Mark Simpson visits a Russian sauna or ‘banya’ in Tallinn, Estonia and gets an eye-wateringly good seeing to.
(Out magazine, Feb 2007)
“You like to get beat again?” asks the gruff, naked former Red Army soldier. “I do very gently this time.” Sweating profusely, I turn my back to him and he begins expertly working me over.
I visited my first Russian bath-house, in Tallinn, Estonia, capital of the rapidly Westernizing Baltic country and I nearly didn’t leave. By the time I finally did, I was a wraith of wrinkles and covered in an alarming, stinging, if cleansing rash – from being whipped with a Christmas tree by totally starkers Russians high on beer and pigs ears.
I was also covered with a conviction that we in the West have forgotten how to be comfortable in our own naked skin.
The banya, or Russian sauna, is as central to Russian culture as vodka, poetry and passionate friendship. Nearly half the population of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, is Russian descent and speaking. Independent since the early 90s, Estonia still has a strong Russian legacy, though one that is rapidly being erased in the rush to embrace the West and forget the immediate past. Tallinn is a popular destination for cruise liners and British stag parties looking for cheap booze and leggy strippers and the simple, purifying pleasures of the banya are fading fast – there is now only one banya left in Tallinn.
I however was looking for naked sweaty backslapping Russians – though only for comradely, purifying purposes you understand. And I found them at Tallinn’s last banya.
I was taken there by my buddy and banya enthusiast Steve Kokker, a Canadian turned Tallinn resident (director of a remarkable and touching film about Russian military cadets called ‘Kameraden’), After undressing and showering in the (open, non-compartmentalised) wet area, we encountered a group of bollock-naked shaven-headed middle-aged Russians, most of whom looked as if they’d had a hard if quietly dignified life. They were instantly welcoming and friendly despite the language barrier and despite – or perhaps because of – the total lack of clothing.
One, a 69-year-old wounded infantry veteran of the 1956 Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary who looked twenty years younger, showed me the shrapnel scars on his legs: ‘We all disagreed with it, but we had no choice’. Steve translated for me the low, impressively butch Russian sounds. Many patrons were replete with what looked like homemade, borstal tattoos. Learning that I was a newbie, they extolled the benefits of the banya: ‘It will keep you young.’ ‘It will keep you fit.’ ‘You will not lose your strength in bed.’ Their lean, rangy bodies were the most persuasive argument.
Sharing their smoked pigs’ ears and warm Russian beer with us, they began arguing vehemently over how long I, as a Banya ‘virgin’, should spend in the steam room and what I should be whipped with first, the white birch twigs? or the juniper? or perhaps the nettle bush? (whipping with forestry is part of the banya experience – it is thought to cleanse the skin, and perhaps also the soul).
They finally agreed on the correct procedure and led me into the steam room – much hotter than any of the Nordic or Turkish saunas I’d experienced. The heat was almost solid. I tried to hold my breath rather than risk scorching my lungs. About twenty naked men were seated on the tiers of benches. Several of them were being whipped with branches by other men, their sweat spraying everywhere. Including, before I could close it, my mouth. Some were talking animatedly, some staring grimly ahead, mutely enduring the heat. Occasionally someone ladled water onto the hot stones, which instantly vaporised into hissing heat.
Trying to impress, I sat about halfway up – after having been advised to sit near the bottom. After about five minutes shifting uncomfortably on the scalding wooden bench, (many banya regulars sit on special ‘padjopnik’, or ass-pads) I was dripping like a spatchocked chicken. Then I was led me to the ice-cold plunge pool and more or less pushed in. ‘It is good for circulation!’ they laughed. ‘If it doesn’t stop it altogether!’ I gasped.
Back in the steam room initiators decided I was ready to be whipped. It was agreed that I would first be lashed with white birch tree branches (the birch is sacred in Russia – once a country of forest-dwellers). I turned my back, leant forwards a little and thought of England. I don’t know whether being whipped is purifying, but I can tell you it certainly clears your sinuses. It’s a little like being dragged through a hedge backwards, but more fun. After the onslaught stopped and I hadn’t flinched I felt that I had passed some test.
A little later, I let someone whip me with juniper leaves. This did hurt – like being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. Actually, it was being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. After less than a minute of this the Hungary invasion vet intervened and called a halt: “This is too much for first time,” he said. I didn’t argue.
At this point a stag party of ten or so young British males turned up at the banya, obviously a ‘real Russian banya’ was on their heavily programmed itinerary, squeezed between lap dancing clubs and driving a rusty T34 ex-Soviet tank. They looked pallid and puny and ill at ease in their own bodies next to the Russian regulars – and terrified by the nudity and the whipping, keeping their towels tightly wrapped around them, eyeing the swinging Russian dicks with alarm. This was altogether too real and, ironically, male for the stag party. I stuck close to my new Russian buddies, hoping to be mistaken for a Russian myself.
I noted with some pleasure that none of them endured the heat of the sauna for more than a few seconds, even sitting on the lowest bench, and none of them submitted to the ritual of the birch. No more than about 20 minutes after they arrived, they were shepherded out and onto the next stop on their itinerary. Then no doubt back to the safety of the UK and corporate gyms with their changing rooms within changing rooms, cubicle showers and ‘Swimwear Must be Worn At All Times’ signs.
A well-preserved 50-year-old Russian with piercing blue eyes, who sported the most heavily tattooed and most formidable body there, and whom Steve and I both very much wanted to believe was an ex-con, was determined to use a large nettle bush on me. Repeatedly and eagerly he enquired, eyes shining, if I was ‘ready’.
“He’s very keen to have you bend over and make you feel that stinging sensation,” translated Steve, almost without smiling.
Eventually the Hungary vet intervened again, announcing that I’d had enough for my first visit, and that besides, the nettles would stop me sleeping (they stimulate the nervous system, like a Russian peasant version of crystal-meth).
Nettle Man looked dejected and muttered something before sloping off.
“What did he say?” I asked Steve.
“He said he will be here ready for you next time.”
This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story