The other day I met with my friend Igor Ivanovich to go to the banya. We walked from "Insurrection Square" metro station on Nyevski Prospect, through the dusty back streets of old St. Petersburg. Along the way we passed a small cafe in a basement, and decided to stop in for a bite to eat. Igor Ivanovich bought himself some tea and rolls at the counter. I restrained myself from the fare and took seats for us at a table occupied by a lone, little old lady.
She sat wearing a raincoat, a threadbare little hat, and glasses with one thick lens, the other without any correction at all. Foregoing introductions, the woman began to complain about the high prices in the cafe. Without hesitation or a word, Igor Ivanovich and I simultaneously reached into our pockets for money.
As one hand deftly swept up the scrip on the table, she began to reminisce about the blockade of Leningrad. She said that when the mother of one of her neighbors died, the daughter ate the corpse. Soon after the girl killed her brother in his sleep, and ate him. Once word got around, the neighbors called the militsia. When questioned, the girl could only explain that she had developed a craving for human flesh. Without any prompting, the little old lady recounted all this with chuckles, and a grin. Igor Ivanovich and I sat with our heads down, listening in silence. I had read or heard other such accounts, but none so intimate or vivid. My mind was swimming, partly in disbelief, and partly in expectation of a more gruesome turn in her monologue. Igor Ivanovich turned to me, having finished his snack and said, "Let's go."
Back on the street, I began to ask Igor Ivanovich questions. He smiled and told me that cannibalism was common, and that he too lived in Leningrad during the blockade. When I acted surprised, Igor Ivanovich presented me with written verification. He told me that once his mother lost their ration card and his family went without bread for a month, living literally on the crumbs that friends gave them, or other "things" lying around. Such occurrences attest to the Russian ability to eke out an existence from nothing. He said that one joke had it, that if World War III ever broke out, they would win because like roaches, Russians can live under any conditions.
Discovering jazz in the army, Igor Ivanovich continued to play the drums in various city underground venues during the '60s, '70s and '80s. Soviet authorities saw jazz as a subversive cultural influence, and so he was forced to move from job to job because of his love for the drums. Since the shift of political winds, he has since founded his music school called "Rhythm & Energy," and now plays reggae on the streets of St. Petersburg with a group of his best students. Every culture has people who prefer the company of kids; who are ready to be the parent to every parent's child, and Igor Ivanovich is the Russian version.
I met him a year and a half ago when I stopped to listen to he and his band play Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." A crowd of people gathered around musicians playing next to the Duma (the meeting place for the last Tsar's only legislative body) on Nyevski Prospect. Ignoring the frost, the band played. Tall Pasha stretched his accordion almost to the street, as nearby a burly babushka shuffled and swayed to the beat, à la Bill Clinton.
This Winter I got the band an audition at Sadko's, a restaurant in the Grand Hotel Europe, and they have been packing the place ever since. Now when I enter the restaurant, the young British manager called the embryo by the Russian staff rushes up to me and gushes, "Bill, I love them! Your boys are making us bundles!" The band members now receive $40.00 a month from the Grand Hotel Europe.
Passing a row of smoldering dumpsters in a back alley, Igor Ivanovich and I climbed the two flights of stairs to Banya No. 59. In sandals and a faded blue smock, Seryozha, the one armed banya attendant plucked a tube cigarette from between his lips and greeted us with a gap-toothed grin. He accepted our valuables and issued us bed sheets to be used as towels.
One of the oldest in the city, Banya No. 59 would do a lot of sewers proud. Icy condensation drips from rusty pipes. An old tub on legs overflows with cold water. The walls look as if they've been protected from a washing by some ancient banya superstition. Common to all banyas, a family of June bugs residing in the walls chirp out a beat. Birch, maple and eucalyptus scent the dense, steamy air.
It's a very seasoned corps of banya enthusiasts which frequents this place. Passage through the heavy wooden door to the steam room is a technique in itself. If veterans up on the platform sense the slightest hesitation, the uninitiated visitor gets showered with a loud stream of obscene eloquence to shut the door.
Upon making our way up to the platform, Igor Ivanovich commanded me to lay down on the bench, and commenced beating a jazz tattoo on me with birch thrushes. A wiry older man showing the effects of the recent holidays, ranted about Yeltsin and the democrats. The chamber erupted in an fusillade of profanity against the communists.
"Hold on. Hold on goddammit!" came the rebuff. "I'm a working man. Toiled all my life, but I didn't say I was a communist!"
A younger man stopped at the top of the steps to proclaim, "I'm not in any party." The steam filled room broke into laughter and applause.
The Russian banya experience is a symphony of sensation. Water is thrown upon hot rocks, to create a steam that often verges on scalding. Occasionally bear is doused on the rocks, filling the chamber with a delicious bakery smell. The whipping with birch branches opens pours and increases the heat. Then, the serious connoisseur immerses himself in icy water. This process is repeated for hours. Between sessions, banya enthusiasts drink beer or tea, and chew on dried fish.
When foreigners question the purpose of the banya, perplexed Russians often ask, "How else do you get yourself clean?" If you've ever experienced the Soviet shower, you'll understand their response. However the banya is more than a substitute for a shower. It is a social ritual that cleanses the soul as well as the body. After a lengthy session, one leaves the banya with a light head and a serene mood; at peace with the world.
Once more on the street, Igor Ivanovich mused, "Ah, doesn't that feel great! It's too bad the politicians down in Moscow don't go to the banya more often. This country would have a lot less problems."