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Friday, May 11, 2007

The Banya - Now You Are A Real Russian Man

Life in Russia is fun, tiring, satisfying and always full of challenges. If you live in Russia for very long one of the challenges you will certainly face is THE BANYA. What is a banya? A banya is a Russian steam room or sauna. Our Russian friends tell me that the banya is really not a sauna, but I am not sure what the difference is, so, think sauna. For Russians, the banya is a way of life. Not to participate means missing out on a huge part of Russian culture and a great opportunity to bond with the people to whom we are called to minister. To be Russian is to go to the banya and if you want to really experience the banya you need to go with a group of friends.

The banya is usually separate for men and women, but in a private home it could be the whole family. In this case, towels or sheets can be provided by the host, for modesty’s sake, but they might not be, so I would not “do banya” in a mixed group. In the secular culture the banya can include some vodka drinking. The Christian community has rejected this tradition. Their banyas are segregated by sexes and no one drinks alcohol. Still, most missionaries never “do banya.”

All the American missionaries that I have ever talked to regarding this part of the culture recoil and resist going. Why don’t we go? Fear and inhibition are probably the main reason. In the banya you are naked, completely naked. There is something very intimidating to the average American male about sitting around in a room, buck naked, with a bunch of guys and just talking! Every missionary I have spoken with has told me, “no way am I going to do that.” I have been hesitant myself, but all of the guys at the rehab have been pressing me to banya with them. How can I be a mentor and a friend and refuse their offer?

This week a group of churches, each of which runs drug rehab centers, asked me to speak to them at a conference. When I received a copy of the schedule there was a three hour block of time for the banya, so I made the choice to fully enter into my friends’ lives and do it. We were out in the country at a small house, which was being used as the conference center. At the rear of the property was the banya, built close to a stream. As we all walked through the mud toward the banya I noticed that twenty yards away, also along the edge of the stream was the outhouse! Gross! The next trip to America I think I will get checked for parasites. Oh well, no stopping now!

The "Conference Center"
The Banya

I walk up to the banya door, open it, and am immediately greeted with the site of a bunch of naked guys. Before the story goes any further, let me say that our friend and language teacher, Sveta, had talked privately with pastor Dmitry on my behalf telling him that Americans are very modest and don’t like being naked in groups. Dmitry said “no problem, tell Michael to bring a bathing suit, it’s OK,” so I was prepared.

I am not sure which is more intimidating, being naked in a room full of other naked people or being the only guy in a bathing suit in a room full of naked men. No matter, everyone is happy that I have joined them and they are all speaking to me in Russian as I try my best to understand and respond. Pastor Dmitry comes in a few minutes after me and to my surprise he is also wearing a bathing suit. I am so pleased and really touched by this, not because I am now not the only guy who is not naked, but because I am sure that Dmitry is wearing his bathing suit only to make me feel more comfortable.

Dmitry greets me and says, “Michael, davai”, which means “Michael, let’s go.” We step into the steam room and it is so hot it is difficult to describe. It is so hot I can’t wear my glasses because the metal frames quickly became too hot to touch and burn my head. Inside the room are 8-9 naked men sitting on the two rows of benches. As I sit down to enjoy the heat, the guy on the bench above begins to drip sweat all over me! More wood is added to the furnace and the heat goes up even more. The wooden bench is so hot I am squirming and I have a bathing suit on! Talk about “buns of steel,” these guys have them! So here I sit, talking with all my naked friends while being steamed liked a Maine lobster. I also notice a unique collection of tattoos on these guys, in places I would never see in a church service!

After about 5 minutes, I need to go into the other room and cool off. We do this a few times, back and forth, steaming and cooling. In winter, you can go outside and roll in the snow to cool off. In the summer you want to be near a stream or a lake if possible.

Surprisingly, I found myself enjoying it. Part of the banya experience is to beat yourself or to have someone else beat you with small branches from birch or evergreen trees. It is supposed to cleanse you and help your circulation. So on the third trip into the room Dmitry tells me to lie on a bench and he will beat me. The bench is blisteringly hot, even with a towel on it. The air is so hot I can hardly breathe for fear of scorching my lungs and here I lie while a guy beats me with a tree branch! After a few minutes I need to leave again because of the heat.

Dmitry stays in for a few minutes longer while I sit and cool down a bit. When he comes out of the steam room he says again, “Michael, davai,” and leads me out of the banya and down the muddy path to the stream. I go down a few steps into the icy, murky, brown water and Dmitry stands over me with a bucket drenching me with the stuff! While screeching from the shock of the icy water all I can think about is the overflowing outhouse twenty yards away!

Back we go the banya cooling room and we sit and talk, and drink tea, and talk, and drink water, and talk. I tell the group, “Today I am a Russian man,” and they all say, “Da (yes) Michael you are a real Russian man.” After about ½ an hour I drip dry and cool off. The guys begin getting dressed one by one and go off to other things. The overall experience was fun if a bit intimidating. It was a great way to bond and become more a part of the young men’s lives and culture. I will definitely “do banya” again. Hopefully the next time we won’t be so close to an outhouse.

Another View of the Conference Center

30 Young Christian Leaders stayed here for two days enjoying fellowship and teaching

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

GREAT BLOG. I am an australian and i had a similar experience, i was teaching english in russia and i went with my russian friends and one other australian to a private banya many times.

The first time you walk in and are the only one wearing 'aussie boardshorts' and no one there can speak english except your friend, and neither your friend nor you can speak russian, GREAT EXPERIENCE haha. They just all give you that look and you look at your other australian friend and you both know that the 'boardshorts'have to come off. I must say its a liberatng experience. You really do realise that we come from a completely different culture.

I went many times with my friends, it is best when it is snowing because you can run outside and jump naked into the snow!

Anyway. the main difference between a banya and a sauna is that a banya is alot hotter and has more moisture, it is a very wet heat, kind of like a steam room and a sauna mixed together i guess. And this wet heat is also why you have the birch branches in a russian banya but not in a russian sauna.