Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Fending Off a Hostile Takeover at the Banya

Fending Off a Hostile Takeover at the Banya

Amusing and enlightening article by Bryon MacWilliams at The Moscow Times, regarding an attempted banya putsch. The story is remarkable for how very Russian it is ...
The message dropped into my inbox with a virtual kerplunk. "Banya Crisis," it said. It had been sent by a friend, an American lawyer who negotiates multibillion-dollar oil deals. He is not prone to hysterics.

I paused. I have been living in Russia since 1996. I have lasted this long, in no small part, because of the banya. The Russian bath is my survival ritual. It keeps me healthy, keeps me energized in a city that takes more than it gives. This, for me, was grave news.

Had the new director of the banya been murdered like his predecessor? Had mercenaries in black masks and fatigues stormed the premises, as before, in a bid to settle issues of partnership? Had a wall of the oven crumbled, spilling the 20 tons of pig iron onto the floor of the steam room?

I straightened my spine and double-clicked.

"We had a banya crisis today. Three asshole thugs came in and took over control of the parelka away from Grisha. All the regulars were appalled but these guys were very aggressive. They ended up agreeoing that we would take turns between Grisha and them but it was still not the same. We better hope these guys do mnot come back. They yelled at us for talking in the parelka and for sitting on the stairs."

Three misspellings. Errors of punctuation, grammar. My friend is no dummy. Clearly, he was shaken.

I hadn't gone to the banya that day because I was away, traveling. I was sitting before a computer in an Internet cafe, learning how my life in Russia had changed while I was gone.

My friends and I have been steaming in these baths in central Moscow since the late 1990s. We've tried, we think, every other public banya in the city. Every single one. And while just about everything connected to the banya is subject to argument, this is not: For two hours on Sunday mornings, we luxuriate in the best steam in the city.

It's not just us, a handful of Americans and Russians, and the occasional Italian, Brit and Finn. Others, a good two-dozen Muscovites, already know what we know. They, too, go to see the wizard.

Grisha is a regular guy, but, for us, he's also something of a guru. He is in his mid-40s, with close-cropped brown hair and a moustache. He walks with flat feet, and a flapping mouth. He is what Russians call obshchitelny, or sociable -- but that is an understatement.

Each Sunday he arrives at the banya at about 9:40 a.m. We arrive about 10 minutes later. By 9:55 a.m. he has aired out the steam room and begun to make new steam.

I am part of a small ritual. I give him an open bottle of Zhigulyovskoye beer. He chides me for paying 12 rubles and 50 kopeks when, where he lives, it can be found for 11 rubles. Then he removes his tan felt hat, pours some of the beer onto his scalp, massages it into the skin, and empties the rest of the bottle into the hot water that he will hurl into the oven.

His steam is not extraordinary because he adds beer, or mustard or sage. It's not remarkable because he pushes waves of steam over our bodies with a lollipop-shaped wand upon which he splatters scented oils, combinations of herbs or citrus.

It's true that Grisha knows the oven, he knows the steam room. And that's important. But his steam is special because of his ability to strike just the right balance of heat and moisture. This ability falls outside the realm of habit, or science. He is guided by intuition, something I would liken to divine intervention.

His is the kind of steam that makes this night owl get out of bed early on a Sunday -- even when it is dark and frigid outdoors and, indoors, a warm, curvaceous body is bowed against mine.

So it was with an uneasy sense of powerlessness -- in the very Russian understanding of the ways of fate -- that I received the urgent e-mail from Moscow.

I felt as if I were about to lose one of the last things I had left. Friends and lovers have come and gone over my years in Moscow, but the banya has been one of the constants. I could not just pick up and go somewhere else -- I already had been everywhere else.

The following Sunday, after I returned to Moscow, I looked for a Mercedes SUV -- the thugs' set of wheels -- as I approached the baths on foot. There it was, parked on the sidewalk, hampering passersby.

