The night before I would be thrashed with birch branches by a smiling and naked former Army colonel, before I would learn that the Russian soul emerges only under intense heat, like a pinecone exploding in a forest fire, I received a piece of practical advice about the experience known as banya.
"You'll need some plastic sandals," my brother, James, said. Living in Moscow for several years, he had become a devotee of the weekly communal bath and was wise to its rituals. "It gets hot. And I've got a hat you can wear."
Why would I need a hat, I asked.
"To keep your hair from catching fire."
None of the guidebooks I read mentioned this phenomenon. They droned on about the centrality of the banya to Russian life, its rural origins, its healthful properties, that the purification of the banya had been woven into every major life event: marriage, birth and death. At one time a bride's sweat from her prenuptial banya was kneaded into the bread baked for the wedding feast.
But none of the books mentioned the possibility of immolation.
The next morning, a Saturday, was cold and wet, and the normally bustling Ring Road was nearly empty as we drove to the Astrakhansky banya. James led the way up to the private sauna his friends had rented for the morning. We were late and the other men, ranging in age from early 20s to 75, were already naked and gesturing for us to hurry.
I slipped into a pair of white terrycloth sandals, perfect for your average pamper-puss spa day but laughable when paired with the pixie hat of thick felt that James stuck on my head. Pasty white and smooth as a walking stick, in the mirror I looked like Ichabod Crane getting ready for nude bingo at Paradise Lakes.
Holding a placemat-sized square of felt that James assured me was as essential as a protective cup to a baseball catcher, I followed the parade of white butts through the small suite of rooms toward the sauna. We passed through a sitting room of leather couches, into a steamy warm marble and tile shower room, which I thought at first might be the disappointing extent of the banya. Then James pointed to the wooden door at the other side of the room, which was at that moment being yanked open by someone wearing an oven mitt.
Let me say something here about the scientific properties of heat and how skin reacts to extreme and sudden variations of temperature: Owwwwww!
My pores — I counted 604,306 — slammed open like the hatch on a nuclear missile silo. Instinctively I turned to flee, but the rest of the group was already at the top of a wooden platform 5 feet off the ground, waving for me to join them. Each step up brought me closer to the ceiling, where the agitated air molecules gathered like a soccer mob. James motioned to the wooden benches; the placemat of felt needed no further justification.
For a few minutes I thought I had reached a standoff with the temperature. Hey, I've driven a car in August in Florida without air conditioning, I thought. Then I noticed my wrist was getting hotter than the rest of me, and I realized my plastic running watch was beginning to look dangerously Dali-esque.
I got out fast, heading for the shower room and an emergency cold rinse. Chefs will recognize this technique of using cold water to stop the cooking process. Extinguished, I thought: Is that all? And also this: I hope that's all.
Nyet. This was just round one.
The men had assembled in the sitting room, hands on knees on the facing leather couches. We made small talk and passed around a bottle of mildly salted carbonated water. Seemed a little like a naked picnic in Gorky Park. Just as I was getting used to the strange splotchy pattern of enraged blood vessels on my arms and legs, Lesha, the designated Heat Warden of the group, signaled that the sauna was ready. By this he meant the sauna was hotter. I expected him to be shouted down, but everyone leapt up as if someone had just announced they were giving away flat-screen TVs.
Inside the chamber of horrors, Rudolph beckoned me to the top of the platform, which suddenly seemed more like a gallows than a seating area. Without warning he gave me a savage swat on the back with a sodden bundle of leafy birch branches.
Let me say something here about the effect of a large bundle of leafy birch branches on human skin: Ahhhhhh! Ahhhhhh!
I would have said this was the most uncomfortable thing I had ever endured, but then Rudolph turned me around and attacked my front and I knew it was only the second most uncomfortable experience. I kept one hand over my privates and one hand over my face as he scoured me from crown to feet. I call this part: Satan's Scrub-O-Matic car wash.
Later I learned that Rudolph was bestowing a great kindness on me; he didn't trust the proper envigoration of my pores to anyone else. At the time it just felt like payback for Bush's plan to put missiles in Poland.
I asked James how hot the sauna was. Someone said 120 degrees, which I thought was a lowball estimate. That's Celsius, someone said. Of course, that's impossible because that would have put it well over the boiling point, but then I looked at my skin and thought, maybe . . .
Round three was insufferable. Round four was infernal, hotter still and featured a renewed attack by Rudolph. I gave up every one of my CIA contacts.
I was about to throw up my hands and say Uncle Vanya when Rudolph ushered us into the front room, where the men had laid out on the dining table a robust spread of cut red peppers, salami, cheese, fresh bread and grapes. Naked and splotchy, we fell upon the food like we'd been rescued from a mine. Then Rudolph uncapped the ice-cold bottle of vodka and poured out a round of shots.
We toasted the first day of spring and knocked the glasses down on the tabletop.
We toasted ourselves.
We toasted dead friends who could no longer enjoy banya with us.
We toasted Lesha's talent with the furnace.
We toasted the bogus election the next day.
We toasted . . . I have no idea what else, but we found at least three more good reasons. I was feeling very jolly and thought this would be a perfect time to get dressed and say spasibo to my hosts. But just then everyone pushed back from the table and sprinted back to the sauna.
Here it dawned on me that the key to understanding Russians is that they bond in pain: the Siege of Leningrad, 75 years of communist rule, a round-trip flight on Aeroflot. I mean, what kind of people who have access to regular hot water would submit themselves to this misery by choice?
The temperature of the last session defied accurate description. It was so hot that even Rudolph and the other veterans could not sit on the benches, but hunkered on the floor to avoid the roiling air trapped at the ceiling. Then they belted out an old war song called Variak, in which a crew of Russian sailors sing knowing they will not survive the coming battle.
The last note of the dirge was turning to ash in the air as we rushed for the cold showers.
Rudolph and Lesha beckoned me to lie face down on a long marble bench in the shower room. I'd seen this motion before and I was hesitant. But they'd arrayed the bundles of birch branches, which had been the instrument of my pain, into a pillow for my head. Then they set about scrubbing my back with vigor and rinsing me off with huge buckets of cool water. That's the tradition of banya: a moment of genuine, solicitous care — your friends and family wash your back because that is the part that you cannot reach. Once everyone had been attended to, we dressed and returned to the table to polish off the food and another small bottle of vodka.
On the street, the cool air lapping meekly at our glowing cheeks, we said our goodbyes. Lesha said he was planning to visit Florida soon. When should he come, he asked.
August, I said, definitely August.
Bill Duryea is the national editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at [email protected]