It may sound odd, but I have never felt more relaxed than when surrounded by naked Russian men. Men who ferociously beat each other with silver birch leaves and branches. Men who let out low grunts of either pain or pleasure as a twig thwacks across their buttock. Men who suffer in sweaty silence as a searing wave of heat emanates from the hot stones in the corner. This is, of course, the Russian banya. A place where worries dissipate, friendships are cemented, and a man’s genitals are afforded more freedom of movement than an EU national with an inter-rail ticket.
The Russian bath house takes things to extremes. Perhaps best described as a cross between a steam room and a sauna, the temperature tends to reach the 90ºC mark. Rather than the dry, wooden heat of a sauna, this is a moist heat that seeps into every pore and tests your staying power. Even seasoned professionals, the vast, pot-bellied men who cause the wooden boards to creak underfoot and look as if their sole purpose in life is to sweat in the presence of others, eventually succumb to the heat.
When it all gets too much, you seek the cold. In the public banya, people leap into freezing plunge pools or douse themselves with buckets of cold water. Out in the countryside, there are often more creative options. You might be lucky enough to find a lake in which to skinny dip, or leap gleefully into a nearby river. During winter, a large pile of snow is never too far away. And once you have cooled down, you head back in for another round, repeating the process over and over again.
While this all might sound like aimless frolicking in the nude, there are in fact rules and traditions to be observed. You should always thank those who prepare the steam, for it requires an element of skill, and wish your comrades a ‘good steam’ (с лёгким паром - s logkim parom). Keep conversations to a quiet level as raucous behaviour and raised voices are unlikely to be tolerated. The only time you will hear shouting is when some poor sod leaves the door open and feels the wrath of the crowd. And lastly, let everything hang out naturally. I’m sure I speak for female banyas as well when I say that there is no judgement. You’ll look far sillier if you attempt to preserve your dignity.
Over the course of a few hours, you will need a break, a pause for refreshments. After all, as well as being wonderfully relaxing, a long banya session is thirsty work. In Moscow, at Krasnopresnenskaya Banya, the changing rooms resemble train carriages, with two leather benches on which to sit. In between ‘steams’, you can order drinks and snacks. I am yet to find a situation that worsens upon the addition of snacks. What is more, I am prepared to argue that there is no finer time to be greeted by a banquet of beers, hot, meaty sausages, rye bread, fish sticks and condiments, than shortly after emerging from multiple trips between a sweltering steam room and an breathtakingly cold dip.
My best experience of banya snacks came back in 2013 in the tiny village of Artybash, on the shores of Lake Teletskoye in the Altai mountains. My host, Vladimir Nikolaevich, an elderly chap, insisted on cooking an entire lamb plov, a hearty, rice-based stew. In between banya sessions and trips to the snow that decorated his garden, we dined on plov and vodka for several hours.
Of course, the final ingredient for a successful banya experience is excellent company. Vladimir was just that, experienced at both toast-making and storytelling, but particularly adept at fanning and striking me with the dried veniki, whilst carefully avoiding my unmentionables. The banya gives you the chance to enjoy quality time with friends, and long worthwhile discussions. In the technologically-dominated world we now live in, the opportunity to have extended conversations should not be missed. Nor should the chance to spend a few hours in the buff with your mates and several strangers.