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.