Only after eleven years in Russia, I finally enjoyed the “pleasures” of the banya. It is an institution in this country. I was in St. Petersburg for a conference with foreigners. This experience was way overdue. My authoritative contacts at the upper-levels of government had told me that Russia’s business was conducted in the banya. In this first experience, no business was done, but I was ready. As we collected our sandals, sheets, and bunches of birch twigs, the Russian in our group said, “Citizens of the United States, prepare to suffer!”
The process was this: First, our naked and fearful bodies crept into a barren room with stained walls and seats of hot wooden planks too hot to touch. With a long handled cup, water was thrown on the walls to increase the temperature which was already, they said, at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. After about twenty minutes, the birch branches, soaked in water with oil of eucalyptus, were beaten on our white and frail bodies. We either did it to each other, one man standing covering his essentials and beaten by the other, or like guilt-ridden Penitentes, we beat ourselves. Slap, slap, slap. If it were babushkas doing the beating, it might have been fatal. Some men wore felt caps, supposedly to protect the ears, making one look like a peasant in a Brueghel painting.
The skin a beaten red, the next step was into the pool of ice cold water. The manly way was to climb up the slippery ladder (everything was slippery) and jump into it, a pool eight by fourteen feet and five feet deep. When the body starts to shake, it’s into the private locker room, large enough for ten or so—we were five, and down a tall mug of kvass. Kvass is the Russian tea-totaler’s substitute for beer. It is made from black bread. Not bad. We enjoyed some talk and gossip about poets and writers, then back to the hot room. The eucalyptus aroma soothes the insides. Soon some Russians joined us. Thin and fat, young and old. It was quitting time, we figured.
This masochistic routine was repeated four times over two hours. First 200 degrees Fahrenheit, then the twigs. By then the twigs had lost all their leaves and were switches. They hurt more. The body sways a bit, and it wasn’t just me. Sitting was better. Ice cold bath. Then a shower, drying off, and taking to the street for the long walk back to the hotel. We conquered the sidewalks with ease. I have not been the same since.
Now, among Russians, I can claim some degree of legitimacy. I was then ready to discuss the business of Russia. The girls in the Moscow office said I looked healthy. So it must have been a good idea.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.