The bathhouse beat continues… Check out my article on Ruby Hornet about Russian banyas (bathhouses), featuring Chicago’s Red Square Spa. Click here to read about it or click below to read the plain text version.
“To Beat or Not to Beat: Sweating in a Russian Bathhouse”
By Danielle Levsky
Posted on July 7, 2015
There’s this Russian expression I use colloquially: “пошел в баню!” (“poshel v banya!”) that literally translates to “go to the bathhouse” and figuratively means “go to hell.” It’s an old expression that originates to the use of banyas, Russian bathhouses, which have been a part of Russian culture and history as early as 1113. Villagers and noblemen alike used the banyas to get clean, sweat out illnesses, perform marriage and birth rituals, and perform magic.
The banya also had an evil spirit associated with it: the bannik, the bath house gnome. Mikkel Aaland writes that the bannik was described as “an old man with hairy paws and long nails.” He resided in the banya itself, usually behind the stove, and only appeared if he was unhappy with inappropriate or disrespectful behavior occurring in the banya. The “go to hell” expression comes from this evil spirit: the bannik had an evil inclination that caused him to invite demons to share the banya.
My family immigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in the early ‘90s, so folklore beliefs like the bannik were lost on them. The banya, however, was and still is considered by them and other immigrant families as a place to sweat out toxins, relax their aches and pains, and gossip with other Russian speakers.
The closest thing we had to banya culture was the sauna at our local gym. But we wanted something closer to the real thing. We wanted a real banya. So, my mother and I went to the Red Square Spa on the border of Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park.
Back in Ukraine, my parents told me that banyas were separated by gender. They would enter the razdevalnya (the changing room) first, to put away their belongings, disrobe, wrap themselves in a towel or sheet, put on their bannaya shlyapa (a felt hat reserved for banya visits), and take their mochalka (a scrubber) and soap. Then, they would enter the first part of the banya, the mylnaya, where they would wash themselves. They would continue to the 180+° F parilnya, the sauna, which would be lined with wooden benches. A large stove would sit in the corner. Here, people would sit, chat, sweat, and occasionally throw water on the stove to release more steam and heat into the air. It was also customary for people to beat themselves with a vennik, a broom made of a bundle of birch leaves and branches. More commonly, a professional “beater,” a banchik, would scrub and beat each attendee. This practice is meant to increase circulation in the body and reveal all kinds of ailments. When the heat became too hard to withstand, they would dash out of the parilyna and into a cold pool or simply into the snow.
“For Russians,” my mother said, “the top two health remedies have always been vodka and banya.”
Red Square Spa was rather small. They intertwined the Moscovian “Red Square” motif through an enormous black and white mural of Moscow to the right of the entrance. The men’s and women’s sections shared the same amenities and there was one shared wooden lounge that housed the “Russian Sauna,” which was approximately 20 degrees hotter than the sauna in each gender’s section.
We were shown to the women’s razdevalka, where we undressed, put on bathing suits and our sauna felt hats. We also purchased a vennik—a bundle of leafy, Oak branches—to beat one another. To prepare the vennik for beating, we filled a bucket with scalding hot water, then put it inside to soak for thirty minutes.
The women’s quarters housed a “Turkish Sauna” that was dimly lit, had several rows of wooden benches, and smelled of cedar wood. A large oven stood in the corner, heating up the sauna to 180°F. Just to be safe, I checked around the oven for a bannik; seems he was out for the day. Almost immediately sweat began to trickle down our foreheads, arms, and legs. My heart rate would continue to grow until it was so loud I could feel and hear nothing but the sound of it. While we could withstand regular fitness center 110°F saunas for 20-30 minutes, my mother and I had to take turns exiting the “Turkish Sauna” every ten minutes to dump cold water on ourselves. When the icy cold water met my burning body, my heart rate rose even faster and I shrieked “OY!”
Though the heat sounds like it may take a toll, I felt so decompressed and at ease when we moved onto the next sauna. In the unisex area was the “Russian Sauna,” which was 20 degrees hotter than the “Turkish Sauna.” We were only able to last five minutes before we decided it was time to begin the beating. Several other girls in the women’s quarters saw us fiddling around with the vennik and wanted to see the show. We all entered the Turkish Sauna. I laid a towel on top of a wooden bed and climbed onto my stomach. All the women were giggling, including my mother who was nervously holding the vennik. The sauna was already starting to make me sweat, so when she started hitting me on the back with the vennik, I could barely feel it.
red square spa mrs levsky To Beat or Not to Beat: Sweating in a Russian Bathhouse
The author’s mother sits in the women’s lounging quarters at Red Square Spa, reading popular Russian newspaper, Reklama. There is an old Russian proverb about the banya: “Ба́ня – мать втора́я,” which translates to “the banya is like a second mother.”
“Does it hurt?” one girl shrieked, “Does it sting?”
“Not really,” I said, twisting my back to look at my mother, “In fact, I can’t feel a thing! Perhaps we can call that nasty bannik out here to do a better job!”
She tried to hit harder but couldn’t seem to muster the strength. However, when she started waving the vennik over my body, I felt a rush of heat hit my back and run up and down my body. Sweat seemed to be pouring and dripping everywhere.
Afterwards, my mother mused as we laid back in our chairs, sipping on vodka and admiring the Kremlin depicted on the mural.
“It doesn’t quite feel like Russian banyas,” she said, “But at least now, when someone tells us poshel v banya, we can say we already did.”