Inside, Grisha started with beer. It was an intense steam, so hot that I crept to the upper level and promptly squatted on my haunches. I cooled off in the pool, drank some mineral water. Then my buddies and I gathered up all our veniki -- tightly gathered switches of birch, oak and, in this case, juniper -- and returned to the parilka to beat ourselves, to finish the cycle of steaming. Only someone already had begun to make new steam.

It was them. Indeed they were three. But they didn't look like thugs. One looked a lot like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with something akin to a snarl in lieu of a smile. He was in charge of the steam, but he wasn't in charge. His boss was a younger man, very tall, who wore a goofy felt hat that sat askew on his head. He was soft, but not fat.

The Doughboy's steam was good, but not exceptional. It was heavy on mustard. In fact, his steam later would be so heavy on mustard that our eyes and nostrils burned. Grisha, for the first time, began to show his aggravation.

"Smoke is hanging in the air," he said, loudly, to no one in particular.

Smoke? In the parilka? Amateurs! We took Grisha's words as a call to arms.

Could it be that we were the only ones who minded this inelegant steam, who objected to Doughboy fanning his boss with the wand and no one else?

Like good Republicans in the United States, the thugs were asserting minority interests in the face of a passive majority. And they were succeeding. It seemed that everyone was willing to submit. But we decided to intervene.

A good friend of mine, an American who moved here in 1994, told Doughboy that we come because of the artistry of Grisha. I got more specific: Doughboy's steam, I told him, was too moist and too heavy on mustard.

But we were ill-qualified to resolve the situation. We speak Russian well, but it wasn't about language. It was all in the approach. We were too polite. We, like good Americans, smiled too much. That is only an invitation, as is said here, to sit on someone's neck.

Ultimately it would require an approach, a cure, indigenous to Moscow. Boorishness.

"You're outsiders!" it began. A short, pudgy, hairy man who rarely comes was shouting the words as he soaped up in the shower. He stood alone, encircled by the thugs. Doughboy, too, was yelling.

To be honest? I didn't understand all they said. But the following Sunday, the Mercedes SUV was not parked on the sidewalk when I arrived. It did not show up the next week, or the next.

Things returned to the way they were. The only change, all but invisible, came from the realization that the ritual upon which we depend -- a ritual, we thought, that was ours as much as anyone's -- did not, in fact, depend on us. We're outsiders, too.


La Russophobe said...

I'd say it's also remarkable for how very disgusting it is. I've often heard it said that Moscow contains all the worst features of Europe and all the worst features of Russia with none of the good features of either, and this might be said of the Kremlin as well. The country has a proud KGB spy as its president yet doesn't even have law and order, but at the same time it has all the weaknesses of a dictatorship in terms of crushing the market.

Yes, disgusting is the word. Plus which, if you've ever actually been in a real banya in a big city . . . but I digress.

Seems we are polar opposites AR -- you're the accidental Russophile and I'm the purposeful Russophobe. Although some linguist might argue that the purposeful Russophile is the opposite of the purposeful Russophobe, but since only an insane person can be a purposeful Russophobe (Mike Averko springs to mind) that's not an option really worth discussing.

andrei said...

-- but since only an insane person can be a purposeful Russophobe --

What a laudable example of self-criticism!

Lyndon said...

Are you kidding me? This mad "Russophobe" must be stopped. Or perhaps just ignored.

Thanks for posting this, Wally, this is my old banya group and I was there for part of this drama, so I was glad to see Bryon get it documented in the MT. Fun stuff - one of the things I'm looking forward to most about the summer is Sunday mornings in the banya. Of course, a good banya at a friend's dacha can be better than a banya in the city, but when you go to the same place with the same people every week, it becomes such a pleasant ritual that it seems like the best possible banya experience.

La Russophobe said...

I did that on purpose because I KNEW you'd focus on that instead of attempting to defend on substance, which you can't do. But I had to make sure. I bet whenever Russia's declining population comes up, Mad Vlad starts talking about punctuation.

