This is E.B. Bartels’ first essay for The Butter. Her previous work for The Toast can be found here.
In college, I was a terrible Russian language and literature major. I never finished reading Crime and Punishment, I still haven’t touched War and Peace, and I never went to the public Russian baths. Even though I spent a significant amount of time in the Motherland — a month living in a Siberian village on Lake Baikal, fourteen months in St. Petersburg, and a month studying in Moscow — I never had a proper public banya experience.
In Russian, the word banya means “bath” but also “spa” or “sauna.” A banya is not something you hop into in the morning, to rub some shampoo in your hair before work. That’s taking a shower, and there is a different word for that, because the banya isn’t a simple daily chore. It’s an experience. Going to the banya serves to shock and revive nerves, to soften skin, to relax, to awaken, and to socialize. The banya is a warm, nurturing, comforting, almost maternal experience, which inspired Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s beloved national poet, to write “the banya is like the Russian’s second mother.”
Russia’s history of bathhouses has been documented from as early as 1113, when the apostle, Andreas, went to Russia on missionary work: “l saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bath-houses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived.” The mindset is that “to achieve true rejuvenation one must experience a close encounter with death.” Saunas are common throughout many countries in Northern Europe, as a cold shower would be deadly during the long winter, but in Russia in particular, sweating is considered a healthy practice. “From 1877 to 1911, more than 30 medical dissertations were published in Russia about the healing powers of the bania,” writes Mikkel Aaland. Peasants in remote Russian villages never lacked for fuel to stoke the banya fires — after all, trees are abundant in Siberia — and often even the poorest families still managed to have their own banya. The bathhouse was so important in village culture that it marked major events; newlyweds would bathe together in the banya after their wedding, the dead would be anointed and cleaned in the banya. Frequently, though, bathing was divided by gender, especially when it came to the other life rituals that took place in the bathhouse. A groom-to-be would gather his buddies to have his bachelor’s party in the banya; women would help bathe and dress a young bride in the banya before the ceremony. The bathhouse must have been an especially sacred place for women, when they would gather together — midwives and female family members alike — to assist a woman giving birth in the banya. Though everyone, regardless of gender, wasn’t safe from Bannik, the spirit who haunts every bathhouse.
During the month I spent at Lake Baikal, I was part of a course through my college, Wellesley, working with environmental scientists. The research compound where we lived consisted of four small wooden houses, plus their own private banya — a shack containing a couple showers and a redwood sauna. Proper Siberian protocol required sitting in the sauna and, just when you couldn’t take it anymore, running outside into the cool air of Siberian August, down to the shore of Baikal, and jumping into its freezing waters. My fellow students and I grew to love this tradition, and Wellesley women filled the sauna whenever we weren’t busy counting amphipods. Before Baikal, I had never sat in a sauna. The smell of warming wood, the shock from the lake water, enveloped in a familiar group of women — I felt I had never been fully alive until then.
But the urban version of the banya is much different. Public baths already existed in the cities under Tsarist rule, but after the 1917 revolution, Vladimir Lenin ordered the construction of many large bathing facilities to clean the peasants who were flooding the cities. These public baths first existed to help quell the spread of disease, but many of the city’s new residents brought their village banya rituals with them, so the baths became much more. Also, for those living in crowded communal housing, the chance to bathe in a large, clean facility was a luxury. The big city public baths have steam rooms and saunas and pools, are full of people, and are always traditionally divided into a women’s section and a men’s section, or women- and men-only hours, though parties can rent a private room for co-ed bathing. “Leave your bathing suits at home, ladies,” writes one American visitor to the banya, “communal banya is in the nude and there is no shame in that bath house!” Not quite the same as the private sauna at Baikal. When you get too hot in an urban banya, instead of jumping into a frigid lake, you overturn a bucket of ice water on your head or hop into a cold shower, though the city banya does encourage the traditional Russian peasant massage style of beating yourself and others with birch branches.
