April 01, 2023
New York
Suffer - It’s Good for You

My day at the Russian banya

By Tania Barnes

A stocky man appears from the shadows, wearing a fat gold chain and speaking in a thick accent. For $25, he offers to beat me.

This isn’t a fight club: it’s Royal Palace baths, a Russian bath house,  or banya, on the edge of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where Russians and intrepid foreigners pay $40 to roast inside wooden rooms heated to as much as 200 degrees F. They also thump themselves with veniki, oak branches. It’s all to improve circulation and health.

The spa is one part paradise to two parts kitsch nightmare, decorated in the faux lux style so beloved by Mafia kingpins and chain Italian restaurants: the main room, replete with large aqua pool and plastic patio furniture, is done in fake marble, its vaulted ceilings held up by fat Roman columns.

“Welcome to Royal Palace!” two beautiful women - skinny jeans fitted snugly into boots, gloss-slicked lips, eyelashes like the sharp points of a star - greet visitors in Russian at the entrance. The Betty and Veronica of Brighton Beach, with mismatched personalities: the blonde is cool, taken with some secret text exchange on her phone; the brunette chatty, making jokes with customers and reminding them to tip.

The name, Royal Palace, is fitting: “We like everything royal,” my Russian friend Masha says. No matter that the Russians killed their own royal family. “Yes,” Masha demurs, “but we like what they like.”

The banya itself is a kind of torture, but there’s pleasure in it, too. Here is the Russian national psyche: suffering is edifying, and the banya’s cleansing fire makes you pure again. Through pain, pleasure — the two are never far apart.

You Have Back Pain?

On a Saturday afternoon, aging men built like kegs, their great stomachs protruding beneath towels slung around their necks, lounge around the pool in the main room. They drink beers and snack on vobla, salt-dried fish. Their younger counterparts scour the room for girls, who smirk on the sidelines, crossing and uncrossing their legs. The room smells, not unpleasantly, of chlorine, fish, and freshly laundered towels.

Three men circle the room, masseuses competing for clients. They are insistent: “slushai, slushai,” they say. Listen, listen. They promise a discount if you pay them directly, cash, no need for the front desk to know. You have back pain? They’ll work the spongy discs between your vertebrae to get the blood flowing again. Headaches? They?ll find your pressure points and release the tension. There’s no problem they can’t fix.

Children run in occasionally, complaining of hunger, thirst. A tow-headed boy, skinny as a wild dog, pleads with his father: “papa, papa, papa,” but the man is too busy walloping his wife to hear; the leaves of the venik falling to the ground in clumps. “Khorosho?” he asks her, good? Da, da, she says.

It’s my first time, and so I go where everyone goes: the Russian steam room. There are also Finnish, Turkish, and Roman saunas, each heated to a different temperatures with dry (Finnish) or wet (Turkish) heat, but no one seems to go in them much.

After a few minutes in the sauna, I’m so hot I can barely speak. Masha implores me to wrap a towel around my head; the Russians are all already wearing shapky - felt hats - to protect their heads from the heat. I can barely understand what she’s saying; the blood is thudding in my skull.

A group of men in their 30s catch sight of me, this WASPy American girl suffering their Slavic inferno, and laugh, “It’s nothing yet!” one of them says. He decides I’m an amusing specimen. “We?ll get undressed,” he smiles, “then it’ll really be like Russia!”

I put my head down and listen to feet squish across the floor in sandals and flip-flops as people come and go, wishing each other legkim parom - a good steam. After a spell in the heat, Russians go out into the snow to roll around or, as here, dunk themselves in frigid baths. The ritual lasts hours, whole days: steam room, snow-roll or ice cold bath, maybe to the pool for a swim and a snack, then back into the steam room again. In between, the women rub honey and salt over their faces, and some slick on a mint green paste. When they leave, their skin is as smooth as the flesh of a peach.

Failed Escape

I sneak out of the steam room, hoping to find some relief in a tepid shower. But one of the men from the group catches me, and shakes his head. “You have to go in,” he says, gesturing toward the glowering green square of ice water in the corner. I demur, but it?s no good: things must be done the proper way. I jump; the pain is as if I’d hurled myself against a glass table. I claw my way out and collapse on a stone bench.

Back in the steam room, a young man enters: the executioner. With a ladle and a few deft flicks of the wrist, he flings water, scooped from a bucket, on the hot stones inside the small oven. The stones hiss and growl as they release steam into the air, producing heat. Then the man ? from Tajikistan, he tells me later - waves a towel around in great lazy circles, jostling the angry atoms of air.

Surely this is some circle of hell. But the men assure me: “The heat is half what it would be in Russia!” They soften at the look on my face. “You’re doing well! The American we brought only came in here once. When we told him to go in the cold water, he said, ‘you guys are f__ing nuts.’”

Plenty of visitors to Russia have thought as much. In the first written account of the banya, recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113, the Apostle Andrew visits the area that was later to become Russia. Observing the bathhouse ritual, he remarks: “They [the Russians] lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves.”

After five hours of torture, I?m exhausted, banya-drunk. It’s only 8 p.m., but I fall asleep upright at the table while waiting for my “salad in a glass,” a Moscow-priced ($10) juice made from red peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and carrots. “Ah,” Masha says, looking at me, “and that’s how you know you’re done with banya.”

Tania Barnes is a master’s candidate at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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