Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Episode 28: The one with the naked whipping or Rob goes to the banya

“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…

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Episode 27: Rob gets chased by riot police or an update on Moscow's political climate

The protesters on the other side of the river threw another riot police helmet into the murky water. An enormous cheer rose up from the crowd and I found myself joining in. I covered my mouth immediately. Oh good lord!" I thought, "I, a foreigner, cannot possibly be seen to get involved in this!" This is not directly my fight, but nonetheless, Moscow, my home for the next 3 months, is a bit of a battleground at the moment and I am somewhat in the thick of it.
Communist Party and "Leftist Front" flags as the protest built up

In going to observe the so-called "March of Millions" protest against the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as the country's new president, I had accidentally ended up a part of the protest. I watched from behind the front row as Police dragged Udaltsov and Navalny (two "leaders" of the opposition movement) off of the stage literally seconds into their speeches. Having distanced myself to the other side of the river, where I considered myself to be a safe distance from the actual, political action, I was suddenly aware of the large column of riot police marching facelessly towards the crowd gathered around me.

They rounded the corner and bore down on us. Despite having been given the official go-ahead, this protest, and anyone simply watching from the sidelines, was being broken up forcefully. "The allotted time for this event has passed," a Police announcer spoke, "Kindly leave the streets by the nearest metro." Before I knew it a line of more vehement protesters had began to charge the police, batons were drawn and scraps broke out. A man was hit with a baton. A policeman stumbled over a dustbin. People around me started to run. The crowd was made up of many different people: the middle-aged, the middle-class, the elderly, parents with their children and a lot of youths who really didn't want to see any violence. It was a shame that anyone had to get hurt; protesters or police. The image portrayed by certain television stations of the protesters being violent yobs paid for by NATO is both ridiculous and uninformed. The image portrayed by the protesters of the police being bloodthirsty and mismanaged is equally askew at times.

Riot Police blocking off the Kremlin (St Basil's in the background)

Needless to say there was not bloodshed or rioting on an epic scale. Protesters, including one extremely enraged babushka, drummed and tore up some corrugated-iron scaffolding, but on the whole the conduct of the police and protesters was not disproportionately savage. Eventually the police herded us towards the metro and the crowd broke up. I left the area quickly not wanting to risk accidental arrest. There was an ugly rumour going around all day of the police being given an arrest quota to act as a fear tactic with officers simply picking up anyone they could lay a hand on easily. I hope this is untrue.

The impression I have now is that Moscow, backed by new protest movements from Astrakhan and St Petersburg, is a city given another shot at a Spring-time rebellion. Tonight, all over Moscow, people are desperately trying to occupy squares and boulevards to prolong the action. The warm weather is on their side. As a foreigner, I know better than to get involved directly, and, as always, my opinion on this blog is something to be kept veiled. All I can conclude is that there is a deep and mostly peaceful unrest here, but things are getting more and mores desperate as well, on both sides of the political line.

more soon...