“Put your hands up!” said the large, naked man to my right.
“Good!’ he said and began pummelling me from behind with a birch branch.
I was, of course, in the “banya” or Russian bathhouse - a tradition as old as the hills and a true test for any traveller. Upon paying the chain smoking old man at the door for a two hour time slot, my Russian flatmate instructed me that now was the time for full frontal nudity. You can’t wear swimming shorts in the banya. Well you can but then everyone will paradoxically laugh at you.
It is somewhat similar to a Finnish sauna although far warmer. After toasting yourself for several minutes (I think I managed no more than 7 or 8 at a time) you either leap into a freezing pool of water or roll in the snow. The birch or oak branch beating is optional. I chose to do this partly out of my adventurous spirit and partly out of fear that the burly men around me would call me a coward. My being English was a subject of discussion and much amusement. There was nothing sinister about it; it is simply rare for the banya regulars to meet a foreigner this far off the Moscow tourist trail.
Once I had overcome the conservative attitude towards nudity that we seem to have in Britain I found my time there to be quite enjoyable. As well as the birch beating you get treated to two other Russian sauna oddities – felt hats, used to keep the heat away from your head, and large gulps of a drink called Kvass: a kind of lightly fermented beer that tasted like life itself in my dehydrated state.
You see some pretty grizzly stuff in the banya and end up feeling pretty weak from the constant hot-cold, hot-cold cycle, but you leave the banya feeling completely reborn. My roommate claims that a trip once a week will keep cold and flu away for life and to an extent I believe him.
There is something very Classical about the whole set up. Even in this “working man’s” banya it felt as much a cultural ritual as a medical one. It was even bordering on being a social event or rite of passage - a man inducted his eight year old son to the tradition while I was there. As he withstood his first minute of blazing heat, knees shaking under the sweaty intensity, a rapturous applause erupted from everyone.
“He’ll be drinking his first beer soon!” a man joked.
I left with the sense that I have at last taken part in something truly Russian and something that I would cautiously recommend any adventurous traveller or slavophile to do. Ideally go with friends and go the whole hog the only thing you need to bring is a pair of flip flops…