However, the real purpose of a city public banya is to socialize. “I was a child during the Revolution. There was so little time to relax then,” one elderly Russian émigré to the United States was quoted as saying. “Those were hard times for Russians. But, thank God for the bania, old people would spend hours in the bania. It was like a club where they could relax their minds and souls and briefly forget the world around them.” The public city banya is often called the “communal banya,” because even if you didn’t come with friends in tow, you are expected to socialize with the other women around you while sitting and sweating. It’s a group experience. A popular Soviet-era movie called The Irony of Fate, or Have a Good Steam, begins with a group of friends celebrating New Year’s Eve together at a banya. Drinking alcohol in a sauna is actually not very safe — beware rapid dehydration — but that has never stopped Russians. At the baths, the friends in The Irony of Fate consume bottle after bottle of vodka, until one friend drunkenly ends up on a flight he wasn’t supposed to be on and classic romantic comedy hilarity ensues. The public banya in Russia is not something you rush through. You go to hang out, to decompress, to chat.
At least, that’s what I’ve heard, because for as much as I loved the private sauna in Siberia, I was too intimidated to go to the traditional public baths in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I was worried about standing out as a non-regular and a non-Russian. Plus, I had heard rumors that the banya is home to the dealings of the Russian mob. Who might overhear me at the baths? They say you know it’s springtime in St. Petersburg when the bodies float to the surface of the melting Neva River; I didn’t want to be one of those bodies.
So, I never went to the public baths in Russia. I missed my chance and kicked myself for it. But then I moved to New York City, and heard about a place in the East Village. As my twenty-sixth birthday approached, I decided I had waited long enough. I threw on a bathing suit and went with a group — including my boyfriend, visiting from Boston — to the co-ed bathing hours at the Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A.
I fell in love with the place as I walked through the dingy doorway, past the old signs peeling from the walls. The minute I handed over my cell phone and wallet to a stern-looking Russian man, who locked them in a box behind the counter, I was pulled back to college, and my life in St. Petersburg. I flooded with nostalgia hearing older people speaking Russian and seeing the rows of Baltika beers and blini and pelmeni in the cafe. I knew immediately that this would be one of my favorite places in New York.
Though what waited for me downstairs, in the baths themselves, made me love the place even more. The banya itself was heaven. The facility consists of five steam rooms and saunas, an icy pool, and showers, plus they offer an assortment of massage and exfoliating treatments. In the traditional Russian sauna with radiant heat rock wall, I sat next to an older man with several towels wrapped around his head. His English was minimal or he was a man of few words, but when I didn’t think I could stand the heat any longer and moved to leave, he gestured towards a bucket of water. I nodded. Without a word, he picked up the bucket, and overturned its contents on my head. The cold water felt sharp. It would have felt the same if he had slapped me with a wooden board. Yet as the water evaporated and I warmed, every nerve in my system flexed. Here was that Baikal banya feeling again: I was more awake than I had been in months.
The saunas and steam rooms themselves were lovely, but so was the fact that my phone was locked in a box upstairs. No one could reach me here. I couldn’t kill time on Instagram. Instead, I was forced to breathe and think. Sometimes I quietly spoke with a friend or two from my group, but most of the time, I sat silently and let my mind wander. So few places in the world, especially in chaotic New York, allow for that sort of brain quiet. Sitting in the Turkish sauna — with redwood walls instead of rock, and pull-handle cold shower instead of buckets — I made eye contact with my boyfriend. He didn’t say anything, but he smiled. I knew he felt it too. This was the best place in New York City. We would return.
I left the Russian and Turkish Baths feeling rested, calm, and with ultra-smooth skin. I decided it was the best forty dollars I had ever spent.
I returned several times with my boyfriend over the course of the following year, while I continued to live in New York. This became something we did almost every time he visited from Boston; I felt like I would be cheating on him if I went by myself. So, I always attended the co-ed hours, where the customers were a mix: mostly older Eastern European men — clearly regulars — and young tattooed couples — East Village hipsters.
But then, a couple of weeks ago, I visited New York for thirty-six hours. I had recently moved from Manhattan back to the Boston area, but I returned to the city for a meeting, to see some friends. Then, in the few free hours I had left, I didn’t go to a museum, I didn’t go shopping, I didn’t hit up a favorite restaurant, instead, I went to the banya on my own. My free time happened to line up with the women-only hours. I didn’t think much of it. How different could the women-only hours be from the co-ed ones? It was the same saunas and steam rooms, right? How could I possibly love the Russian Baths more than I already did?