What is it that your average Russophile always wants to "stop" and "silence" anyone who criticizes them, just like the Soviets did to Solzhenitsin? Can't they see this pathetic attitude is what is destroying them? Is it because they know they're wrong?

La Russophobe said...

LYNDON: yes, only kidding. the whole world knows how wonderful Russian banya are, and that is why the whole world copies them so faithfully, and why millions of tourists flock to Russia each year to visit the real thing. In fact, I've heard that Disney is planning a Banyaworld at Epcot center, set to open next spring.

Lyndon said...

Russofobka, I don't care whether the whole world knows about the banya or would enjoy it if they did know. I know that I like it, and unlike others I have no need to force my opinions on strangers.

Don't even get me started on how screwed up Russia's approach to tourism is, you'll find I can be quite Russophobic - or at least constructively critical of the country - at times.

Are you still living in Russia? If so, why don't you go home? If not, since you think it's such a horrid place, why don't you just forget about it? Even in your 'phobia, Russia has captivated you.

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Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Wally,

I must admit that I am blue with envy that you have found this banya. The real ones are rare indeed, and most often banyas just end up in a few huffs and puffs, despite great "choreography" from all involved. By the way, you had better keep the location a secret, or else one never knows how it will all end up. One cannot have 50 bloggers crowding the place, I mean.



W. Shedd said...

Miss Russophobe,

Not to start an argument, but I think it is your tone that often incites others to so strongly disagree with you on various topics. But I suspect you know that already - it seems to be rather deliberate.

Public banya's in Russia can be rather rough (but so can public toilets, for that matter). I find the more private banya experience to be rather invigorating, and one of the aspects of Russian culture that I truly enjoy. This banya seemed like a rather fine establishment and the short story was pure meeting of Russian and American. Many Americans do enjoy the similar sauna experience, which is more familiar in this country. However, I doubt Disney could make billions offering steambaths - they would have to dress it up considerably. Plus, steam requires lots of energy and the cost for a family of 4 to enjoy a Disney banya would run upwards of $300 for a half-day.

Lyndon - I'm jealous. When I've done banya, it was cold water (or snow), tender birch branches, and steam. I have a goal to build my own banya at my next home, actually.

Lyndon said...

I have American friends who have contemplated trying to open a banya here - the conclusion was that the insurance would be prohibitively costly (think of the risk of heart attacks and other heat-induced health problems for those not used to the banya, not to mention the potential slip-and-fall issues). But I've heard there are some good banyas in NYC.

And I was just reading on the website of a Moldovan microcredit provider about how one of their success stories is someone who's opened the only banya in a small town there. So I think it can be commercially viable if you ignore potential US-type liability issues and if you have a cheap source of energy.

I've done the from-the-parilka-into-the-snow thing, but not for a long time, and that's one thing I miss about the citified banya experience. On the other hand, while you are right that some public banyas are rather skanky, there are three I've been to in Moscow that are clean and mostly pleasant (depends on what kind of crowd you run into) - Krasnopresnenskie (or Bani na Presne - notwithstanding the fact that an infamous organized crime hit took place on its front doorstep some years ago), Seleznyovskie (a bit more off the beaten track at Novoslobodskaya), and of course Sanduny, which everyone knows about and which is lovely - and not as costly as you might think.

My experience is that the setting is not nearly as important as the company. Private banyas, for example, at people's dachas, are often fun because they belong to your friends and/or you're steaming in them with your friends, not because they are spacious or create ideal steam.

My imagined retirement home (if I ever have such a thing) definitely includes a banya. You know, you can get pre-fab ones (saunas, they call them, but throw enough water on the rocks and you can't tell the difference) here in the US - according to the google ads here on your site.

W. Shedd said...

Yes, I have a trove of bookmarks for premanufactured banya/sauna businesses. I actually have a partially written post on the topic with some helpful links and information on the topic of building your own banya. I should probably finish it and post - certainly a more positive and healthful topic than EU/Gazprom and this Jamestown conference.

Lyndon said...