At The Russian Baths With Zhenya Kurashova Wine or "Alice In BaniaLand"

My Russian Massage teacher, Zhenya Kurashova Wine, passed away recently. She'd been ill for awhile and so the news was expected. Still, I felt very sad. Another time, I will write more about her. For now, I find myself thinking about all the good times we had together. Zhenya was a remarkable woman, both professionally and personally, and she loved having a good time. She was fun to be with.

In 1997 she took a group of massage therapists to Moscow to see how massage is used in hospitals and clinics there. Although the time spent there was not long, it had a great impact on me. We spent the mornings and early afternoons at an orthopedic/sports medicine clinic. In the later afternoon and evenings, we did all sorts of fun things.

One of my friends publishes a small magazine and asked me to write up one of my experiences. It originally ran under the title "Alice In Banialand" and was accompanied by a lovely illustration of Alice in Wonderland and a character, a woman with a push broom, who appears in the story. I later published the story on a small website I had for a few years.

I recently ran across the story again and thought I'd share it here as a remembrance of one of my best experiences with Zhenya. It is printed here as it appeared on the website.


To The Baths

We did a lot of fun and interesting things in Russia besides visiting the clinic: we went to the Old Moscow Circus, lord knows how many museums, churches, and monasteries, and the ballet. Three of us even went to a Russian disco in St. Petersburg. My favorite experience, though, was when we went to the bania, the Russian baths.

Until recently, many Russians did not have bathing facilities in their homes and so there were and are still neighborhood bath houses. The Russian bania is like the Swedish sauna but with their own particular variations. The one we visited was a fairly old neighborhood facility.

There were eighteen in our group, mostly women (only three men). Since the facilities were segregated by sex, the men had their own unique adventure. Zhenya got an attendant at the bania to look after them since they didn't know exactly what to do and spoke maybe three words of Russian. (Thank you, good-bye, and "toilet" spoken with a rising inflection to indicate it was a question.) The man took them into what I call "the wet room," a large room with a lot of wide stone benches and several showers and faucets for hot and cold water around the perimeter. He had them shower while he prepared the bania and when it was heated just right he made all the Russian men wait so his three American charges could go in first. After they entered the bania, all the other men came in behind them. This put them in the highest, therefore the hottest, place in the bania with a crowd of Russian men between them and the exit. Russians like their bania hot and they were wondering if they'd survive, but they did.

Meanwhile, we went to the women's side. The group of us stood just inside the doorway of the large entrance room. A young woman in a cotton dress sat casually at an old desk. She and Zhenya conversed at length in Russian while we all stood and waited to see what would happen next.

There was a little divider behind the desk and out from behind it stepped an older, large, fat, naked Russian woman with a stocking cap and a pushbroom. Needless to say, this was an unusual sight for most of us. We didn't want to stare, of course, and yet it was odd and unexpected. The naked Russian woman stared at us for a minute, no doubt wondering who we were, and then walked off.

After Zhenya finished her negotiations with the desk lady, we were ushered to little booths around the perimeter of the entrance where we removed our clothing and were issued a motley assortment of stocking caps and rubber thongs to wear on our feet. We shuffled off to the wet room. We got some washtubs, got soap and water and washed down the benches we planned to use, and staked out our benches. Zhenya had bought two bunches of leafy branches. One was a bunch of birch twigs with the leaves still on but dried. The other was fresh linden branches. Zhenya filled a washtub with hot water and let the fresh linden branches soak in it.

We showered and Zhenya prepared the bania. There is a particular way of preparing the Russian bania. Between uses the bania is aired out; we saw women standing in the doorway of it swinging towels in big circles to circulate the air. When the "old" steam and heat is sufficiently aired out, the door is closed and the fire chamber below is stoked. The fire is gotten very hot and at the appropriate time just the right amount of water is tossed onto hot rocks. The bania is filled with a sudden burst of steam. The steam is allowed to "settle" for a few minutes and then it is time to enter the bania.

As I said, the Russians like their bania very hot and I could only stay at the highest level for a few minutes before moving to a lower level which was not as hot. You try to stay in for awhile. You want your pores to open up and to sweat so that you are cleaned from the inside out. When you have had enough, you go out and step under a cold shower, which at that point feels like the most wonderful thing in the world. We would also fill the washtubs and douse each other with great gushes of cold water. It felt great. Then you sit and rest on the bench for a few minutes, settle down from the rush, and go back to the bania for another round.

Zhenya showed us how to pelt ourselves with the dried birch twigs. Previously I had thought that the point of this apparent self-flagellation was that the mild stinging of the skin stimulated circulation. However, the experience was very different from what I expected. It is hard to explain, but the leaves do something with the heat so that you feel as if you are being pelted with little bits of heat. It's an unusual and unique experience.

About three rounds in the bania is enough. Then you sit around and chill out. Zhenya took me to one of the benches and told me to lay down. She was going to scrub me down and then she wanted me to scrub her down the same way. She took the bunch of fresh linden branches, which had been soaking and softening in the hot water all this time, dipped them in warm water and used them to trickle water all down the back of my body. Then she took the leaves, got them all soapy, and began to scrub/massage my back with them. I can't tell you how good this felt. The leaves are just slightly abrasive and the soap lather added a soft, foamy texture. When she was done, she dipped the bunch of leaves in the water again, draping the wet leaves over my back, letting the water rinse me like some gentle waterfall.

I want to tell you: this was hands down one of the most sensual experiences of my entire life.

From start to finish, we were there about two hours. When we left we felt clean and relaxed to the bone - and hungry! The next day I still felt the effects.

We should have such a thing here. And oh, by the way - the naked Russian woman with the pushbroom? She cleaned the wet room, sweeping away the soapy water and the linden leaves that fell on the floor. Guess she didn't have to bother with laundering her work clothes.

Note: You can see some photos of the trip elsewhere on this web site - sorry, no photos of the bania or naked Russian women.