That Wednesday morning, the clientele was a mix Old World and New, youthful and elderly, dark skin and light, athletic and soft. Seeing the diversity of the women bathers, I felt a surge of that feel-good feminism that I, like many other white women, have the privilege to focus on — our races, our classes, our ages don’t matter! We are all women. It’s naïve feeling, but a seductive one. Our experiences as women outside of the walls of the banya could not be more different, but inside, it’s nice to imagine that we could all just be women, together, for a change.
And what a change it was — this was not the Russian Baths as I knew them. There was none of the quiet that accompanied the co-ed hours — everyone in his or her own world, meditative, calm, or speaking in low, hushed voices. The women’s hours had a different energy. Two women helped each other rub exfoliating mud on each other’s backs. When a woman entered the bathing area, she was showered with warm greetings. A Russian woman in a loose robe — an employee of the baths — offered salt scrubs and massages, but as an afterthought — she appeared more interested in sitting around talking with the patrons. Everyone was chatting like old friends. The baths’ operating hours are divided into co-ed, men’s, and women’s times, but for the seven co-ed periods, and the two men-only periods, there is only one time — Wednesdays, from 10am to 2pm — for women only. Therefore, every woman who enjoys the women-only hours at the Russian Baths ends up there together. No wonder everyone was familiar.
An older black women entered the sauna area armed with two buckets for soaking, some towels, and her own personal toiletries, clearly a regular who has her routine and knows what she likes, and was greeted by a Russian babushka.
“Ah! Hello!” said the elderly Russian woman, warmly. “How long you been here?”
The black woman replied, “Thirty-five years!”
“No, no,” the Russian clarified. “How long you been here today?”
“Oh!” the other woman laughed. “About an hour.”
Names flew around in friendly greeting. Personal questions were asked, which revealed the bathers’ knowledge of each other’s families, jobs, histories, lives. I felt my status as a non-regular profoundly — but it was like being a new kid in school, walking into the cafeteria, clutching your tray, and setting sights on the table of girls you want to be your friends: on the outside, but desperately wanting in. These women must see each other every week. Imagine going to the banya every Wednesday morning for thirty-five years. I could not think of a more wonderful thing: the relaxing atmosphere, the comfortable relationships with other regulars, everyone chatting.
Also, everyone was naked.
During the co-ed hours, bathing suits are the rule. Some people wear loose drawstring shorts instead or cotton robes, but whatever you choose to wear, you have to cover up. I came prepared in a lime green strapless one-piece. But during the women’s hours, save the employee in her robe, out of about two-dozen women present, I was one of two in a bathing suit. An older naked woman sitting on a towel on a tiled bench turned to me and said,
“Freedom, my dear! Old! Young! We don’t care! Let your skin breathe — take off that, ugh, plastic.”
I smiled and shrugged, but didn’t speak and made no motion to remove my suit. I was overwhelmed. This woman had given me an in — a chance to become part of the group, or, at the very least, to talk with the group. I could have easily begun a conversation about my history with the co-ed hours, explaining the bathing suit, how I would prefer to strip down naked but felt more comfortable wearing it today, as I had just been hammered with a heavy period. This open, forward, friendly woman, I’m sure, would have been happy to discuss any of that, menstrual blood and all. But I froze up. These bathing women seemed like goddesses to me. Their camaraderie, their affection for each other, this sort of connection between women was divine, and I, though wanting to be a part of it, also wanted to sit silently and take in the heavenly beauty of this women’s space, full of friendship and comfort and the shared experience of bodies. What a magical, special women’s space this was.
The first women’s space I joined was not by choice: in third grade, my parents informed me that I would be attending an all-girls middle school starting the following year. My class was small — only thirty girls — and over time we became inseparable. Of course we fought too, but by the end of eighth grade, we were best friends and sisters. We grew physically comfortable with each other — sitting in a pile on the couch in our homeroom, sharing beds at sleepovers, holding hands when dumped by three-week boyfriends over Instant Messenger, comparing zits and greasy hair, relieved we weren’t alone in our uncomfortable preteen bodies. We grew up together and into each other.
