friends to drink and steam the night away with. Then again, isn't it odd that he is the only
other person staying in this hotel with us?
Isn't it odd that he happened to be coming out of his room just as we checked in?
Could he actually be working with the FSB?
I wrestle with whether I should let my paranoia and suspicion stand in the way of meet-
ing a fellow traveler. I want to go to the banya —but feel like precautions are in order.
Maybe its going overboard, but I decide that we should be on guard, especially so if there
is food or drink presented by Vasily (I prefer that Sergei and I never both consume the same
item) in case he's laced it with poison and intends to rob us.
The banya is a truly Russian experience, and Vasily does it up. We meet him after din-
nertime in the small wooden building next to the hotel. He has brought beers, a bottle of
vodka, glasses for both, pickles and homemade horse sausage (right, horse sausage) from
his hometown, a few hours away. All this is spread out over a wooden table. Vasily is ban-
ya -ready in a green tank top and shorts. We have agreed that I'll partake of the bathing
itself. Unlike most Russian men, Sergei isn't all that fond of the banya anyway, and he can
stand guard over all our things.
Vasily tells us he is in fact the chairman of his local banya society, so I'm presumably in
good hands. He instructs me to remove my clothing—as much as I would like. Some men
go full monty. I typically hang onto the boxer shorts. I'm pretty happy when Vasily does
I've been to a banya a half dozen times, and while I always feel cleansed and rejuven-
ated afterward, I can't totally disagree with Daniel Rancour-Laferriere who, in his book
The Slave Soul of Russia drew a parallel between the bathhouse and the pride Russians feel
from enduring something difficult. The author called the banya a “favorite theater of pain”
The idea may seem strange to the Westerner who is accustomed to the lonely pleas-
ure of a tepid bathtub, or the bracing spray of a shower. A proper Russian bath,
however, is not just relaxing, or bracing. It truly hurts. The Russian does not merely
soap up and rinse off, but endures additional quotas of suffering. The water . . .
thrown onto the stones or bricks atop a special bathhouse stove . . . produces steam
which is so hot as to bring out a profuse sweat in the bathers. The eyes and nostrils
sting from the heat. Moreover, the naked bathers flail one another (or themselves)
with a bundle of leafy birch twigs (termed a venik). This mild flagellation sup-
posedly assists the steam in flushing out the pores of the skin, and leaves behind the
pleasant fragrance of the birch. Sometimes the hot portion of the bath is followed up
with a roll in the snow, or a dip in a nearby river or lake, or a cold shower.