Magazine article Out

Seeing the Wood for the (Birch) Trees

Magazine article Out

Seeing the Wood for the (Birch) Trees

Article excerpt

Mark Simpson shares smoked pigs' ears, warm beer, and a good whipping with a group of naked Russians.

"You like to be beat again?" asked the gruff, naked former Red Army soldier. "I do very gently this time." Sweating profusely, I turned my back to him, and he began expertly working me over.

I visited my first Russian sauna in Tallinn, Estonia, capital of the rapidly Westernizing Baltic country, and I almost didn't leave. By the time I finally did, I was a wraith of wrinkles and covered in an alarming, stinging, if cleansing rash-from being whipped with a Christmas tree by Russians who were totally starkers while high on beer and pigs' ears. I was also consumed by a conviction that we in the West have forgotten how to be comfortable in our own naked skin.

The sauna, or banya, is as central to Russian culture as vodka, poetry, and passionate friendship. About 40% of the population of Tallinn is of Russian descent and Russian-speaking. Independent since 1991, Estonia still has a strong Russian legacy, though one that is slowly being erased in the rush to embrace the West and forget the immediate past. Tallinn is a popular destination for cruise liners and British bachelor parries looking for cheap booze and leggy strippers.

I, however, was looking for naked, sweaty, backslapping Russians-though only for comradely purposes, you understand. And I found them at Tallinn's last banya.

I was taken there by my buddy and banya enthusiast Steve Kokker, a Canadian turned Tallinn resident (who was director of a touching film about Russian military cadets called Komrades). After undressing and showering in the open, noncompartmentalized wet area, we encountered a group of naked, shaved-headed, middleaged Russians, most of whom looked as if they'd had a hard but dignified life.

One, a 69-year-old wounded infantry veteran of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary who looked 20 years younger, showed me the shrapnel scars on his legs: "We all disagreed with it, but we had no choice." Steve translated for me the low, impressively butch Russian sounds. Learning that I was a newbie, they extolled the benefits of the banya: "It will keep you young"; "It will keep you fit"; "You will not lose your strength in bed." Their decidedly non-Western bodies, lean and rangy despite their age, were the most persuasive argument.

Sharing their smoked pigs' ears and warm Russian beer with us, they began arguing vehemently over how long I, as a banya virgin, should spend in the steam room and what I should be whipped with first Should it be the white birch twigs? Or the juniper? Or perhaps the nettle bush? (Whipping with forestry is part of the banya experience-it is thought to cleanse the skin, and perhaps also the soul).

They finally agreed on the correct procedure and led me into the steam room-much hotter than any of the Nordic or Turkish saunas I'd experienced. The heat was almost solid. I tried to hold my breath rather than risk scorching my lungs. About 20 men were seated on the tiers of benches. Several of them were being whipped with branches by other men, their sweat spraying everywhere-including, before I could close it, my mouth. Some were talking animatedly; some stared grimly ahead, mutely enduring the heat. Occasionally someone ladled water onto the hot stones, which instantly vaporized into hissing heat. …

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