Despite attending a co-ed high school, I continued to be drawn to women’s spaces. Subconsciously, I ended up at Wellesley for college, but consciously, once there, I began to realize how much more comfortable, free, and outgoing I felt in women’s spaces. This became especially apparent after spending time in Russia. Russia is an extraordinarily misogynistic patriarchy, and moving to St. Petersburg right after my sophomore year to study abroad, I had not realized what a stark contrast the country would be to Wellesley. Fourteen months later, after dealing with Russian men making lewd comments as if I couldn’t hear them, telling me I couldn’t drink vodka because it wasn’t “lady-like,” refusing to hear my suggestions when it came to directions, assuming I couldn’t understand them because I was a dumb blonde, and after I had been sexually assaulted on the subway, twice, I realized just how much I love spaces that are for only women. So much of the world is not for us, so let’s make some places that are.
Sitting in the New York Russian Baths, thinking more about it, it was funny to me that I had been intimidated to go to the banya while living in St. Petersburg. A co-ed experience in a public banya in Russia is rare — unless you rent a private room. I would have been in the baths with only other women, and I realized that the women’s section of any Russian banya is heaven. For all the macho, misogynist abuse that Russian women have to deal with on a daily basis, the women-only baths must be a miracle:lace to relax, guarded from condescending comments, sexual harassment, and the violence thousands Russian women experience at the hands of alcoholic men. The banya would have been exactly what I needed to temper the misogynistic abuse I felt in St. Petersburg. I thought of peasant women giving birth in village bathhouses, or helping a young bride bathe before her wedding day. The baths have always been a woman’s Eden in Russia.
Feeling a void after graduating from Wellesley, I continued to seek out spaces for women. I taught at an all-girls middle school with all-women co-teachers. I lived with other women. I attended a graduate school program dominated by women. I joined a women’s gym.
I love my women’s gym — entering most gyms is like entering a frat house: the men are clearly in charge, and the women are guests in their space. Instead, the gym I joined is an empowering, hippie, feel-good sort of place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, full of young women in bright spandex and seniors taking slow flow yoga classes. Every time I go to the gym, I spend ten to twenty minutes sitting in the sauna before showering. I watch the range of body shapes and skin tones, the long gray hair and the short dye jobs, the pregnant bellies and the sagging skin, and I think about just how much I need to be in a place like this. Being surrounded by other women, I feel safe, protected, and happy.
I think about my last night as a student at Wellesley. By the feminist co-op house, my friends set up a kiddie pool. They filled it with lavender-scented bubble bath and pumped hot water via a hose attached to the co-op’s kitchen sink. It was christened “the biddy pool,” and we soaked in the water, on that May night under the suburban Massachusetts stars, sharing bottles of liquor and cheap champagne as we soaked and talked.
Commencement was the next day. Our obligations were complete: classes over, coursework done, finals finished. We felt free. We felt ready to graduate. We felt excited, empowered, and up for what would come next. But we weren’t ready to leave our Wellesley bubble quite yet. We needed time to sit in the warm water, exchanging stories and trying to figure out our futures. We were comfortable enough with each other to share fears and reservations and feelings, but also to strip down to our underwear or less, tossing bras into the grass as we joined the pool. This was not an unusual practice. We skinny dipped in Lake Waban, streaked across the golf course, saw each other throw up, shared extra-long twin sized mattresses, ate food off each other’s plates, drove each other to the ER after biking accidents, braided each other’s hair, held each other’s hands as long-distance relationships crumbled, kissed each other at parties or in the dewy quiet of the grass outside our dorms. Our bodies were not our own, but not in the usual way that the world dictates a woman’s lack of autonomy over her physical being. We grew up together and into each other. Our bodies were shared.
I spent years at Wellesley. I was comfortable with the other women there because they were my friends, but, also, because they were women. Even in a women’s space where many of the other women are strangers, I feel connected — powerfully, intimately, and biologically — to other women through our shared bodies. It’s easy, then, when creating a space for women to simply look at people’s anatomy and figure out if they belong that way. Have breasts? Great, come on in. A vagina? Sure. A penis? Please leave.
