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The Russian sauna – a survivor’s tale


IT IS peculiar how some gestures are universal, some decidedly local.

The ‘okay’, the ‘thumbs-up’ and the ‘middle finger’ are, I imagine, understood almost everywhere.

Some gestures I know to be specific to a certain geography. Here in Russia, tapping your nose to mean ‘it’s a secret’ will leave your interlocutor bemused, perhaps reading it as an indication that you have developed some kind of drug habit.

This confusion can work both ways. What to make of a Russian eagerly flicking the side of his neck? Having gained much experience on the topic through my anthropological adventures here, I am now able to tell you: it means variously ‘drinking’, ‘drunk’ or acts as an invitation to drinking.

I first came across it when my grandfather-in-law Sasha would, after every other sentence, flick the side of his neck, wink at me, and nudge me vigorously with his elbow. I had utterly no idea what he was doing at the time, but am now aware it was an attempt at engaging in the most ancient of male bonding rituals: booze, followed by more booze.  

There are, of course, a lot of stereotypes flying around about the Russkis and their alcohol. When thinking of Mother Russia, it is hard not to think of benches of sozzled men in ushankas eagerly necking some kind of industrial-strength potion. After all, Moscow did not classify beer as an alcoholic beverage until 2011, and what would Russia be without its vodka?

The average Russian, apparently, knocks back the equivalent of 11.7 litres of pure alcohol per year. It sounds like a lot, but it turns out the French (12.6 litres), the Germans (13.4 litres) and Lithuanians (15 litres) are all drinking Ivan under the table. At 11.4 litres per capita, we Brits have some catching up to do.

That said, one thing I have noticed about the way Russians drink is its  reckless abandon. While the French sip on vin and the Germans bash the table with their beer steinswhile singing about the beautiful bovines of Bavaria, the Russians attack alcohol with an almost suicidal glee, glugging it down as if, once opened, it has a shelf-life numbered in seconds.

It certainly brings a new angle to the toast ‘na zdorovie!‘ which non-Russians erroneously think to mean ‘to health!‘ They don’t really say that here though, and the preposition is wrong anyway. The next time you’re getting sozzled behind the Iron Curtain, be sure to say ‘za zdorovie!‘ instead.

Anyway, somewhere to observe Russian drinking in its most health-imperilling is at the banya, the Russian equivalent of a sauna.

I was invited to one a few weekends ago. Before I set off, my girlfriend warned me of the perils of drinking there. I took this to be part of the heightened concern the female line of her family shows for my well-being, with concerns ranging from the thickness of my socks to the adequate supply of gherkins in my fridge.

I soon understood what she meant, however.

Sweating out a goodly portion of one’s body weight in the banya while wearing a funny felt hat (‘You wear it so your brain does not cook,’ informed a friend), followed by compulsory dunking in a pool of cold water (‘It’s good for the circulation and the heart, it make you strong!’) the addition of alcohol into the mix seems enough to set off the mother of all heart attacks.

After my first round of banya-followed-by-ice-pool, I sit at a table of friends, them chatting happily away, me sweating revoltingly, heart-rate sky-high and feeling slightly other-worldly. The more hard-core among them are already cracking open their third or fourth beer, but to me the idea of imbibing is now as appealing as a bat chop suey from a Wuhan wet market.

Alexandr, a short, balding chap with an impressive beer belly, sees I have no drink in front of me. He flicks the side of his neck. I turn down this offer as politely as I can, but he counters it with a different suggestion entirely: a trip back to the banya. Despite having only just about recovered, I foolishly agree.

This time it is only me, Alexandr and another friend, Vseva, in the banya. Vseva guards the door, saying he will make sure no girls come in. Alexandr tells me to strip. The command makes me feel somewhat alarmed and also very British, the idea of others seeing me in the buff bringing out a latent embarrassment. As I was finding out, Russians are a lot less squeamish in this department.

Using my less-than-perfect Russian as a pretext, I pretend to misunderstand, hoping he won’t insist. Sadly, this feigned ignorance doesn’t work and I soon enough find myself lying face-down, stark naked in the banya, as you do.

I begin to feel a tad vulnerable. At this point, Alexandr brings out a bucket of oak twigs, which doesn’t ease my alarm. Grabbing a healthy handful, he commences to beat my pasty body. Again, I ask the point of it all: ‘It’s good for the skin,’ comes the reply.

For most people, excluding some Conservative peers, finding yourself naked in a sauna being thrashed by a man you have just met is not a usual experience, but such are the perils of Petersburgian socialising.

I’m told to turn over. I feel like a rotisserie chicken being seasoned while cooking slowly in the sauna. A few more beatings and I’m told to run with great haste back to the cold pool. I grudgingly comply. Hauling myself out of the pool – heart and circulation either strengthened or about to give way entirely – I am ordered to stand under a bucket, from which more cold water is poured on me, and once more into the banya.

Eventually, I make my way back to the table where everyone is still talking and drinking. I feel something between delirium and exhaustion. Vseva asks if I’m feeling tired. I nod slowly in the affirmative. ‘It’s normal,’ he says, ‘for your first time in the banya.

Certainly I appear to feel the effects more than others. Dmitry, to my left, a hirsute bear of man with a vocal range that flips dramatically between subterranean rumblings and manic, high-pitched laughter, sits next to a small forest of empty Heinekens while I meekly sip a fizzy drink.

The evening winds down and we head for home. I call a taxi. As I get in, the driver asks whether I mind the music. ‘No, it’s fine,’ I say. ‘What about speed?’ he asks, slamming his foot down on the accelerator without giving me the chance to reply.

At the first set of traffic lights he glances across at another driver minding his own business before declaring to me that he will race him. That the other driver has not noticed is neither here nor there to the madman in the taxi. The light turns amber and we rocket off, soon doing double the speed limit.

Realising I am a foreigner, my new Central Asian racecar-cum-taxi driver tries to involve me in a financial scheme. He gets his ‘associate’ on the phone to describe the situation: hundreds of thousands of US dollars have been transferred to a Wells Fargo account, and they just need a payment of a few thousand dollars to release the funds. As Saint Petersburg whizzes past, I hold on to the door for dear life, quietly praying that both my body and bank account survive the journey intact.

As I make it home, having turned down the promise of riches, he wishes me ‘good luck’. I can’t help but feel he should have wished me that at the start of the journey.

After an evening full of perils, I make it back to my flat. Closing the door of my flat behind me, I suddenly find myself more in need of a beer than ever before. With stresses like these, maybe I’ll be drinking like a Russian before long too.

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Frederick Edward
Frederick Edward
Frederick Edward is from the Midlands. You can see his Substack here.'

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