Cultural revelation and a good soak in St. Petersburg

Special to the Los Angeles Times

I tell Valentina it’s my first time in a banya and that I’ve forgotten to bring birch branches. “Oh, I’ll flog you with mine,” she says, offering typical Russian hospitality.

She begins whacking my back as we sit on long wood benches in the parilka (steam room). Whack! Whack! Whack! The beatings continue for a minute or two as green bits fly about. I wince.

“Now it’s my turn,” she says. I return the favor but am timid. Valentina could be my mother. “Harder!” she says. I quickly locate my inner peasant and flog away. “Aaaahhh,” she says, sighing.


Well-worn paths to understanding the Russian soul suddenly feel inadequate: Chekhov and Dostoyevsky, Stravinsky and “Swan Lake,” root vegetables a hundred ways. To get under the skin, if you will, of Russian life, get thee to a banya, or bathhouse.

During two previous youthful visits to St. Petersburg, or “Peter,” as residents call it, the occasional vodka shot provided well-being. But now in my middle age, a creaky back led me to seek restoration of a different kind as I attempted to resuscitate the language I studied in college 20 years earlier.

Sure, luxury spas and private banyas favored by novye Russkie, the new rich, now proliferate here. But I wanted to feel one with the proletariat, whose spirit still lurks just steps from the trendy cafes and boutiques lining Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Thus only an old-school, Soviet-era public banya would do. Worried about the spread of disease, Vladimir Lenin had ordered these built to cleanse the masses who poured into the cities and cramped communal housing after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Long also an important social ritual, the banya traditionally marked births, weddings and deaths. And it still provides a relaxing afternoon out with friends. Poet and author Alexander Pushkin called it “a second mother” to Russians, offering renewal and comfort. (He never met Valentina.)

A quartet of giggly, middle-aged women join me at the entrance to the Coachmen’s Banya. They enter through the door marked “Luxe,” a fancier option increasingly available. But as a woman of the people, I eschew upscale surroundings in favor of the standartny. The friendly clerk takes my rubles and assigns me a metal locker. After disrobing, I enter the cavernous, utilitarian red and white washroom as water trickles from taps and showers.

Even on a Monday afternoon, the place buzzes. It feels like the Khrushchev era with a “Workers of the world, unite!” vibe: Wash, flog, relax … then climb back on the tractor or assembly line.

Do I appear a decadent Westerner despite our union in nakedness? Nyet. Paunchy older women predominate, but all ages, shapes and classes are welcome. The women are friendly but focused on relaxation. And no one cares about an extra 10 pounds caused by a runaway blini habit. It’s freeing.

Most of the women arrive in pairs. I’m solo, finding no takers among my bemused friends, who looked at me as though I were crazy, begged off with previous commitments — the Hermitage! the Amber Room! Laundry! — and took off faster than a Moscow taxi driver.

Meanwhile, Valentina, a veteran, notices me looking discombobulated and approaches. “Here’s a free bench, there are the buckets,” she says. My toiletries now settled among the rows of metal benches, I shower, then enter the steam room.

The fresh smell of venik, or birch branches, permeates the thick air. The wet heat seeps into our muscles as we recline on hot, long benches (don’t forget a towel) in the dark, wood-paneled room. I’m slowly, pleasantly, turning into an inert lump.

After steaming for a few minutes, I return to the washroom for a dip in the ice-cold pool, then a brief rest. Enter Valentina and the flogging, after several trips between hot and icy. The cycle repeats for nearly two hours until we’re thoroughly relaxed.

Bathers control the temperature in the steam room by throwing water onto rocks heated by a stove. (Wood-burning are considered best.) It’s similar to the Finnish sauna, also thought to have arisen in medieval times. The principle? Sweating out toxins is hygienic, improves circulation and promotes a sense of well-being. In Russia, the flogging process further contributes.

At one point, a red-capped Amazon enters the infernal parilka and barks something indecipherable at two women who had begun to flog each other. She ladles water into the stove, the temperature spikes and steam spews forth as if a volcano had erupted.

I quickly cover my face, and my back feels as if it’s on fire. Borscht, ballet and Bulgakov suddenly seem preferable routes to the Russian soul.

No one moves. Then whacking begins in earnest and green bits fly. Is this why Russians tolerate life’s vicissitudes better than the rest of us?

After participating in this apparent insanity for a minute, I give my Soviet sisterhood the slip and find the icy pool, which feels fantastic.

When I return to my bench, I notice one of Valentina’s doughy contemporaries sitting on my towel. Could this be some kind of banya initiation ritual? Did I gloss over this part of “Anna Karenina”?

Nyet. Her eyesight is just as bad as mine. “Oh, sorry,” she says, disconcerted. (The U.S. was never a communal nation, although my big Irish Catholic family sometimes felt like one, and misplaced towels went with the territory. Still, one must draw the line.)

I sit, totally relaxed, sipping bottled water as voices softly speak Russian. (Soda and beer are also available in the locker room or pub downstairs.) My complexion and skin look amazing. “Of course,” another woman says, “this is why we come.”

I bid Valentina dosvidaniya and find a cafe for further restoration via cappuccino, tiramisu and squishy couches. Ordinary Russians find these places expensive, and it feels like a betrayal of the day’s spirit.

The large windows look out onto Nevsky Prospect’s mansions, where the fashionable and high-heeled saunter past a babushka toting plastic bags. Reminders of the city’s turbulent history abound amid the beauty of buildings such as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, modeled on St. Basil’s in Moscow.

At No. 14, just beyond the Winter Palace, a sign dating to the Siege of Leningrad (the city’s Soviet-era name) warns that this side of the street is more dangerous during an air attack.

During the siege, the Kirov Theatre’s set designers built papier-mâché tanks that fooled the Nazis’ Luftwaffe for a while. I thought of this the previous night while watching Russia’s prima ballerina pirouette across the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) stage as if in a dream.

Though names may change over the years as the country’s fortunes and politics shift, the Russian people’s resilience is a constant.

Fortunately, they still have their “second mother” to turn to.