After a stressful week, a steaming hot bath sounded like a nice diversion.
I was in Moscow for a friend's wedding, and things had not been going smoothly. It was my first time in Russia, and not speaking the language, I'd been ripped off by a waiter and two taxi drivers. I'd confused two metro stops, both marked only in Cyrillic letters, and waited for 40 minutes in the early March cold while my hosts puzzled over my whereabouts.
So when a college friend, now living in Moscow, asked if I'd like to join him for a trip to a banya, or traditional Russian bathhouse, I jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know that intense physical suffering — some would say masochism — is as central to the ritual as water and heat.
Banya can mean either sauna or bathhouse, and visiting one at the end of a long week, for health and socializing, is an old Russian tradition. Not old like the city's imposing Stalinist architecture; old like the Eastern Orthodox Church. "Wondrous to relate, I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bath-houses," Andrew the Apostle wrote during a trip to what is now Russia, according to a chronicle compiled in 1113.
FOR THE RECORD
April 3, 7:59 p.m.: A previous version of this article said that Andrew the Apostle had written about baths during a trip in 1113. The trip was actually in the 1st century, but was included in a chronicle compiled in 1113.
"They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies," he continued. "They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."
Our destination, the Seleznevskie Bani, was in a nondescript red brick building in north-central Moscow — a bit of a fixer-upper, with dim lights and a subtle scent of mildew. It charged about $20 for a two-hour session.
On a Saturday afternoon, the place was full of naked men, old and young, lumbering around with back-slapping confidence. In the first minute, I saw more smiles than I'd seen in days. Past the locker room was a white-tiled shower room, and at its far wall a thick, medieval-looking wooden door. Beyond that was the steam room.
The steam room looked like a regular sauna's abusive father. Staggered wooden benches reached nearly to the ceiling. In one corner sat an industrial-looking furnace. The light was jaundiced, and the walls were blackened by heat.
The banya runs in sessions — a couple dozen of us crowded into the room together and sat shoulder to shoulder on the benches. Veteran patrons heated stones in the furnace, and doused them with water. The steam smelled like burnt oranges. Some men stood in the corners, beating themselves with bundles of leafy birch twigs. "It's good for your circulation," my friend told me.
One patron picked up a giant fan, like a long-handled paddle, and began circling the room, distributing the steam. Under the dim light he looked like some kind of Greco-Roman performer, waving the fan in slow, bold strokes. He walked from patron to patron, fanning them up and down as they winced and tensed their muscles against the heat.
Gradually the room's temperature rose to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly hot enough to boil water. We all wore pointy felt hats to keep our brains from roasting, giving the scene a surreal, comic effect. We looked like an oven full of gnomes.
When the fanner reached me, I panicked. The wind felt penetrating, like knives. I couldn't breathe. Blinking hurt. I began to fear for my internal organs.
A quote about Russia, hazy and unformed, ran through my mind. Later, I found it online. It was by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "The most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything," he wrote in 1873.
We had been inside for about 10 minutes.
Then suddenly, as if on cue, everyone burst into applause. The session was over; together, we filed out of the steam room and into an adjacent room housing a small turquoise pool. An open window breathed in the Moscow cold. We jumped in. The water was like ice. I gasped. It felt like an exorcism.
In rural banyas, I was told, patrons just jump in the snow.
Afterward, we went back into the locker room to drink beer and munch on handfuls of dry fish. I looked up and saw the fanner walk by; though just moments ago he seemed all-powerful, he now appeared young, perhaps in his late teens. He had an underbite and a noticeable hunch — more computer hacker than Greek god.
After a few more sessions in the banya, I felt both exhausted and totally refreshed. Outside, the winding streets were stark but pretty, beneath a light dusting of snow. The cold sharpened my senses. I realized that the week's frustrations no longer bothered me — that the banya had washed them away — and suddenly I felt edified, almost reassured.
That's probably the point, I realized. So much of life's suffering drags on without benefit or reward. How rare, and how wonderful, when it wraps up nicely; and when at its end, you feel not beaten down, but enlightened.