by Hank Leukart
November 29, 2012
Eating shashlik and being boiled alive in a bathhouse at a Russian dacha.
A Russian man paints the Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin on the Nerl River near Vladimir, Russia. (view all Vladimir, Russia photos)
LADIMIR, Russia — “These are old amusement rides from our childhood,” Misha says. “It was a different country then.” My Russian-librarian friend Dasha, her radio-journalist boyfriend Misha, her childhood friend Mikhail, and I are standing in humid August weather in the Central Park of Vladimir, one of Russia’s medieval capitals. The Russians are staring wistfully at the rides from a Soviet-era, derelict amusement park: a nonfunctioning roller coaster, a rundown carousel, and an abandoned, nautical-themed swing set.
“The 1990s were hard,” Misha continues. “People had no money and every day was like a war.”
“Sometimes, I couldn’t afford lunch at school,” Dasha adds.
While photographing the attractions, I marvel at Russians’ infinite proclivity toward turning any moment into one of introspection. There’s something cinematic about it.
It’s my last weekend in Russia for the summer, and my Russian friends have generously offered to bring me to a dacha, a country vacation house in the environs of a Russian city. I’ve been trying to live like a local while in Russia, and this excursion seems like a perfect, authentically Russian conclusion to my trip.
“How do you like our Russian roads?” Dasha asks me as Mikhail drives us through the Russian countryside. I tell her that the roads themselves aren’t much worse than California’s (potholes abound due to the state’s inept government), but I do notice Russian drivers weaving dangerously through traffic without much regard for safety. “Many Russians have not taken driver’s tests; people just bribe officials to get a license,” Misha explains.
On our way, we decide to visit Vladimir’s UNESCO World Heritage sites: the city’s ancient, bright, white Golden Gate; the five-domed Cathedral of the Assumption with 40-foot high, 15th-century murals, the four-pillared Cathedral of Saint Demetrius; and the picturesque Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin on the Nerl River. We spend over an hour at the Church on the River, wandering its grounds. I’ve been sitting for 30 minutes by myself on the grassy river bank — watching a Russian painter creating an oil-painting rendition of the beautiful, black-domed, blindingly-white church — when Dasha, Misha, and Mikhail join me.
“To the dacha!” Mikhail urges. “We should relax, bent over.”
“Bent over?” I ask. I often find it nearly impossible to translate Russian humor without help.
“Visiting a dacha is a working vacation,” Mikhail explains, his eyes twinkling. “You are always bent over.” When we finally arrive at his family’s dacha, I realize that he’s not kidding: Mikhail quickly asks me to prepare firewood with an axe, to provide fuel for my virginal experience in a banya, a traditional Russian bathhouse whose interior temperature exceeds 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
I’ve never chopped firewood with an axe before, so I nonchalantly grab an axe and try to look like a manly Russian. But, when Mikhail and Misha stop by to check up on my progress, they see me waving the axe around haphazardly, repeatedly failing to make contact with the wood.
“You must align the axe, and then let it drop,” Mikhail asserts. “Otherwise, you will axe your leg.”
“There is an old Russian joke,” Misha says. “Here, let me throw you the axe! Why are you keeping silent? Oh, you caught it.” Russians are nothing if not blunt. I heed their warnings.
After I manage to finish cutting the wood (without cutting off my leg, I’d like to boast), Mikhail readies the banya’s furnace while Misha lights the coals in an outdoor grill and asks me to prepare skewers of marinated meat for shashlik, a Russian style of barbecue. Being American, I regret having missed the class, obviously attended by all Russian boys, that teaches how one becomes a real Russian man. I suspect the class is taught by Vladimir Putin himself.
Nevertheless, I manage to thread the meat onto skewers and help arrange them on the grill, and soon, the four of us are enjoying an excellent Russian meal of syrniki (Russian cottage cheese pancakes), borscht, shashlik, and, of course, vodka.
“Thank you so much for the Russian meal,” I say to my Russian friends as I put garlic on my bread. “The shashlik is great!”
“There is an old Russian joke,” Misha says. “It is a law in Russia: first butter, then garlic. If not, prison.”
“Russian banya is heating to 100 degrees [Celsius] right now!” Mikhail announces with glee, as though he can’t wait to boil the visiting American alive.
After drinking tea and eating pryaniki (traditional Russian ginger cookies) the four of us proceed into the entrance vestibule of the banya. I’m nervous — I don’t visit saunas or steam rooms even in the USA, because I find them too suffocating. In the vestibule, the Russians each grab a felt hat with a Russian Army red star sewn onto it. I feel like an American traitor when I grab one too.
“Okay, now we take off our clothes,” Mikhail says as he strips down to his underwear. Will they be able to catch me if I ran as fast as I can back toward Moscow? I wonder to myself.
“There is an old Russian joke,” Misha says. “I’m going to banya. If I don’t return, tell the government I was a Communist.”
