiny and had little money. The founders intentionally built the community to reflect traditional Russian customs. One of these customs was the banya (bath house-plus-sauna).
When we arrived at Kitezh, we were nervous to discover that the cabin-style homes we stayed in did not have showers or bathtubs. If we wanted to clean ourselves, the only choice was to go to the banya, which only operated twice a week.
The banya was a separate wooden building, somewhat like a log cabin. Upon first entering the banya, we saw the entry room where we were instructed to disrobe completely and assemble our bathing supplies. The banyas were sex segregated, but still, we Americans were extremely uncomfortable cavorting naked with each other. We tried to cover ourselves with our towels as best we could. The Russian women found our modesty puzzling and amusing. They seemed completely unfazed by communal nakedness.
The next room was the largest—the actual bathing room. There was no running water, but there was a large barrel of very hot water and a large barrel of cold water. We all had pails and scooped up the right amount of hot and cold water with which to bath ourselves and wash our hair. While I was scrubbing myself, a Russian woman came up to me and gently washed my back for me and murmured soothing words. For those of you with a prurient mind, please know that there was nothing remotely sexual about this scene. Helping each other bathe was a common custom. I felt nurtured, not seduced. I was quite near-sighted at this time (before my Lasik surgery), so I could not see much of anything—just a steamy, hazy, pleasant fuzz. It looked very much like this Russian painting.
After the first round of bathing, I was led to the sauna room. It was very steamy and very hot. I was instructed to lie down so that I could get a massage. A lovely, maternal woman named Natasha was my masseuse. Before the actual massage, however, Natasha first took a fragrant bundle of leafy birch tree trigs and beat me lightly with it. This bundle is called venik, and is an important part of the Russian bathing ritual. Apparently the beating warms up the body and improves circulation. The twigs have been soaked in scented water, so what I felt and heard was a “swishing” sound. It did not hurt; rather it felt invigorating.
After the beating, Natasha gave me a brisk massage, all the while murmuring in Russian. I did not know what she was saying, but the way she talked was very soothing and maternal.
After the massage, I was taken back into the main bathing room. I was very hot, so hot it was difficult to breathe. After I entered the main room, somebody took a pain of cold water and splashed it all over me. I literally screamed from the shock, but it definitely woke me from my stupor. If it had been winter, we might have gone outside and jumped into the snow instead.
I thought my banya ritual was done at that point, but I was wrong. The final, and most important, part of the ritual was to retire to the tea room (one big table with benches all around it). There, the women sat for a long time (sometimes hours) drinking tea and talking. This was all great, except that everybody was still stark naked.
It would be fair to say I felt a little awkward. Just a little.
But again, the Russians thought chatting with each other while naked was the most natural thing in the world. They could not understand our weird American hang-ups.
At the end of this whole experience, I was certainly clean. Not only that, but I do believe the experience knocked those toxins right out of me. One day I started the process feeling like I had a cold coming on. Afterwards, I felt wiped out for a while, but after a few hours, the cold was completely gone.
It has been several years since I’ve been in a banya, and I really miss it. Sure, I appreciate my daily quick—and private—shower. But I miss the banya ritual. In particular, I miss the feeling of being part of a community that takes the time to care for each other.