Russia: Staying Clean in Moscow
By Antonia Malchik
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I asked my sister. Sasha bent back the pages of her Moscow guide book. The address we were looking for fell in the crease of the street map. I looked up at the block-long building in front of us. It was an imperial-looking place with high windows and carriage entrances, and was apparently closed for renovation. After years of capitalism, Moscow was still undergoing gentrification.
“It should be right here,” she said. “Sandunovskiye Banya, number 14.” She squinted at the building. “This should be it.”
“This doesn’t look like anything,” I said. But Sasha being more audacious than me, determinedly opened a door at the end of the block. A lone security guard stared at us from his grey desk at the bottom of the curving stairwell.
“Where are the Sandunovsky Baths?” I asked in Russian. “Please,” I added. My Russian had deteriorated over the years; I stumbled over the words and knew my pronunciation screamed ‘American.’ The man’s grin intensified my embarrassment, but he understood and pointed us in the right direction. The baths, known as a banya, were accessible via a side street, two arches, and a courtyard.
One doesn’t come to Russia for the bathhouses. The words ‘public baths’ conjured up images of my Soviet-raised father sitting on a stone bench splashing in one washbasin of soapy water and rinsing in another. Growing up in Leningrad, he and his siblings went to the public baths every Thursday. They paid fifty kopeks for entry and the use of two washbasins. After scrubbing up in the communal room, they stood in line to rinse off in the showers.
I wasn’t aware of the existence of more luxurious bathhouse until Sasha read about them in her guide book. What better way to experience an authentic Russian tradition than by visiting one of its bathhouses?, we thought. There, it informed us, we could steam away our cares in a private or public sauna, beat each other with birch branches to get the toxins out, and then jump into the cold pool.
The Sandunovsky Baths were supposedly the best in town. Remodelled rooms with arched ceilings, Gothic architecture, and tiled pools alluded to steaming in grandeur.
We stopped in front of the doorways hidden in the courtyard past the two arches down the side street. I looked from one to the other.
“Guess we go in the one that says ‘women’,” I said.
The building was less dazzling inside than the guide’s description had made it sound. The entrance was dark and dreary. A young woman sat behind a windowed, Soviet-style kiosk by the doorway. We asked her for someone who could speak English. She looked confused and shook her head. We asked again. She either didn’t want us there or couldn’t understand what we were saying.
After much pointing at a phrase book and gesturing at the sign that explained prices in English, the girl spoke rapidly into a heavy phone at her desk. A minute later a young man with greasy hair and a white shirt met us. We thanked the girl at the kiosk, although we weren’t quite sure what for, and followed the young man into the building.
After traversing several stairways, we ended up at another ticket counter where we again endeavoured to explain to two more young men that we wanted a private room.
We opted for a private room because Sasha had a nasty cold; she was afraid to scare Babushkas away with her cough. Besides, I knew those Babushkas well enough; and if they saw us wielding our birch sticks incorrectly, they would have no qualms about helping us out with a firm hand. I would rather mess up in private.
The men nodded impatiently. Then one man stood pointing at a poster board with photos on it of sofas, pools, and saunas. “Which is better?” asked Sasha. He pointed to a room with a large dipping pool. I glanced at the price list. It was the second most expensive room.
“Which is cheaper?” I asked. He waved his hand and said they were all about the same price. They clearly weren’t, but the extra zeros at the end of the prices left my arithmetic abilities cold.
The man led us up the stairs to baron hallways leading to rooms decorated in a faded, imperial style. Dark, polished mahogany ran along the walls and banisters.
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