I look at the two of them dubiously. I can’t imagine what would motivate someone to voluntarily enter a room at a temperature of over 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
“You must experience Russian banya,” Mikhail insists. He’s right, I think. I must experience Russian banya. I don’t want to leave Russia without having tried Russian banya. And when did I start dropping indefinite articles from my English?! Russian banya is already making me crazy.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I say, pretty sure that this is something I don’t want to do.
I’m the first to open the door, and we slowly step into the banya.
OH. MY. GOD. HUMANS CANNOT BE THIS HOT WITHOUT INSTANTLY DYING, I think. I begin to panic: My head is GOING TO EXPLODE. TOO HOT. TOO HOT. TOO HOT. No, really, my head is going to explode. SERIOUSLY, I FEEL MY HEAD IN THE ACTUAL PROCESS OF ACTUALLY EXPLODING.
“Lie down,” Mikhail orders. I moan quietly but obey. The four of us lie on the banya’s benches for about ten minutes. At first, I’m almost certain that my whole body is about to catch on fire, but as I relax, I find myself starting to become more accustomed to the extreme temperature. But maybe it’s a trick; it’s like I’m a lobster and by the time I realize that I’m being boiled alive, it will be too late, I think.
“In winter, we’d run out of the banya, jump into the snow to cool off, and then run back into the banya,” Mikhail says. I’m hoping that he’s noticed that my head is clearly about to explode. “But there’s no snow today.” So, he leads us back into the vestibule to cool down for about five minutes, and, then, he leads us back into the bathhouse. I’ve just begun getting accustomed to the heat again while reclining on the lower bench when Mikhail grabs a large birch tree branch from a bucket of hot water and starts whipping my back with it.
“Wait, seriously, WHAT are we doing now!?” I ask, a bit more forcefully than I mean to. The room is so humid that I feel like I’m breathing hot water.
“It is tradition,” Mikhail says as flagellates me with the branch. “It helps removes toxins.” Though I’m already acquainted with the mysterious Russian soul, I’m still surprised to discover that Russians’ tendency toward masochism goes well beyond my wildest imagination.
“Oh my God, seriously, I’m too hot,” I blurt out. “Too. Hot.” Mikhail, Misha, and Dasha laugh. We step outside into the vestibule again, and I take a deep breath of cooler air.
“There is an old Russian joke,” Misha says. “A Russian finds an American diary which reads: ‘Yesterday, I drank with Russians. I nearly died. Today, I went to Russian banya. It would have been better if I had died yesterday.’”
“But, we must go back inside,” Mikhail says, as the three Russians look at me uncertainly. “We should always visit banya at least three times.” But, they look a little worried. I think that they think that they may have tortured the American too much.
As steam rises off my skin while standing in the vestibule, my mind wanders to Cheburashka, the classic, Russian, animated children’s film that I watched when I first arrived in Russia. I think of Cheburashka’s frenemy, an old woman named Shapoklyak who antagonizes him endlessly. In one of many stories, the old woman steals Cheburashka’s wallet, train tickets, and his crocodile-friend Gena’s garmoshka (a Russian accordion) during a train ride. When the conductor throws Cheburashka and Gena off the train, the two manage to continue their trip by hitching a ride on top of the train’s blue caboose. When the old woman appears again, she has the gall, not only to join them on top of the train, but also to demand that Gena entertain her with a song on his garmoshka. Gena proceeds to play the beautiful, melancholy Russian ballad “Blue Wagon”:
As all of the minutes gradually fly away,
Don’t expect to see them again.
We feel sad that our past is gone,
But all the best is certainly ahead!
…Our blue train is steaming and swaying,
The express train is speeding up!
Why does this day have to come to an end?
I wish it could last a whole year.
Spreading like a tablecloth, time continues on,
And it reaches toward heaven’s horizon.
Everyone should believe and hope for the best,
As our blue train steams ahead.
Before, I had never understood before why Cheburashka and Gena didn’t beat the meddling Shapoklyak to a pulp and throw her off the speeding train. But, as I cool down in my underwear with my Russian friends, it occurs to me that the old woman is intended as a metaphor for life in Russia. She makes life difficult for Cheburashka and Gena, but this adversity continually strengthens their valuable friendship. They can’t help but love each other, and, in turn, the old woman.
As I look at my friends, I feel the final minutes of my last night in Russia flying past, and I wish desperately that there were something I could do to slow the speeding blue train. I brace myself to be boiled alive.
“Let’s go inside one more time,” I say. “I think I’m a real Russian now.”
A Russian banya, or bath house, is made of wood and contains a furnace that can heat the interior to over 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
How to Visit a Russian Banya
- OVERVIEW: Fly to one of Moscow’s three international airports. From any of the airports, take the AeroExpress train and transfer to the Moscow Metro. From there, it’s easy and inexpensive to travel to most locations in Moscow.
- BANYA: If possible, make Russian friends who have access to a banya at a dacha to have the most authentic experience. In lieu of that, try visiting Moscow’s oldest and most luxurious bathhouse, Sanduny Baths (14 Neglinnaya, near the Chekhovskaya Metro station), or the newer, more modern Banya on Presnya (7 Stolyarny, near the Ulitsa 1905 Goda Metro station).