But people are so much more than their bodies, and to create a women’s space based solely on anatomy is simplistic and lazy. It’s been said that misogynists see women as no more than “walking vaginas,” and, therefore, any feminist who excludes transwomen from a women’s space — saying that it’s the body that makes the woman a woman — is no better than a misogynist. This is true — women are so much more than stretch marks and hips, menstrual blood and breasts, cesarean scars and ovaries. But then, how do you define a woman? After all, the dictionary definition of female is based entirely on physical attributes: “a person bearing two X chromosomes in the cell nuclei and normally having a vagina, a uterus and ovaries, and developing at puberty a relatively rounded body and enlarged breasts, and retaining a beardless face.” The definition of a woman is simply “an adult female person.” But I define a woman as a person who moves through the world with self-protection and self-preservation on the forefront of her mind, a person who has brains but is told to not worry herself over them, a person who says sorry more than necessary, a person who does or does not want children, a person who can or cannot have children, a person who has felt like an accessory, a person who has been reduced to her appearance, a person who feels safe around other people of her kind. Perhaps, if female is about the biological characteristics, then a woman is anyone who shares experiences with adult female persons, regardless of the fact if she has all the biologically female characteristics or not.
Transwomen experience the same harassment, assault, and body image issues as any ciswoman, and so they belong in women’s spaces, like Wellesley College. Women’s colleges advertise themselves as institutions to help develop the minds of women — of all classes, races, sexualities, identities, even ages (Wellesley has a program for women whose education was “interrupted” — women finishing their Bachelor’s at an older-than-traditional age). How can places that are supposed to be for the benefit of all women exclude certain women just because they don’t have a specific set of organs? When we take off our clothes, a transwoman’s body may appear different than a ciswoman’s, but looking around the Russian Baths or my gym, there are already so many types of women’s bodies — what’s one more?
The world is always trying to reduce women to just their bodies. Let’s push back against the world, and focus on our common experiences instead. The times she has felt objectified. The times her body was commented on. The times she was harassed. The times her body was violated. The times she didn’t feel pretty. The times she wished she didn’t care about feeling pretty but did. The times she has loved and hated and struggled with herself and her body. To speak about these experiences with other women is to feel less alone in the world. It’s empowering to know you are not the only one that has ever been interrupted by a know-it-all man. It’s a relief to compare and share stories of sexual harassment in the office or feeling reduced to the number on the scale and the color of your lipstick. You realize then that you’re part of a group. Common experiences provide sanity.
That being said, I cannot speak for transwomen specifically or all women in general. We’re all women, but we’re all people, and every person has different needs, and just as I thrive in women’s spaces, there are certainly women who do not love them as I do. There are women at my gym who clutch their towels tight around their breasts, rushing to the showers with their eyes trained on the ground. For some women, perhaps being in a women’s space doesn’t make a difference or is actively uncomfortable. But for some women, having spaces for only women is life changing, and not just in the context as a safe-haven from men. So often women’s spaces seem to justify their existence as a place of protection for women from men or an institution to counteract the effects of a misogynistic patriarchy. Women’s spaces are important for these reasons, though a good (woman) friend of mine wrote, “We need women-only spaces because men exist, but in viewing these spaces only as a contrast to or a relief from men, we invalidate our own worth.” Simply: I like women’s spaces because I like being around women.
I like the feeling of being surrounded by women of all kinds — some young peers, some older and wiser, of all backgrounds and histories — with whom I can connect, ask questions, and commiserate. Where we all — ciswomen and transwomen — can talk about what it feels like to navigate the world in a woman’s body. People are so much more than the muscle and bone and blood and skin they wear. But our bodies are how the world sees, judges, and treats us. It’s infuriating, and, regularly, I want to tell the world and its judgments to fuck off. Perhaps having spaces for women-only just further allows this sort of division of female and male expectations and validates the idea that we are different because of our different bodies. But, even so, I enjoy my time surrounded by other women, and our bodies, even if a superficial element of who we are as people, are what bring us together so we can talk about and compare our experiences. Here are the vessels we live in. Here is how the world sees us, for better or worse.
As I sit in the sauna at the gym, I let my mind drift to the East Village. I think of ice water and radiant heat. I think of conversation and routine. I try to channel the women of the Russian baths, and I take my time, breathing in the warm air. I think about the older Russian woman and her declaration of freedom, and I let my towel fall down around my waist.
All photos © the author.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Fiction Advocate, and the anthology The Places We've Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35 among others. See her website at www.ebbartels.com, tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.