Time Zones: Three Hours in a Moscow Banya

Where Spirits Lift On Billows of Steam

Antonina Zbanatskaya, 70, smacks Yelena Yurova with a cherry broom at the Sanduny banya, where retirees congregate with friends each Monday for half-price.
Antonina Zbanatskaya, 70, smacks Yelena Yurova with a cherry broom at the Sanduny banya, where retirees congregate with friends each Monday for half-price. (By Anna Masterova -- The Washington Post)
By Nora FitzGerald
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008

MOSCOW Antonina Zbanatskaya, an energetic 70-year-old, awoke early one recent Monday after a cold, rainy Sunday. She cut some cherry branches in her garden in Odintsovo, near Moscow, and tied them together to make a sort of small broom. Then she packed up her creation along with a floral bedsheet, towel, felt hat, slippers and some fresh plums.

A few hours later, Zbanatskaya and her friend Yelena Yurova jovially smacked each other with fresh cherry leaves. They performed this ritual, a kind of aerobics for the vascular system and the skin, in Sanduny, a Moscow banya , or traditional steam bath, that has been warming up Russians and cleaning their pores for more than 100 years.

The two women come most every Monday morning at 10 for pensioners day, when retired Russians congregate with their friends for half-price -- 300 rubles ($12.75) for women and 400 rubles ($17) for men, who have better facilities all-around.

By 11 a.m., the women's dressing and tea room at Sanduny were aglow with dozens of mature women wrapped in soft, aged bedsheets (the preferred, affordable attire in many banya), their skin the color of slow-simmering borscht.

The heat can cause what appear to be broken blood vessels all over the body, off-putting to the banya novice. But the pensioners offer reassurances that this is a good thing: The more mottled the skin, the more open the pores; the more open the pores, the more water weight that's lost, and the more elastic the skin.

"It's a shame there is no banya tradition in America," said Tatyana Yutkina, 56. She is one of the volunteers who watches over the bathhouse stove. "Even ancient people collected stones, warmed the stones and made a hut with the skins of animals. Here we arrange a banya for any occasion -- we just make a tent and warm the stones."

"It's great for the blood flow and the fat under the skin just disappears," said Zbanatskaya, whose skin, recovering from the heat, was beginning to gleam in earnest.

"We come in as pensioners and we leaves as pioneers," she said, recalling days as Young Pioneers, the girl scouts of their Soviet childhoods. Yurova erupted with laughter.

Energized, the women returned to the steam.

First they sat in the hot part of the banya. Yurova poured water into what looked like a bread oven as the women removed their bedsheets to sweat. The nakedness in the women's banya on pensioners day is a free and uninhibited celebration of bodies that have worked, given birth, nursed babies and worked again.

Women massaged each other's loose stomach muscles and beat each other's backs. They wore felt hats that looked like upside-down tulip blossoms and gave the women beneath them a kind of elfin look.

Some women lay down as their friends beat them with cherry and oak, a ritual taken as seriously as the beating of a bass drum in a marching band. Then they jumped into the cold plunge pool, or took turns throwing buckets of cold water over each other's heads.

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